Uproar Over Atari Founder's Past Conduct Prompts GDC Organizers To Rescind His Pioneer Award [UPDATE]

GDC says Nolan Bushnell will no longer receive the award in the wake of controversy.


[UPDATE 2] Bushnell also released a statement. In it, he applauded GDC's decision to rescind his Pioneer award. He also apologised "without reservation" if his personal actions in the past offended or caused caused pain to former employees.

[UPDATE] GDC has released a statement on the controversy surrounding Nolan Bushnell, saying it will not give out a Pioneer award this year at all. The receipient of the Pioneer award "should reflect the values of today's games industry," reads a line from the statement. With no Pioneer award going out this year, the organisation will instead "honor the pioneering and unheard voices of the past."

The original story is below.

The organisers of the Game Developers Choice Awards today announced the recipient for this year's Pioneer Award, confirming it will go to Atari and Chuck E. Cheese founder Nolan Bushnell. However, GDC has now confirmed that it's re-examining this nomination in the wake of an outcry regarding Bushnell's past behaviour and treatment of women.

A spokesperson for GDC organiser UBM confirmed to Glixel that it is evaluating what it plans to do with the Pioneer Award, saying that GDC and its nominating committee did not know about Bushnell's history when they nominated him. GDC is now going back to look at the nomination "more closely." Bushnell did not respond to a request for comment when approached by Glixel.

The hashtag #notnolan took off today on Twitter, with game designers and other industry people calling out UBM for giving the award to Nolan and blasting the organisation for being tone deaf about the #MeToo movement.

Brianna Wu, a game designer from Massachusetts currently running for a seat in US Congress, said on Twitter than Bushnell's nomination is "wildly inappropriate." Speaking to Glixel, Wu said Bushnell is deserving of the award, but not this year.

"Nolan Bushnell is clearly a deeply important person in video game history," she said. "He deserves to be honored for a lifetime achievement award without question. But in the year that the #MeToo movement is going on and we're having a reckoning about what women face in the workplace? It just seems really tone deaf by GDC."

"We need to understand that supporting this award for him potentially causes real pain among the women who had to endure him and it sends a difficult message to everybody who is currently enduring similar behavior in our industry," designer Jennifer Scheurle added. "It tells women who have been exposed to similar situations that their perpetrators can not only get away with that, but [they] will also be recognised for their work, even if their behaviour along the way was unacceptable."

Game designer Elizabeth Sampat also weighed in, ripping Bushnell for being "well-known industry garbage." Sampat offered up some suggestions for what to do instead of giving the award to Bushnell.

The GDC Advisory Committee voted to give Bushnell the Pioneer award. Some of the people who sit on the panel include Halo developer Kiki Wolfkill, EA producer Jade Raymond, and Valve's Doug Lombardi.

In the book The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon and Beyond, Bushnell is quoted as saying that Atari, at its start, "seemed more like fraternity parties than business meetings." Pong designer Al Alcorn shares in the book a story about a hot tub meeting in which Bushnell reportedly tried to get a woman into the tub with him.

"We had a board meeting in his tub," Alcorn wrote in the book. "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."

An old San Francisco Chronicle report quotes Bushnell as saying, "Some ladies feel comfortable around me, and some don't. I find the aura of power and money is very intimidating to an awful number of girls."

A story for Playboy, "Sex, Drugs, And Video Games," claims that Atari engineers codenamed upcoming games after women. One codename was Darlene, who Bushnell said "was stacked and had the tiniest waist."

According to GDC organisers, the Pioneer award "honors breakthrough business and game design milestones." GDC organisers also today announced that Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail will take home the Ambassador Award, while Double Fine boss Tim Schafer is getting the Lifetime Achievement award.

The Game Developers Choice Awards take place on March 21 in San Francisco as part of the Game Developers Conference. We will report back with more details on what GDC plans to do with the Pioneer award as more information becomes available.

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