The Game Developers Conference is a major gaming event held every Spring in San Francisco to celebrate the fine art of game development. As part of the week-long convention and conference, the GDC also hosts a set of gaming awards, which includes the yearly Pioneer Award, which is designed to celebrate a developer who helped change the world of gaming as we know it. And this year the GDC organizers wanted to give that award to Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Atari is trying to make a comeback this year, and everyone loves retro-games right now. So naturally the company’s co-founder would be an ideal candidate.
Except for Bushnell’s reported history of inappropriate sexual behavior during Atari’s heyday.
Specifically, we’re referring to Bushnell’s alleged comments and behavior in the early days of Atari. That inappropriate behavior reportedly included provocative hot tub meetings and fostering a “fraternity” culture at Atari. And the GDC should have seen the backlash coming, as this behavior has been documented in multiple interviews and books. It’s pretty much common knowledge among the game development community, of which GDC is absolutely a part.
This means there was a pretty swift backlash in the form of the #NotNolan hashtag trending on Twitter this week. Some of the highlights of the #NotNolan commentary come from software engineer and US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu. You might remember Wu from the GamerGate controversy of 2014 where Wu, Zoe Quinn, and many other prominent female developers were targeted by an irate group of gamers who used #gamergate as their callsign. But the essential theme of the #NotNolan conversation was pretty simple.
So, #notnolan gets some attention as people point out that Nolan Bushnell, slated to be honored at GDC, seems an odd choice in the wake of #metoo. GDC tells The Verge they weren't aware of these things. https://t.co/lPADXKfYiT
— Carly Kocurek (@sparklebliss) January 31, 2018
Then Wednesday afternoon, the GDC announced that they were retracting the award from this year’s list of honors at GDC.
“The Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, who vote on the Special Award Winners for each show, have made the decision not to give out a Pioneer Award for this year’s event, following additional feedback from the community,” the official GDC account announced on Twitter. “They believe their picks should reflect the values of today’s game industry and will dedicate this year’s award to honor the pioneering and unheard voices of the past.”
While the GDC retracted their stance on Bushnell and are no longer honoring him with the Pioneer Award, they should have seen this coming. Bushnell’s behavior was documented in several books, textbooks, and documentaries. With #MeToo still going strong in 2018, even putting Bushnell’s name up on the list of potential honorees required either an impressive amount of ignorance or sheer arrogance. Someone at the table of the Advisory Committee should have raised a question or seven about honoring Bushnell as a Pioneer in gaming despite his reported sexually inappropriate behavior. But they did not. That kind of misstep raises several questions about the identity of those on the Advisory Committee and certainly makes us question their motives.
While, yes, you can assert that Atari’s heyday was in 1972, shortly after the Summer of Love, Bushnell’s behavior does not play well when looked at in 2018. Regardless of intent, many of Bushnell’s actions code as casually sexist at the least, and predatory at the most. With the world finally taking a closer look at workplace sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism, honoring a man with Bushnell’s history would be remarkably tone deaf.
It should not have taken a legion of women uniting on Twitter under #NotNolan to retract this decision. Bushnell’s candidacy should have been killed before the idea was even put on the table.