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.