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Atari founder Nolan Bushnell on Steve Jobs and the lasting legacy of gaming

The veteran games developer on his career, the future of video games, and those Steve Jobs movies.
Games developer Nolan Bushnell with the Atari computer he developed in 1972. Adolph / ullstein bild via Getty Images
Games developer Nolan Bushnell with the Atari computer he developed in 1972. Adolph / ullstein bild via Getty Images

If you enjoy playing video games, then you owe Nolan Bushnell a debt of gratitude.

He is credited with co-developing Computer Space, the first arcade and commercially available video game, in 1971.

But it was as the co-founder of Atari in 1972, that he really helped to kick-start both the video-­arcade boom and the home-­console market.

He took the existing idea of a simple video-tennis game and oversaw the development and improvement that resulted in Pong, the first commercially successful arcade game, which was launched in November 1972.

Atari went on to create some of the best-known classic arcade games, including Asteroids, Centipede, Breakout, Missile Command and Battlezone.

It also popularised the home-gaming console with the launch in 1977 of the Atari VCS (Video Computer System, later renamed the Atari 2600).

Bushnell left Atari in 1982 after clashing with new owners Warner Communications (now Time Warner) over the direction of the company.

By the 73-year-old’s own estimation, he has founded 27 companies and failed with only seven. With a place in the Video Games Hall of Fame, a Bafta Fellowship and a spot on Newsweek’s list of 50 People Who Changed the World, he seems to have the Midas touch.

That’s not to say every decision was a good one – he famously turned down the chance to invest $50,000 (Dh183,642) in former employee Steve Jobs’s fledgling new company in return for a third of the company – Apple.

He still holds Jobs, who died in October 2011, in the highest regard – but doesn’t think much of the recent film adaptations of Jobs’ life.

“I thought Ashton Kutcher’s [portrayal in Joshua Michael Sterns’s 2013 film Jobs] was a much more compelling Jobs character,” he says. “I actually hated the second one [Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender]. It was a trivialisation of Steve Jobs. His genius had so little to do with his daughter, which is how the film made it.

“It was like: ‘Why don’t we take a person who was a giant and talk about the wart on his left toe?’ I thought it was a horrible movie. Steve had so many complex skills that were extraordinary – not least his ability to persuade people to go along with him. They used to call it the Jobs Reality Distortion Field.”

Bushnell has a several examples of Jobs’s powers of ­persuasion.

“Before the iPhone, you could build games and put them on phones, but the cell phone companies wanted 80 per cent of the money and the games company got 20 per cent,” says Bushnell. “When the iPhone came out, [mobile phone network operator] AT&T got zero per cent of the revenue. That’s a hell of a negotiation.

“Three years before Jobs did the iPhone, I wanted to make an electronic jukebox. I couldn’t get a single record company to let me use their music. Three years later, Steve started persuading people to go into iTunes. The movie was totally silent on that. How did he pull that off?

“These are monumental accomplishments. Imagine Steve going to his board of directors and going: ‘I know we’re a computer company, but we’re going to get into music.’ I wouldn’t want to confront my board with that.”

Perhaps one of the reasons for his criticism of the movie is because Bushnell is the subject of a planned Hollywood biopic of his life, reportedly starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“The movie’s supposedly still in the works,” he says. “Hollywood runs much slower than I ever thought it would. The number of movies that have been in production for 10 years or more, it’s ridiculous.

Joy [David O Russell’s biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, starring Jennifer Lawrence] did quite well; both Jobs movies didn’t do that well. The TV series Silicon Valley is doing very well. They [the studios] look at that. If both Jobs movies and Joy and Silicon Valley had all done well, they’d have greenlighted my movie straight away, but here we are, even though I’m so much smarter than those guys.”

Regardless of whether we ever see his story told on the big screen, Bushnell’s success in the video-game industry is undeniable – and he has a clear idea of where it is heading next.

“I’m working now on applying gaming to education,” he says. “It’s happening in corporate training, in schools, using those game dynamics to work better. It’s shown to accelerate learning tremendously.

“I think the lasting legacy of gaming will be to provide context for learning and that will be good for the training of our next generation. I think the teacher as the provider of lectures will pass away and we will see teachers become more of a mentor.

“They’ll become the ‘guide on the side’ rather than the ‘sage on the stage’ – that’s happening more and more all over the world today.

“In an active experience, the retention is 10 to 20 times better. That’s where games are ­going.”


Updated: April 30, 2016 04:00 AM