The #MeToo-Fueled Character Assassination of Nolan Bushnell
[This piece appeared in my original video on YouTube. It has been slightly modified for ease of reading.]
Brianna Wu is a former game developer currently running for United States congress in Massachusetts. She is an outspoken feminist activist who has been highly critical of the video game industry’s alleged misogyny and hostile treatment of women. She appeared on NPR on January 9 of this year to lament the lack of a #MeToo moment in the video game industry.
“You know, it’s hard for me because I want to have a hopeful message, especially for young women that are out there listening to this, but when it comes to the game industry itself, we are not having a #MeToo moment at all.”
She followed this up with a tweet saying, “If I am elected to Congress, I fully intend to launch hearings on hiring bias against women and PoC in the tech industry. It’s time to hit this culture of silence and abuse head on.”
On January 30, she got her chance to bring the #MeToo movement to video gaming. The Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) announced that it would be honoring Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder [correction: originally said founder] of Atari, with its Pioneer Award.
Brianna Wu took to Twitter to disagree.
What followed was the #NotNolan campaign and a quick article in The Verge that would result in the GDC rescinding the award the very next day, instead choosing to honor “the pioneering and unheard voices of the past.”
I conducted my own research into the situation. I talked to several women who worked with Nolan Bushnell back in the 1970s. I talked with a man who has researched Atari for decades and wrote an 800 page book on the history of the company. I talked with Allan Alcorn, the engineer who designed Pong. They all provide a story much different to the one currently reported on by the press.
First, let’s take a look at how this all transpired.
Several hours after Brianna Wu’s tweets, Elizabeth Sampat, who bills herself as a game designer and activist, posted the first of the #NotNolan tweets. Two minutes later, Jennifer Scheurle, another game designer and activist, followed it up with her own tweet. The #NotNolan campaign had begun.
The early stage of the #NotNolan campaign consisted of a total of 26 tweets sent out by 18 accounts. Several of these accounts are listed as game developers, including a developer from Bungie, one from Blizzard, and one from id Software. These 26 tweets received a cumulative total of 221 retweets and 645 likes — and likely fewer than that when The Verge wrote about them, as I’m counting them several days later.
“#NotNolan: why game creators are speaking out against the founder of Atari” appeared that night on the popular website, The Verge.
In the article, the writer cited the examples of sexist behavior that Brianna Wu claimed, as well as some of the 26 tweets that comprised the NotNolan twitter campaign. It concluded, “Although many industries, from Hollywood to media, have had their ‘me too’ moments highlighting the predatory or sexist behavior of prominent men, video games has not” [sic] — and here she cites as evidence a post on the Patreon account of Elizabeth Sampat lamenting the lack of a MeToo moment in the video game industry. The GDC is quoted at the end saying they had not known about Bushnell’s behavior, but “will look at these more closely.”
The Verge article was posted at 8:46pm that night. On the next day, at 11:20am, the GDC rescinded the Pioneer award from Nolan Bushnell.
Although many people disagreed with the decision based on the information available, it was later that day when an “unheard voice of the past” would make her voice heard and the defense of Nolan Bushnell would begin.
Loni Reeder worked at Atari with Nolan Bushnell back in the 1970s. She is among many former Atari employees on the Atari Museum Facebook group, where she wrote a post to express her disagreement with the situation. The thread was leaked and made public.
Talking specifically about Brianna Wu, Loni Reeder said, “based on her political aspirations, personal assumptions, and libelous accusations against a man where no complaints have been raised or filed — she made a big, unfounded noise against Nolan — and the Pioneer Award honor was withdrawn.”
I exchanged emails with Loni Reeder for more information. She relayed the story of how she was hired at Atari. By the time she applied to their newspaper ad, she had heard that Atari was “the place to be.” She was determined to get the job, and interviewed with Nolan’s personal assistant, who Reeder describes as “the first empowered woman I’d ever met in an office environment.”
After the job interview, she was persistent and made numerous follow up calls to inquire about her status. When Bushnell’s assistant informed him of these calls, Bushnell said, according to Reeder, “give her the job, because she wants it the most. People who express that much interest and enthusiasm are always an asset to a company.” He also increased her pay.
She offered this story as an example of the work philosophy of Nolan Bushnell, from the perspective of a woman who worked with the man for years, and she would later co-found a startup with him.
Reeder would go on to talk about the accusations made against Bushnell. “Some of us in the Atari camp are actual MeToo victims from other walks in our lives, so we definitely know the difference between the Atari climate (a time in our lives that we loved and still celebrate!) and what being the victim of a sexual assault feels like. We also feel that this outcry muddied the waters of the claims of REAL assault victims and are causing real harm to a very important movement.”
Another former Atari employee spoke with Replay Magazine in what is among the only pieces out there offering more than one viewpoint.
Elaine Shirley talked about the party-like atmosphere at Atari in the 1970s. “Those were the times. Nolan Bushnell hit on women and they hit on him. If the MeToo movement was active when Atari was alive I think half our company would be charged. To my knowledge, no one ever did anything they did not want to do.”
“In truth,” she continued, “ I think there were at least the same or more aggressive women at the company.”
I spoke over the phone with another woman who worked at Atari. Carol Kantor pioneered video game market research at Atari in the early to mid 1970s. She denied ever seeing any examples of sexual harassment at the company, or any cases where women received any inappropriate attention.
When talking about the work environment at Atari, she said, “It was crazy. It was fun. Not like other companies I had worked for, but in a positive way. It was extremely creative. That was part of what made it fun.”
I asked about Nolan Bushnell specifically. “He was fine. He was fun. He really appreciated what people did. His talent, if I could pick one major talent, was that he surrounded himself with talented people. I really think that’s the key to what made him successful. He assembled a team that was incredible.”
When I asked her about any possible sexual harassment from Bushnell, she said “I don’t think that’s Nolan. It just wasn’t in his character. It’s not him. I never experienced it and no one I knew experienced it.”
She continued, “The women who were in my department are all still friends, and that should say something about the company culture. If there was any harassment we probably would have heard about it and gone straight to the source and said ‘quit it!’ That’s the kind of people we were.”
Another source of information I found was Curt Vendel. Vendel is a former Atari employee, though he worked in later years, who has researched the company for over 30 years. He co-authored Atari Inc, Business is Fun, an 800 page book detailing the history of the company. Vendel and his co-author, Marty Goldberg, are admins of the Atari Museum Facebook group where Loni Reeder first posted her disagreement with the situation.
Vendel gave a similar account of the workplace culture at Atari. “Nolan hired many, many women,” he told me. “He hired nearly anyone based on their passion and merits, not gender or race. He gave everyone a chance. Women were next to unheard of in high tech in those years. They were soldering, wire-wrapping, designing graphics, building electronics, and even building and assembling arcade cabinets.”
He noted that Bushnell was the first man to hire another tech-industry icon. “It was Nolan’s willingness to give anyone a chance and not judge them on their sex or appearance that opened the door for a dirty, smelly, and obnoxious kid who came into his company back in 1973. His name was Steve Jobs. Any other company would’ve kicked his ass to the curb. Let that sink in.”
He continued, somewhat suspicious of speaking with a journalist, “If it’s dirt you’re after — then it’s both men and women there, equally, who were sexual and laid back and brilliant and creative and they all helped to shape the very early pioneering days of the gaming industry. They all have nothing to be ashamed of or accused of. It was that very environment that would create the best games ever by the brightest people ever.”
More former Atari employees have spoken up in defense of Nolan Bushnell, some of them on the Atari Museum Facebook group. All of them give similar accounts — that Atari was an innovative company which fostered creativity. I could not find anyone that would mention seeing or even hearing of any impropriety on the part of Nolan Bushnell. They all seem to look back at their time at Atari with a wistful, those-were-the-days mentality.
So let’s address the specific issues that Brianna Wu, and subsequently the articles that quoted her, mentioned.
What Brianna Wu is referring to is not an admission by Nolan Bushnell, but a quote from Al Alcorn, the designer of Pong. In the book he gave this account, which was relayed in a Rolling Stone article on the controversy.
“I remember this board meeting … Nolan lived in Los Gatos in a very nice house on the hilltop with a hot tub out back. We had a board meeting in his tub. Nolan was saying how much money we were going to be worth, all these millions, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll believe this when I see it.’ Nolan needed some papers and documents so he called his office and said, ‘Have Miss so and so bring them up.’ We were in this tub [when she arrived], so he proceeded to try to get her in the tub during the board meeting.”
Somehow, Brianna Wu twisted that last sentence into “they would invite the women employees they wanted to have sex with up to the suite and pressure them to strip naked with the men.”
Wanting some actual context here, I went straight to the source — Al Alcorn, the designer of Pong. I asked him what happened and whether there was any pressure on this woman.
“Nolan invited her to join us in the hot tub and she declined with about ten other people present. End of story,” he replied. “ I never witnessed any sexual harassment on the part of Nolan or anyone in management at Atari.”
He would add, “I, for one, owe a lot to Nolan in getting me to push myself to achieve things I never dreamed of and I think there are others that could say the same thing. The fact that we never took ourselves too seriously, created new technologies that changed the world, and had fun doing it should not be diminished by these attacks.”
He did not seem impressed by those accusing Bushnell. “I decline to participate in an argument with these accusers who have already come to their conclusion because nothing I could say would change their minds but only suck me into their swamp.”
Carol Kantor also talked to me about the hot tub. “[Bushnell] invited anyone to the hot tub who wanted to. It wasn’t a sexual thing. That’s the way it was in the 70s. Wasn’t Marin County known for hot tubs? It was a hot tub town. They were the in-thing at that particular time.”
Curt Vendel added, “Atari was synonymous with hot tubs. The 1272 Engineering building had a co-ed hot tub with a big tiled [Atari] Fuji logo on the wall. No one was forced. Yes, women were asked to come up to the hot tub and when they went in, they went in of their own choosing. This wasn’t a ‘do it or get fired’ type situation, nor was there ever anything like the horrible blackmailing and casting couch environment of Harvey Weinstein.”
Al Alcorn, the man who was in the hot tub, whose account was twisted by Brianna Wu to imply sexual harassment, denies her statement. Other employees say nothing improper went on with regards to hot tubs at Atari. So let’s move on to Brianna Wu’s next criticism.
The source for this is a 2012 Playboy article that cited an old San Francisco Chronicle profile of Bushnell, in which Bushnell said the atmosphere at Atari was “post-flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet and lots of company romances.” The article continued, “The engineers began code-naming their projects after women — including Darlene, a beloved employee who, according to Bushnell, ‘was stacked and had the tiniest waist.’”
Curt Vendel told me that there were indeed some projects at Atari named after attractive women, but they were also named after project managers’ wives and other sources. The famed Atari 2600, for example, was codenamed Stella, after the brand of bicycle that one of the design engineers rode to work each day. He said that codenames were seen as compliments.
There is no evidence to support Brianna Wu’s claims that Bushnell or anyone else at the company named a project in an attempt to sleep with a woman.
There is other criticism of Nolan Bushnell not cited by Brianna Wu. The Verge cited a Gamasutra interview where a former Atari executive recalled that Bushnell wore a t-shirt that said, “I love to f — -”.
According to Loni Reeder, this is untrue. She tweeted to The Verge claiming that it was a lie told by Ray Kassar, who is now deceased, who did not care for Bushnell or Atari’s culture. She suggested that perhaps Kassar confused Bushnell’s t-shirt with that of one worn by another employee, which said “f — -ing Genius”. She posted an image as proof.
None of the former employees I spoke with remembered Bushnell’s alleged t-shirt. Curt Vendel did, however, say that women wore t-shirts to work with hands on their breasts that said “grab my trakballs”. He said that was just the culture of Atari, and that no one was sexually assaulted or coerced, and everything was mutual.
And that was it. Those were the complaints reported on by The Verge which resulted in the withdrawl of the Pioneer Award.
I should note that Loni Reeder did talk to Jennifer Scheurle, the second person to engage in the #NotNolan campaign. In the exchange, Scheurle said to Reeder, “There are people who are not like you, who have been survivors and who don’t want to speak up.”
Reeder asked Scheurle to provide her with the names and contact info for the individuals who stated that they were harmed or offended by Bushnell, so she could speak with them and hear their stories, to which Scheurle replied, “You don’t understand. I don’t have to prove anything to you and neither do they. It is your job to practice empathy to an experience that might differ from your own.”
•Activists expressed prior desire to bring the #MeToo movement to the video game industry.
•No one who has worked with Nolan Bushnell has complained of any impropriety.
•Several past employees, including women, have come forward to speak in Bushnell’s defense.
•Al Alcorn directly refutes Brianna Wu’s interpretation of his story.
•All former Atari employees are telling stories that are consistent with one another.
There were drugs, there were hot tubs, there were relationships, and none of that would fly today. But none of it indicates a culture that was hostile to women.
Indeed, Loni Reeder and other former Atari employees recently worked on a spreadsheet in order to contradict the sexism claims being lobbed at Nolan Bushnell. According to their research, in those pre-Warner days of Atari, 36% of the workforce were women.
According to the IGDA, the industry average in 2014, nearly 40 years later, is 22%.
I contacted Brianna Wu to let her know that I spoke with Al Alcorn who refuted her interpretation of his comments. I wanted to give her the right to reply to this piece. Here is what she had to say.
I have attempted multiple times to contact the GDC through their website and on Twitter, where former GDC Pioneer Award winner Markus “Notch” Persson re-tweeted me, but I have not heard back.
I will be posting another video in the coming days to talk about the journalistic malpractice I’ve witnessed while covering this story.