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Sex Drugs & Video Games
  • July 30, 2012 : 14:07
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It’s another perfect day in Los Angeles, but the real players aren’t in Hollywood or Beverly Hills. They’re downtown at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, ground zero for the video game industry. More than 45,000 freaks, geeks and gazillionaires are here to check out the hottest games. Enormous screens flash with pixelated wizards and race cars. Booth babes in green Joker wigs and jet-black dominatrix boots vie for attention.

With more than $16 billion in U.S. revenue last year, video games are one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. They have penetrated every corner of our lives, from blockbuster Xbox 360 games like Gears of War 3 in our living rooms to quirky hits like Angry Birds on our cell phones. But the most influential guy at E3 is the most elusive of all. As passersby whisper his name in awe, Nolan Bushnell heads for the desolate aisles in the back, where the start-ups are. “The edge conditions are always more interesting,” he says gingerly.

Bushnell is the godfather of video games. While modern-day dot-com whiz kids would be happy with one hit, he pulled a hat trick in the 1970s and 1980s that remains unrivaled: creating the first arcade smash (Pong), the first video game company (Atari) and the first arcade pizza chain (Chuck E. Cheese’s). “Nolan’s greatest contribution to the games industry is rather obvious. He basically started it,” says Will Wright, legendary designer of such games as The Sims and Spore.

“If there’s ever a contest to define the most important single individual in gaming history, he has the field all to himself,” says Frank O’Connor, franchise director of the hit sci-fi Halo games.

But his impact goes far beyond gaming. A 69-year-old hipster with a bushy white beard and jeans, Bushnell is the original Zuckerberg, the first 20-something prodigy to run a company in Silicon Valley and define the wildly creative start-up culture that corporations from Apple to Facebook emulate to this day. A self-made multimillionaire, he rose from a suburb in Utah to make Atari one of the fastest-growing companies in American history. It’s no wonder Leonardo DiCaprio has been in talks to portray Bushnell in an upcoming biopic.

How did one guy create a culture and an industry? You can’t understand the future of video game entertainment without knowing how it began. And as Bushnell reveals for the first time, the inside story starts in the same place he stands this day at E3: in the outer realms. “About all the interesting things happen at the edges, where the plates are rubbing together,” he says. “Not only do you get earthquakes there, but you get volcanoes. It’s the same thing with life. The closer you get to the edge, the more tremendous the opportunities.”

Clearfield, Utah is the last place you’d expect to find a future revolutionary. But Bushnell, who grew up in this working-class town near the Great Salt Lake, quickly found an edge of his own.

By sixth grade he was the town’s Napoleon Dynamite—a self-described “intellectually arrogant” six-foot-four brainiac and rebel prankster. He once faked a UFO invasion by rigging a 300-watt bulb to a kite, luring hapless cops to an alfalfa farm. After arguing down a minister over his Mormon religion, “I became a heathen,” he says, “and never looked back.”

And he discovered a whole new reason to look forward. While studying electrical engineering at the University of Utah in the early 1960s, Bushnell wandered into the department lab one day to find everyone huddled around Spacewar!, the first game ever created on a minicomputer. It was graphically crude but remarkably compelling. As Bushnell maneuvered his little spaceship around a black hole while firing bullets at his opponent, the future flashed in his mind. For many summers he had been managing the old-fashioned midway games—such as Skee-Ball and ringtoss—at nearby Lagoon Amusement Park, and he knew people would go crazy for something like this. “I said, ‘If I had this in my amusement park, I’d make a lot of money,’” he recalls. “It was magic.”

The magic, however, didn’t seem possible to achieve. Computers were too expensive to mass produce for an arcade game, and Bushnell had a more pressing matter to worry about: getting a real job. But shortly after the 25-year-old fledgling engineer found employment at an audio-video company in California, he got the Spacewar! bug again. Living in the nascent Silicon Valley, Bushnell began palling around with eccentric artificial-intelligence programmers and woolly DIY geeks, and he soon began talking up his idea.

Bushnell realized he didn’t need an expensive computer to make a game at all. A buddy named Ted Dabney, who had studied electronics in the U.S. Marine Corps, had found a way to manipulate a television signal using a video board so that an ordinary TV screen could display a series of squiggles and dots—just what Bushnell needed to make a coin-op version of Spacewar!, which he called Computer Space. As he and his crew worked on the hardware, Bushnell knew he had to do more than make a game; he had to make it sexy enough to lure people over to play it. He sculpted something that seemed right out of Barbarella—a tall, sloping cabinet with a screen facing out the top. Shaped like a coffin standing on end, it set the standard for arcade games to come. When it was finished, he amped up the sex appeal, taking out ads featuring a comely model in a negligee posing seductively next to the machine.

In 1971 Bushnell released Computer Space, the world’s first commercially sold arcade video game. Unfortunately for Bushnell, it was too odd and complicated to become more than an overlooked novelty. Still in his 20s, he set about creating his next game. That’s when he launched his own company, Atari, along with business partner Ted Dabney.

After seeing a demo of a rudimentary tennis game on a home video system called the Odyssey at a trade show, Bushnell decided to have his new engineer, Al Alcorn, a self-described “anarchist from Berkeley,” experiment with a tennis game of their own. They called it Pong. To make it accessible, Bushnell kept the rules as simple as possible. avoid missing ball for high score, he wrote on the machine. “Those instructions were kind of a joke,” he says with a laugh. “You couldn’t play the game without that as a given.”

To test the product, they set it up in a Silicon Valley dive bar called Andy Capp’s, charging 25 cents a play. Soon after, Bushnell got an angry call from the owner, telling him the machine was already broken. Bushnell dispatched Alcorn to check out the damage. When the engineer arrived and opened the cabinet, shiny coins spilled from the machine. Quarters had clogged the coin box and stopped the game from working.

Pong quickly became a hit. “It was an otherworldly success,” Bushnell says.

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read more: entertainment, Gaming, sex, video games, issue july 2012

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