Electronic Design
Nolan Bushnell: Serious Thoughts About Fun And Games

Nolan Bushnell: Serious Thoughts About Fun And Games

Bushnell (2007)

Nolan Bushnell, popularly revered as the father of electronic games, is still inventing and dreaming of new ways for people to use technology for fun. In fact, he is forging a different direction from today's shoot 'em up, beat 'em down, tear 'em apart electronic diversions. He sees a generation of video games that foster fun, social interaction, and education.

"Video games today are a race to the bottom. They are pure, unadulterated trash and I'm sad for that," says Bushnell.

To create the shift, Bushnell is taking his experience as an amusement park game barker, inventor of Pong, and founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time restaurants and rolling it all into a new pursuit - uWink. Instead of creating games primarily played by one lone player, or occasionally two players, Bushnell wants to create an environment for families or groups of adults to have fun.

His first step in that direction was the fall 2006 opening of uWink in Woodland Hills, Calif. It is an entertainment dining experience where people can play tabletop games, interact, and enjoy tasty, reasonably priced meals.

His daughter Alissa invented one of uWink's features, Truth or Dare, based on the old party game. "It's not really a game per se, but provides an experience where people have fun, do something a little embarrassing, but have a really good time doing it," says Bushnell. Alissa is uWink's publicist and VP of marketing and has even developed a couple of its games.

"Social games represent something that has been missing," he adds. "Most of the board games are purchased by women for families. It is this gaming world that can be re-energized. We used to have families sit down and play a game together. A lot of video games today are very isolated. You don't see mom and dad, sister and brother, sitting down like they used to play, say, Monopoly," says Bushnell. "That represented good mentoring time for families that just isn't happening now."

When Your Passion is Your Job

When the 64-year-old Bushnell reflects on his contributions to gaming, he smiles. "I am the luckiest guy to be able to continue to innovate and create games and toys. Throughout the years, I added a technical twist to everything I did. I interpreted technology for the masses and it feels good."

He created his first computerized video game, Computer Space, in 1970. Too complicated for mass production, it wasn't commercially widespread. But the next year he invented a much-simplified, coin-operated video game, Pong, based on ping pong. Its success was immediate.

In 1972, he founded Atari with the help of his friend Ted Dabney, and the video arcade and gaming industry was born. They reached another milestone in 1975 when Sears agreed to sell a home version of Pong. It was the first time home TV sets were interactive.

Mind-Boggling Invention

"It really was a world-changing event," recalls Bushnell. "I can remember people saying, 'It's neat, but how does the TV station know I turned this knob?' Their whole metric was TV signals came from TV stations. With Pong, it came from the game and that was a real epiphany. They didn't understand how it was done. It was the staging for the personal-computer revolution to come."

In 1976, Bushnell, at age 33, sold Atari to Time Warner for $28 million. "I was young and insecure. To get really big, I thought I needed a benefactor. In retrospect, it was a huge mistake to do that," he says, as six years later, the Atari division was making $2 billion in annual sales. "But I've been pretty happy with my life."

Bushnell founded more than 20 companies and holds dozens of patents. But when asked what's he most proud of creating, he doesn't cite any of the history-breaking games. Instead, he says it's his eight children. And which of all his games does he like the most?

"My personal favorite is Breakout. It is one of the games that everyone loved. It was very satisfying to play," says Bushnell. "It was like breaking down walls. And it was a metaphor. The world is better when you break down walls. Walls separate people. The more inclusive we can be, the better we can be as a species."

Passing "Go"

Another favorite is an old Chinese game, Go. "It has kept my fancy a long time," says Bushnell. "It's a game of strategy with black and white stones that are placed on the intersections of a 19- by 19-square grid. It's very, very challenging." The objective is to control the greatest part of the board by creating linked territories. The name for Atari came from Go terminology.

The Disney amusement parks are additional influences in his life. "I always felt that what I was doing was about entertaining people. The only other guy doing that then was Disney," he remembers. Unsuccessful at getting a job there, though, Bushnell still followed his dream. "They didn't want me, so I had to go do it myself."

He encourages young engineers to go into electronic gaming, even if they get rebuffed as he did by Disney. "Do it. There's many wonderful opportunities in the gaming business and it's growing," says Bushnell. "If you can't get hired by a big company, do it yourself part time. The Web is a wonderful enabler of people. A young programmer has tremendous amounts of opportunity today."

Bushnell spends a good portion of his time encouraging youth to become entrepreneurs. He gives speeches, mentors, and talks at colleges. "I think they all think it is harder to be an entrepreneur than it is. It is well within the purview of their abilities. I encourage them to take a shot, take the risk, and make it happen."

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