The Myth Making Of Nolan Bushnell: The Malcolm McLaren Of Video Games? Updated:

For many years, I naively believed that Nolan Bushnell invented the modern video game.  I be lived he created the first video game company (Atari in 1972), I believed he created the first home video game (Atari Pong), and the first cartridge based game system (The Atari 2600). I believed these things because I had read them in magazines, newspapers, books or had seen short history pieces about them on TV back when Atari was a viable company, and I was an impressionable young lad. . However, all of these things have been proven wrong (or at least not entirely true) in the past 15 years. Computer Space was actually built by Ted Dabney AND Nolan Bushnell. Atari was started by Bushnell, Ted Dabney, and a 3rd partner in 1972 but it was called Syzygy. It did not become Atari until legal action (by another company with the same name) forced them to change it. The first home pong was created by Ralph Baer (well, a tennis game anyway), not Bushnell’s Atari, and the first cartridge based system was the Fairchild Video Entertainment System. Bushnell is not even the first person to make video games profitable, as Atari was often in the red until Bushnell sold out to Warner Brothers in 1976 and pocketed $28 Million.  Why did I believe these things? Because up until books like The First Quarter by Steve Kent arrived, there was no one to tell me otherwise. Many were based on popular myths or misconceptions or were written in books and articles on video game history. Some were hinted at when I interviewed Bushnell in 2007. However, I believe the real reason why I believe these things is because Nolan Bushnell wanted me to believe them, and by extension, I wanted to believe them too.

My belief in these myths has recently been reignited because of the news last week that Nolan Bushnell was added to the board of Directors for Atari S.A., a French based company that was (or was not, who knows these days?) once Infogrames. the company has the slightest, most tenuous ties back to the original Atari that one could possibly imagine (legal ownership of the Atari IP). After this news was announced the message boards at Atari Age lit-up with messages about Nolan Bushnell, calling him a “self promoter” at best, and a “con-man” at the worst. It seems that, over years, within the legions of die-hard Atari fans, cracks have appeared in the gold-plated myth of Nolan Bushnell. Reading through that forum thread at Atari Age can be very interesting, even for someone who used to eat-up every word on Atari that was ever printed. It is easy to see why I was so misguided though: the main guys who have the (alleged) dirt on Bushnell (famed Atari historians Marty Goldberg and Kurt Vendel) have been researching and writing a couple of books on Atari for almost a decade. They have never finished them though, mostly because they keep unearthing information that has so-far never been made public. At the same time, the current set of (mis)information lives on. Even articles I have written on Atari have fallen victim to some of it (if I believe all of what these guys are saying, and I don’t necessarily believe it all). At any rate, it’s one of the reasons I stopped writing about Atari: There is just too much to write about, but what *is* public knowledge people already think they know. According to Vendel and Goldberg, nearly everything we know about Nolan Bushnell is a half-truth or a lie. They have the goods, and some day soon, we will all get to read about it. I, seriously, can’t wait for that day.  At the very least, we will start to get a full picture of Bushnell that is not just made-up of press releases.

However, what do we do in the meantime? If it is true that Atari fans have never known the “real” Nolan Bushnell, and everything we have ever been told was self promotion and myth making, where does that leave him? To me, it makes him even larger than life than he ever was before. Bushnell the (alleged) shyster, con man, and back-alley carnival barker (again, read this thread to see what I mean) is in some ways even more interesting than Bushnell the engineer, entrepreneur and inventor. Why? Because he was obviously so damned good at it. If Bushnell has managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes for so long, he deserves some kind of recognition for creating a nearly impenetrable myth that even kernels of truth shot at it from afar could not bring-down.  And what if it is all true?  What if Bushnell is a little bit of everything?  Does  that destroy his myth, or simply enhance it?

Furthermore, the nascent Atari of the 1970’s probably needed a larger than life Nolan Bushnell for it to thrive. In my view, for a company to exist in a difficult industry it requires smart people with the ability to work complex problems into sellable products (i.e. Al Alcorn, Ted Dabney, Bob Brown, David Crane Jay Miner, etc). However, for a company to dominate that industry and to create the mind share of a classic Atari (or for example the current-day Apple), it requires something much more. It requires a great manipulator, someone who embodies the spirit of the industry because he created it out of nothing. Because Bushnell was an “idea” guy, and used his relationships with great engineers (Ted Dabney, Al Alcorn, etc.)
to make great products, some people see him as a Steve Jobs character and the various engineers being like Steve Wozniak. This is a close comparison, but then Steve Jobs was very successful after his initial Apple stint, while Bushnell is still looking for a his next great success (although he has had many small ones). Instead, I propose that Bushnell’s role in video games is much more like that of the late Malcolm Mclaren.

Huh? Let me explain a bit about Malcolm McLaren. He is best known as the man who managed the band the Sex Pistols into international notoriety in 1977. Through his careful manipulations and posturing, he turned a fairly good rock band into an international phenomenon and by doing so put the whole idea of “Punk Rock” on the map. In some ways, you might call him the “father of Punk” (even though technically that’s not true). While he never made much music himself (not punk anyway), he used self-promotion, manipulation, and myth making to create something out of very little, and then rode that wave to fame and notoriety. Sound familiar?

Here are some other odd similarities between Bushnell and McLaren.

  • They were contemporaries: Bushnell was born in 1943 while McLaren. was born in 1946.
  • Bushnell was an engineer, McLaren’s dad was an engineer.
  • Both came into their own in 1971: Bushnell with Computer Space, McLaren by opening Let It Rock, an influential clothes shop.
  • Both made their big moves in 1972: Bushnell with Atari (Syzygy)Pong, Mclaren. by starting to manage the New York Dolls.
  • Both made huge steps in 1975: Bushnell with the home version of Pong which a huge success, McLaren by returning to his roots and renaming his clothing shop to “SEX”, which became a legendary outpost for “punk” fashion to come.
  • Both made their biggest marks in 1977: Bushnell with the release of the Atari 2600 VCS, Mclaren with the management of the Sex Pistols.
  • Both made their myth’s after their “creations” were not in their hands any longer: Bushnell with his very public ouster from Atari in 1978 with Chuck E Cheese and his “return” in 1983, and McLaren making the movie “The Great Rock And Roll Swindle” released after the Sex Pistols had broken-up and Sid Vicious was dead (Roger Ebert recently wrote a fascinating story about the creation of this movie that further highlights McLaren’s myth-building).
  • Both “created” industries that were initially not long-lived: Both the golden age of video games and the idea and ideals of British punk died sometime in the early 1980s, but both sprouted again a few years later and still exist today.
  • Neither had any kind of huge success after these events, although both had minor successes (i.e. Bushnell with Chuck E Cheese before it went bankrupt, McLaren with bands like Bow Wow Wow and the song Buffalo Girls).
  • Both have since trumpeted their involvement in the creation of each industry, to the possible detriment of others that were involved (i.e. Bushnell lessening the role of Ted Dabney by omission, or McLaren. downplaying the contributions of the Sex Pistols by saying “The Pistols were like my work of art. They were my canvas. “) .
  • Bushnell is now popularly known as the “Father Of The Video game Industry” (even though there were many people before and with him that actually did the work), while Malcolm McLaren is generally attributed with creating the phenomenon known as British punk rock and more specifically, The Sex Pistols, even though there were many people before and with him that actually did the work).
  • People who study both 70’s Atari and 70’s British punk would say that these myths overshadowed or replaced the many individuals and important contributions from dozens of people (i.e. Teb Dabney at Atari or Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols) who did not gain the notoriety of a Bushnell or McLaren.
  • In reality, the involvement of these “mythical figures” was probably less than they would like you to believe, but at the same time more than some other people involved would like to admit.

With so many similarities, one has to ask, why were both able to create these myths (or alleged myths) about their role new and exciting industries, at about the same time in history? Well, the answer might be that people trusted the press more in the late 1970’s and early 80’s than maybe any other time in history. Incidents like Watergate seen through the lens of movies like All The Presidents Men showed the press as saviors of world. The ideals of an objective and non-partisan press that held the truth above all else and could be a “savior” was echoed in many other movies as well, like Salvador, and The Killing fields and even popular stuff like Capricorn One, Blue Thunder and The Dead Zone. With all that trust in the popular press, manipulation could be very powerful. If a charismatic “someone” was able to come from a brand-new industry (i.e. video games, punk rock) as a representative of that industry, and the press saw them as a figurehead and an expert, they could be seen as leading voice. Since there were no other real outlets for popular news (no internet, few cable stations), people relied on network news, plus magazines and newspapers to give them the the truth. And if that truth could be manipulated… a myth was born.

However there may be another reason for the creation these “mythical figures”, and it’s much simpler and less controversial: history favors the winners. History books tends to focus who won wars, who won elections, and who beat the other guy to the patent office. For every Allies there was an Axis, for every Lincoln, there was a George B. McClellan, for every Alexander Graham Bell there was an Elisha Gray, and for every VHS, a Betamax. The British punk band The Damned might have released the first punk single (“New Rose”), but it was the Sex Pistols who”won” with “God Save The Queen” months later because Malcolm McLaren wisely guided the band to release the single the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Celebration, creating the ultimate controversy. Likewise, if Lester Hogan, the head of Fairchild Semiconductor had played his cards as the “inventor of the programmable home video game” when the Fairchild Video Entertainment System was released in 1976, we might be discussing him instead of Nolan Bushnell.  However, Bushnell *was* a winner, and his legacy lives on. 

At any rate, I’m not so sure the idea of this “myth making” by Nolan Bushnell is entirely true. I mean, he was the head of Atari at the time, which means that while he might have given his opinions on products, he also had to spend a lot time doing the high level things that heads of companies do. Might he have thought of his input as much more important than it really turned out to be? Is that just a fault of Nolan Bushnell, or the fault of business executives in general? Do people at that level tend to believe their ankle-deep contributions over all parts of the business equate to great products while minimizing the work and input of their subordinates so they can firm their spot in the CEO country club?  What if Bushnell really did have a hand in all the great stuff at Atari in the 70’s, but some other people just didn’t see it that way?  Whose perspective is correct? I suppose we will find out another side of the story when Marty Goldberg and Kurt Vendel finally publish their books, and we can see what all the fuss (and vitriol) is all about. In a sense, if history does favor the winners, then the Goldberg/Vendel books might become the “People’s History Of Video Games”, and alternative history that focuses on the workers and individual contributors more than the leaders, figureheads and winners.

Finally, though, one has to ask the question: Did this alleged subterfuge of a Bushnell (like that of a McLaren) have a sum-total positive effect on the industries involved? To the individual people involved that these myths (allegedly) paved-over and stomped upon, maybe not. However, considering both video games and punk (in spirit) are still very much alive today, I think the answer answer would still be “yes”. Myths, it seems, can be a powerful thing, and sometimes, in the hands of charismatic leaders, they are used to sacrifice individual truth for the sake of ego and long-term success. Do I agree with these (alleged) tactics and think they are worth the damage they do to the people involved? Honestly, I’m not sure that I do. However I do respect their influence, and I see them as powerful weapons in the myth-making of legendary figures and industries.

Update: Nolan Bushnell showed-up on the forums last Monday, and went about refuting most of the claims against him.  It is pretty awesome reading that starts about here:

I would have to say that, if you believe this thread, then my assertions above about the “myth making” be more of something that happens when CEOs run companies than really any “transgression” from Bushnell seem to be true.  At the same time, the man was able to create an amazing myth around himself, so I stand on that as well.

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