The Game Developers Conference was going to give its 2018 Pioneer Award to Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari. As the former leader of the company, Bushnell is considered one of the fathers of the video gaming industry. But outcry has led to the GDC rescinding the award.
The annual Game Developers Conference is one of the most prestigious events in gaming. Unlike expos like E3 or even PAX, which exist to either showcase new products or cater directly to consumers and fans, the GDC's attention is focused on sharing knowledge between top developers and honoring contributions to the industry and craft.
Earlier in the week, the organizers announced that the 18th GDC Choice Awards would be handing out top honors to three particular luminaries. Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail is receiving the Ambassador Award while the Lifetime Achievement Award is going to Double Fine founder Tim Schafer. Bushnell was going to receive the Pioneer Award.
“Nolan Bushnell helped guide Atari to becoming a dominating force in the video game world,” the award announcement read. But response to the announcement was negative in the form of industry professionals and observers highlighting inappropriate comments and behavior from Bushnell over the years.
In the past, Bushnell has openly shared "wild" anecdotes about the workplace environment in the earlier decades of the game industry, looking back wistfully at 'simpler' times. “It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet, and lots of company romances,” he told Playboy in 2012 profile.
Engineers at Atari even codenamed their projects after attractive female employees; “Darlene,” the codename for the home version of Pong, was inspired by a woman who Bushnell described as “stacked.” It was definitely a time when objectification of women wasn't questioned within the overwhelmingly lad culture that flourished under male executives.
In a 2011 interview, former Atari exec Ray Kassar recalls arriving on his first day in a suit, only to find Bushnell wearing a T-shirt that said ”I love to fuck.” And according to historian Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, Bushnell's leadership style led to “board meetings [that] seemed more like fraternity parties than business meetings.”
Other reactions include developer and US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu calling the award “wildly inappropriate with the #metoo movement” in a longer Twitter thread highlighting the problems with Atari’s culture at the time. “Bushnell is an important figure. But this isn’t the year to honor him,” she concluded.
Vox Media reporter Meghan Farokhmanesh wrote, "the challenge of the #MeToo movement requires the difficult reconciliation that talented people are capable of deplorable actions, and that being likable or successful does not mean that even key industry figures aren’t capable of exhibiting behavior that affects the overall culture and drives women in their industry away."
Since then, the organizers have rescinded their plans. The Pioneer Award will be given to no one this year. A statement made via GDC's official Twitter read, "The Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, 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.”
Bushnell issued a response to the decision: "I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace,” he says. “And if that means an award is the price I have to pay personally so the whole industry may be more aware and sensitive to these issues, I applaud that, too. If my personal actions or the actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.”