The Issues with Nolan Bushnell’s GDC Award Nomination in Light of #MeToo

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[UPDATE] GDC announced via their official Twitter account this morning that they have rescinded Bushnell’s nomination, saying the award will instead “honor the unheard and pioneering voices of the past.”

Original Story Below:

This week the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) announced they would be honouring Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell at the 2018 GDC Awards.

Bushnell will receive the Pioneer Award “which honors breakthrough business and game design milestones.” Bushnell founded the prolific arcade and home console company Atari in 1972 who developed seminal early video games such as BreakoutPac-ManAsteroidsPongSpace Invaders and Centipede to name a few.

But game developers were quick to point out some issues with honouring Bushnell amidst the current push against sexual harassment in the workplace and in society at large through campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up. Bushnell’s sexual harassment and sexist work culture is widely known among the video game industry and well documented.

Gillan Smith, an associate professor of Computer Science and Interactive Media & Game Development at Maryland’s Worcester Polytechnic Institute, shared clippings from various publications detailing Bushnell’s sexism. In an interview with The Chronicle, Bushnell said “Some ladies feel comfortable around me, and some don’t. I find the aura of money and power is very intimidating to an awful number of girls.”

In a 2011 interview, former Atari exec Ray Kassar said when he arrived on the first day of work at Atari Bushnell was wearing a t-shirt that read, ”I love to fuck.” In a 2012 Playboy interview, Bushnell fondly remembers the “wild environment” at Atari in the 70’s. “It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet, and lots of company romances.” He reminisced about him and the other male Atari employees code-named their projects after female co-workers they found “hot.” The original code name for Pong was “Darlene” which is named after a female Atari employee Bushnell described to Playboy as “stacked.”

As game developer and US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu pointed out on Twitter, Bushnell admitted in his own book Ultimate History of Videogames that he would hold board meetings in a hot tub where he would invite female Atari employees he wanted to have sex with to attend. There he would pressure them to strip naked for him and the other men in the tub.

Bushnell also used very immature and sexist “jokes” in various aspects of his company. When demoing games, for example, “Bushnell covered the two joysticks with pink silicon domes. They looked like breasts, and Atari wasn’t all that subtle about that. By pushing the breasts, the players could chase each other” (As noted in Venture Beat).

In light of all of this documented behaviour, it’s very clear that Bushnell represents and helped nurture the toxic and sexist culture the pervades the games industry. GDC’s decision to honour Bushnell is being criticized by women from all corners of the game scene:

GDC said in a statement made to the Verge that they weren’t aware of the long history of Bushnell’s sexist behaviour “but will look at these more closely.”

Video games have long been a toxic and hostile place to be a woman, both in the industry and in the community. Honoring Bushnell, who is inarguably a pioneer of the video game industry, will potentially bring the conversation about sexual harassment in the games industry into the mainstream.

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