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Sex Drugs & Video Games
  • July 30, 2012 : 14:07
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The Atari 2600 defined a generation upon its release in October 1977, but it was the beginning of the end for Bushnell at Atari. A serial entrepreneur, he had other plans in the works: a pioneering online game network and a chain of family-friendly pizza arcades. Warner was pouring all its resources into the 2600—despite Bushnell’s insistence that it was in danger of oversaturating the market. The battle grew epic and ugly, as Bushnell believed the baby he had nurtured for so long was being dangerously mismanaged. Ultimately Warner won, and King Pong was out. “In my brain at the time, I thought I’d quit,” Bushnell says. “They thought they fired me. I’m not sure.”

Free from Warner, Bushnell grew his next empire, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, the pioneering restaurant chain—complete with life-size robotic singing animals. Suddenly, all the kids who had grown up on Atari games had a place to hang out, scarf pizza and beat the high score on the latest Atari games such as Asteroids and Centipede. In less than a decade, the video game industry had reached its golden age. By 1982 Atari was bringing in $2 billion a year. Bushnell’s oddball start-up had become one of the fastest-growing companies in American history. He had spawned not just a new industry but an entire generation of gamers—an impressive legacy.

“Hey, Nolan!” says a young guy with a strawberry-colored Mohawk. “When are we going to make those robots?”

It’s another bright blue day in Los Angeles. Bushnell and I are having lunch in a funky warehouse neighborhood downtown, where this local artist is eager to start a new project with the Pong master. Bushnell perks up as they talk about the cool new gizmos they want to build. It’s moments like this that still inspire him more than anything—even more than the possibility of being portrayed by DiCaprio in a movie. “I may be bizarre, but I don’t particularly revel in the provenance aspect,” he tells me as he digs into a barbecued-pork sandwich. “I’m much more interested in stuff I’m working on.”

Although he remains best known for his work in video games, Bushnell has made millions with a host of high-tech companies since leaving Atari. Always innovating, he created one of Silicon Valley’s earliest incubators, Catalyst Technologies, which gave rise to little-known but highly successful start-ups such as Axlon (an electronic-toy company, later sold to Hasbro) and Etak (a pioneer in automotive-navigation systems that became the precursor to Google Maps and MapQuest).

“What’s really striking about Nolan’s career is how many different areas he’s had a profound impact on,” says Will Wright. “His work has significantly contributed to not just the gaming industry but also restaurants, location-based entertainment, toy design, education and even mapping systems. I can think of few people who have had such a broad influence on so many different commercial fields.”

Not every venture has been a success, and Bushnell has had his share of hard times. In 2010 his company uWink, a sort of adult version of Chuck E. Cheese’s, shut down its last restaurant after failing to take hold. “When you’re out on the edge, sometimes you don’t know where the edge is and you step over and fall into the Grand Canyon,” he says. “But the next time you’re at the Grand Canyon, you know where the edge is. Everything is about learning. There’s always something you learn that arms you more strongly for your next attempt.”

These days, his next venture is his ultimate: creating a new kind of school that uses the innovations and creativity of new technologies to empower kids. He calls the school Speed to Learn and says it will be built on the idea that “software should teach, and teachers should mentor.” His plan is to open the first Speed to Learn as a private school in Los Angeles and expand from there. He eagerly shows me the new logo he’s designed—a yellow smiley face with the eyes replaced by fast-forward icons. “I think of new technology as presenting me with a new sandbox,” he says. “I love the process of innovation.”

Innovation runs in the family. Nearby, his son Brent (one of his eight kids from two marriages) has his own game-development company in the works. Brent says games are part of the Bushnell DNA; he recalls pulling his dad away from his cell phone games in restaurants. “He’s just a big kid,” Brent says.

Indeed. After a game of Pong on my iPhone (I won), Bushnell tells me how he road-trips to the Burning Man festival every August. “I love the creativity of the place,” he says. He’s also working on his first science-fiction novel, which explores what he thinks is the inevitable singularity of computer intelligence surpassing that of human beings. In the meantime, he’s always dreaming up something new.

“My feeling is that for creativity and innovation you always have to take the blinders off,” he says. He gives an example: “If you ask how you can innovate professional football, most people would say, ‘Design new plays; design new uniforms.’ But if you really want to look at it, you have to say, ‘What can I do differently in the parking lot?’ You have to expand your horizons rather than focusing on the field. You have to focus on what’s happening in the grandstands and the parking lot.” Bushnell smiles wide. “That’s the meta-game.”

And as always, he’s ready to play.

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

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