Not being a gamer, the name Nolan Bushnell meant nothing to me. But what he created did, as I, like most young people in the ’70s, spent many hours with Atari’s magical game, Pong. And it seems right that the Game Developer’s Conference would choose to honor Atari’s co-founder with its Pioneer Award. Until it changed its mind.
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.”
Why? Wu didn’t work for Atari. Wu made no claim of being subjected to any impropriety by Bushnell. Wu wasn’t there, and couldn’t have been there. She wasn’t yet alive. So why?
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.”
Wu has a cause, and seized upon this award as an opportunity to promote it. Granted, her attack on Bushnell only impacted his receiving an award (and for the thinking impaired, no, there is no “due process” right to win an award). But attack she did.
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.
And so it became real. Not factual, but true in the sense that people so inclined chose to believe. Rather than face up to the mob, the GDC immediately caved. Bear in mind, awards are supposed to be good things, happy things, not controversies designed to foment outrage.
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.
But as Brad Glasgow shows, by speaking to the women who actually worked at Atarai, the #NotNolan campaign was nothing more than a sham of false and twisted accusations by women who neither knew nor had anything to do with Atari.
From the stories of women who had personal knowledge, Atari was a pretty wild place in the ’70s, and everyone, women included, liked it. One of Wu’s “facts” was about Bushnell’s holding board meetings in a hot tub, and forcing women with whom he wanted to have sex to strip naked and take a dip.
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.”
This is but one of the many stories about sexual atrocities at Atari in those days. It was good for the men. It was good for the women, of which there were many as Bushnell hired on merit, and that meant smart women had a job at Atari. These were great times that younger people will never know.
“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.”
Jennifer Scheurle, a woman who didn’t “create the best games ever,” blue tick next to her twitter handle, jumped on Wu’s attack against Bushnell, and against former Atari employee and Bushnell defender, Loni Reeder.
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.”
Nolan Bushnell likely won’t lose sleep for having the Pioneer Award taken from him, but will Wu win election for attacking him? As Lee Keller King, who was kind enough to send over Brad Glasgow’s post, said, Scheurle’s twit captured the essence of what’s happening.
That is apparently the standard amongst the woke. Facts don’t matter; the presumption of innocence doesn’t matter; only the accusations and the “experience” of the accusers matters.
In a post-fact, post-logic world, the duty shifts from proving wildly false and irrational accusations to disproving them. Why did Brianna Wu attack Bushnell? It’s a lot easier than creating Pong, or whatever its equivalent today would be, and will certainly gain her more likes from the useful scolds who could never accomplish what Bushnell did.