Nolan Bushnell: “Games Are Good For You”

By Alec Meer on March 19th, 2009 at 9:03 pm.

I’ve just had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk by Nolan Bushnell, co-creator of Pong and founder of Atari. He’s currently in That London to collect his BAFTA videogames fellowship, which is of course richly deserved. As Will Wright, in a pre-recorded appearance, puts it, “It’s hard to overstate Nolan Bushnell’s influence in the videogame industry.”

Highlights of the great man’s cheerful words are below, hot off the presses (i.e. transcribed ASAP from my scruffy notepad).

During the hour-long live Q&A session, it was clear Bushnell – an amiable figure dressed casually in jeans, trainers and a blazer, with no particular visible trappings of his great success – was telling stories he’s told a thousand times before, yet nonetheless still enjoyed. The visibly awkward interviewer, frustratingly unable or unwilling to deviate from his pre-written list of questions, presented no obstacle to this naturally loquacious grandfather of gaming. Just wind him up and let him talk.

The tale of how this one-time advertiser and theme park employee found his way to creating Pong and early Atari made a natural first act. It was information the audience more or less knew, but there’s something hugely charming about seeing Bushnell shake his head in disbelief at the puny processing power available back then, to talk of how 30-odd Pong machines were sold to fund 100 more… “Pretty soon it was doing one hundred a day, and we were off the races.” He was wry on Atari’s milking of this proto-franchise: “We way overdid it.” In his defence, he claimed, saturating the market with Atari’s own Pong clones was better than opportunistic third parties doing it. “Of the 150,000 Pong games that were out there, Atari only did 35,000.”

And, on Pong’s being inherently multiplayer: “one could have called it a mistake…a very fortunate mistake.” Pong, he thought, was “going to be a throwaway. It was the simplest thing I could think of.”

One fascinating observation was that “Pong was really at the beginning of women’s liberation.” A bar game that didn’t rely on physical strength was, he claims, instrumental in Pong’s success. “Turned out that the average woman at the bar could defeat the average man.” Which did, of course, lead to romance. “The number of people who said ‘I met my husband or wife playing Pong’… I’m surprised there wasn’t a little baby boom.”

A recurring theme was Bushnell’s interest in games as a social medium. “We really wanted to make games that have a party experience to it.” That said, he’d never before seen this wonderfully British advert touting the Atari VCS as the heart and soul of any good party:

It was, suffice to say, quite the thing to see that played on a cinema screen.

Then there was a quick gallop through his post-Atari enterprise, the US kids’ restaurant Chuck E. Cheese. Given the British nature of the audience, seeing video footage of these pizza’n'puppets’n'games establishments was something a shock. Nightmarish, even:

Bushnell was happy to admit to this, cheerfully criticising the food and how awful an experiences it was for adults – basically, the animatronics and food was just a front kids could use to get their parents to take them to a room full of videogames. And it worked – to the tune of 500 restaurants and $1bn in revenue per year. This brought up one of the key differences between gaming in Bushnell’s youth and today: “the arcade culture is dead in all real structures right now. The experience is better at home.”

Which hasn’t stopped him from embarking on a new enterprise, uWink. He was happy to have it described as ‘Chuck E. Cheese for adults’ – it’s a restaurant with tabletop videogames. The video footage we were shown was a faintly ghastly parade of over-familiar casual games, but the cynicism dissipated a little when he showed obvious enthusiasm for and understanding of such party games. A six player Pong looked somewhat silly in a brief video clip, but behind the scenes it’s adapating to multiple players of different skill levels. Every time someone successfully hits the ball, their bat shortens a little – granting less able players a field-levelling advantage. “I think it’s absolutely okay to abuse mercilessly the really good players”, he laughed, referencing his own age-slowed reaction times.

Hmm. uWink, it turns out, is as much research as it is a commercial endeavour. “In 20 years time, everyone will have a touch-sensitive coffee table, like a giant iPhone.” uWink is supposedly a testing ground for those kinds of games. Which is a fascinating idea – making games today for tomorrow’s technology, only in public.

The Wii was mentioned again and again, its social play and physicality clearly appealing to Bushnell’s vision for games far more than most contemporary fare does. Though he’s a big fan of Doom and Halo, it turns out. Violent games aren’t all bad as far as he’s concerned, despite reports to the contrary: “it’s really okay to kill really, really bad guys.” By contrast, on the pedestrian-slaying of GTA et al: “those are not people who need to be killed.” [Pause]. “It’s also okay to kill dead guys.”

What of the internet, the new form of socialising via games? “The internet is a social medium, but it’s very stilted and flat. Sitting in a darkened room in your underwear talking to 1000 strangers isn’t fun.” Which, subjectively, did make him sound a little out of touch – if he’s spouting stereotypes so easily, it’s possible he doesn’t or won’t see the whole picture of what online is/is becoming.

Generally though, his feelings about modern gaming are entirely positive – referencing the new trend in casual gaming as returning us to the pre-80s (or pre-Mortal Kombat, to use his specific example) age when videogames appealed to a wider demographic, when they very much something for the entire family rather than just established gamers. Their growing prominence is, then, a happy thing: “games are good for you.”

Bushnell dodged the question when asked if he was considering making games for modern consoles, instead revealing that his next move will be games and education. He feels the US school system is in terrible disarray, and that games may help. “I want to leave a legacy of more than just fun.”

A noble sentiment. Especially coming from a man who basically reinvented fun.

__________________

« | »

, .

32 Comments »

  1. Wedge says:

    He’s been on that stupid uWink thing for years now and it’s never done anything. And I should certainly hope Bushnell doesn’t want to go anywhere near making games, as he is (and always was) an entertainment peddler and not a game maker.

  2. Xercies says:

    A kind old man, but I he lost it a bit talking about the internet. Its so much more then that. And its second gaming stereotypes in the worst things people say as it is untrue.

  3. Simbyotic says:

    Guys, off topic but…

    How the hell do you not have the Zeno Clash deal from Steam on your site?

    That just non-sense, I mean… its RPS god dammit :P

  4. LionsPhil says:

    “…an entertainment peddler and not a game maker.”

    AWOOGA! Irony alarm! AWOOGA! Irony alarm!

    This guy seems to have some of the same angle on gaming as the late Dani Bunten. Which is no bad thing at all.

  5. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    “Yes they are.”

  6. Pace says:

    Whoa, I had no idea this guy founded Chuck E. Cheese’s too. That place was awesome. When I was 9 at least. I was actually at one last year with my niece’s, and I still had a pretty good time, though it seemed they were catering to really young kids. And the pizza was great too, I’m not sure what he’s getting at. (and what, Brits don’t like pizza or puppets?)

  7. Hobbes says:

    We like Pizza. We like Puppets. We just don’t like Pizza and puppets.

  8. Dinger says:

    Nolan Bushnell was at the right place with Pong and Chuck E Cheese. For the rest, he’s a fascinating personality. Mormon (or ex-Mormon, according to what sources you peruse), yet his affiliation with bars is pretty high up on the Hold Steady chart.

  9. Stu says:

    Nice to see Bill Oddie’s doing well for himself.

  10. Tanuki says:

    I was there, courtesy of the legendary Dave Green and my wonderful course director Siobhan Thomas.

    The chat was highly amusing, interesting, and useful as a games student. The best £7.50 I’ve ever got free >_>

  11. yutt says:

    Seriously, RPS overlords, remove this fucking http://yourgiftzone.com obnoxious advertisement or I am going to start ad blocking everything on this site. It has been mentioned numerous times over the last 2 weeks by many different commenters.

    It makes a coin dinging sound about every 2 seconds over my speakers and is inexcusable.

  12. Matt says:

    People who play lots of games cringe at the idea that games should be made for more people than people just like them, and internet people chafe at the idea that the social interaction provided by the internet is pale and weak compared to meeting someone face-to-face, and that’s exactly what he’s saying. And I gotta say, I agree with him on both counts. I love the idea of videogames used to actively encourage face-to-face socialization, and I hope it catches on.

    “I think it’s absolutely okay to abuse mercilessly the really good players” – I wonder how many people got mad, just a little bit, when he brought that up, I wonder?

  13. bansama says:

    Back in about 2005-ish a lot of restaurants in Japan would have these little table-top flatscreen touchscreen units which contained a bunch of games, both free to play and pay to play. By 2007, most had vanished. If this is any indication from a country that is supposed to really love games, then that Uwink idea probably won’t fair any better.

  14. MetalCircus says:

    I agree with the internet thing acctually. The reason the Wii sells so well is because you have to have people in the room with you, and feeding off their reactions, both vocal and physical, is way more fun than talking to faceless personalities over the internet, and you bond more too. Too often MMO’s degenerate into tedious ego competitions that are taken way too seriously and too online FPS’s descend into idiotic insults and name calling and being killed a lot by people who play the game 9 hours a day making the whole experience so utterly inaccessable to about 80% of people.

    I say this because i’ve played online games for a long time now, and I went to a mates house a few months ago to play on her Wii. At first I was skeptical, but I had a fucking great time, a better time than i’d had online in ages, plus we both really bonded, and I ended up finding myself acting like a twat and not being bothered, because we was both being equally twatty and having great fun.

    There are exceptions, for example, L4D is one of the finest online games ever IMO, and is the definate stand out exception to what I said above, but I kind of agree with the guy otherwise.

  15. Catastrophe says:

    @ Symbyotic

    Xeno Clash has been released?!

  16. Malagate says:

    @Catastrophe, no, it’s coming in April, but the pre-order is available on steam now. I noticed it last night when a steam news box came up, half price for one day only apparantly. £7.49 I was happy to part with.

  17. PC Monster says:

    Cheers, Symbiotic. £7,49 for one of the most interesting games to come our way in years is an absolute bargain. I’ve just pre-ordered it. :)

    Here’s hoping the game lives up to what it promises.

  18. Alec Meer says:

    Let’s stay on topic please, gentlefolk.

    (We’ve elected not to turn the ZC sale into a post as we have no idea if it lives up to its promise or not. Suggesting people spend £8 on a blind gamble that’s not out for a month seems a little off, especially as it’ll still be 25% cheaper for a few weeks yet. We’ll let you know if the game’s any cop as soon as we can. Move along now.)

  19. Alec Meer says:

    Yutt – Thanks for not blocking all our ads, but there’s no need to be quite so belligerent. No-one’s mailed us about this ad so this is the first we’ve heard about it. Seems like it’s displaying in the US only, so we need the exact URL it links to. The general URL of the service it’s pimping may not do it, but we’ll give it a go. If anyone is currently seeing it, please mail that over and we’ll get it sorted.

    We’re also trying to ensure we don’t get any more audio ads, as they’re frakking horrible.

  20. matte_k says:

    Alec, it still raises a smile every time I see your avatar-might have to go dig out those comics and re-read… :D

  21. Malagate says:

    Hmm, that uWink does seem interesting, but I can only see it being useful as a way to keep punters busy if the service is slow. Restaurants are for the eatings, if interactive tabletops are primarily used for menus with games as something ancillary to that then I could see it working quite well. Chuck-e-cheese works because it’s an arcade attraction with a restaurant attached to it as well as a whole child enthusing atmosphere, uwink though doesn’t seem to have those hooks other than whilst you wait for food you can play, and I’m not sure many adults want to go out to restaurant to play rather than just socialise and eat.

    Also I think many Britons are just freaked out by dancing and singing animatronic puppets, or at the very least made deeply uncomfortable by them. I never wanted to hang around the singing animatronic bears at the American Adventure theme park for example, and that talking caterpillar at Alton Towers I’ve never seen properly used (usually just someone pressed the buttons and runs the hell away from its freaky face). It just doesn’t slide over here, although Punch and Judy I hear is still kind of popular.

  22. Dan says:

    I went along last night too. Had never heard of Chuck E Cheese, but asked my girlfriend (who’s from the US) about it when I got home. Apparently she used to love it as a kid and said that Bushnell’s assessment (“Do you want to know the number of kids who’ve sat through the entire puppet performance … zero”) was spot on.

    I thought uWink looked a bit ghastly, it’s not the kind of thing I could imagine in British pubs or town-centre bars. In the example they showed, the machines were really imposing.

  23. dhex says:

    chuck e cheese was pretty ghastly. now they have a lot of fighting issues (beer + madness + screaming children + idiots = rumble)

    http://www.babble.com/CS/blogs/strollerderby/archive/2009/01/12/pregnant-woman-arrested-for-fighting-at-chuck-e-cheese.aspx

  24. viper34j says:

    “Sitting in a darkened room in your underwear talking to 1000 strangers”

    I don’t think that stereotype is off that much. He is just merely looking at a single facet of online gaming that lends itself to being more about what you can get out of your online comrades instead of really enjoying a mutual, developing relationship like you would IRL, generally speaking.

  25. Skurmedel says:

    It’s worth mentioning, for those who doesn’t know, that the Atari he founded, and the Atari of today is not the same thing. Todays Atari is what used to be Infogrames, who changed name to fix their shitty reputation.

  26. LionsPhil says:

    “The reason the Wii sells so well is because you have to have people in the room with you, and feeding off their reactions, both vocal and physical, is way more fun than talking to faceless personalities over the internet…”

    Hot, spicy facts. This is also why I convince people to show up for LAN parties, despite also playing online with them. It’s worth it for the mutual laughter when someone’s “watch this!” Redeemer trick goes horribly, horribly wrong.

  27. heartless_ says:

    I’ll add my vote to the “people who like to play with other people in real life” pool. The physical interaction between two people can not be beat by online interaction, but with that said, online interaction in a game ain’t too shabby :)

  28. BoltingTurtle says:

    Ironically I credit Chuck-E-Cheeses with teaching me that greatest of all British social graces; the stiff upper lip. This was simply THE place to have a birthday party when I was little, and so naturally when I turned seven it was my first choice. My parents wanted to get on the road for the move to Ohio sooner rather than later, and with my dad making about 28K a year (that’s in dollars at the time that would have been 10k in pounds) as a music ed professor at a state university, it was going to be pushing it. When they broke the news, I for some reason that I cannot explain, took it gracefully, which moved my parents so profoundly that they decided to suprise me and take me anyway. Life’s lessons learned through a love of whack-a-mole.

  29. BooleanBob says:

    With all respect, the greatest of all British social graces is our peerless propensity for queueing.

    If it is a particularly trying queue, one may keep one’s upper lip stiff and earn a combo multiplier.

  30. Heliocentric says:

    I never understood mocking queing. Should people fight like animals over basic services? Is that somehow better? What i’ve seen of queing in some countries amounts to being corraled like cattle. Yes clearly we british are stupid.

  31. byronicman says:

    SPAM: Just so you know, One Life Left has the entire session in our latest “special”: http://www.onelifelfeft.com / through iTunes (although the downloads seem to be temporarily offline grrr). Good to see you briefly, Alec!

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>