Amid the din and buzz of the Dubai Entertainment, Amusement & Leisure show 2016 – where more than 300 global and regional exhibitors from 33 countries unveiled the industry’s latest rides and equipment – in a quiet booth, a shaggy-haired bearded man holds forth to some young ’uns who listen to him in rapt attention.
A visitor asks an executive who ‘that guy’ is. ‘Nolan Bushnell, creator and co-founder of Atari, the first video game company ever,’ he replies. She looks at the man once again doubtfully and decides against ambling over for an autograph or a selfie with him.
A pity, because with Nolan Bushnell, you never know. He may not be on top of the gaming world right now, but the industry pioneer could still bounce back any day. Consider that he’s now trying to revolutionise schooling in the US, using cutting-edge research into the functioning of the human brain to make courses more adaptable and also personalise education.
That’s what his new company Brainrush does – fix education. ‘My beta software teaches academic subjects at over 10 times the speed in classrooms with over 90 per cent retention,’ he says. ‘We use video game metrics to addict learners to academic subjects.’
His Anti-Aging Games project, developed along with a team of neuroscientists, helps seniors to avoid many of the problems of mental aging through game exercises that maintain mental flexibility and problem-solving.
‘I just want to make education as addictive as Atari’s old video games,’ he smiles.
Nolan suggests we step out of the exhibition venue for the interview and into a coffee shop nearby. ‘It’s too crowded and noisy there,’ he explains.
I start by asking him about Steve Jobs; Nolan was after all the first person to have hired Apple’s boss at Atari way back in 1974.
‘I was told Steve sauntered into our office in Silicon Valley in his sandals and landed the job despite his scruffy appearance,’ laughs Nolan. ‘Although Steve wasn’t a fully fledged engineer, he seemed like he had all the right stuff. I met him that day. He worked for us for about a year and went to India and came back and worked for us again for a short spell before going off to co-found Apple. We became good friends and kept in touch.’
Though Nolan is modest enough not to mention that he was also a role model for Jobs, the fact remains that the Apple man was deeply influenced by him. Nolan says it worked both ways – he found a lot in Jobs that fascinated him. Nolan even wrote a book – Finding the Next Steve Jobs, published in 2013 – which compiled some of his memories of his former employee and blended them with advice about hiring and nurturing creative talent.
‘I always wanted to write a book on creativity; Steve kind of underlined the power of creativity,’ says Nolan. ‘I had a lot of anecdotes about Steve that tracked his maturation process and coming of age, and also illustrates the pathway of his process. The book was more about creativity than it was about Steve.
‘I used him as an example of an out-of-the-box thinker.’ And what else was Jobs like? ‘He was a very intense man,’ says Nolan. ‘What was remarkably different about him was that he was very interested in things other than the technology we were working on. You could talk to him about anything – philosophy especially. He was very introspective by nature. We used to have very deep conversations about philosophy, rationalism, free will…’
Jobs was also known to speak his mind. This obviously ticked off co-workers, who then complained to Nolan. ‘I just told them to grow up if he [Steve] was right,’ says Nolan. ‘The only thing that really offends me are people who are offended!’
Nolan was arguably the pioneering Silicon Valley boss. ‘Creativity and innovation were and still are the only things I am concerned with in my staff,’ he allows. ‘I am willing to gamble on idiosyncratic people. Steve was the ultimate passionate guy. He had a similar approach when he started Apple, and Apple reflects it to this day.’
Nolan and Atari were also inspirations for other Silicon Valley start-ups: he started Atari when he was 29 and inexperienced and despite a shocking lack of resources, with Ted Dabney. A fairly inexperienced engineer and part-time amusement park arcade manager, he and Ted made an initial investment of $500 (Dh1,835).
‘Yes,’ says Nolan. ‘Five hundred dollars. What we did with Atari was show that young people could start big companies. Without that example it would have been harder for Jobs and Bill Gates, and people who came after them, to do what they did.’
Atari was the first company that created video games as we know them now – to be played at home on personal devices. Before that you could only play them on mainframe computers, as did many engineering students in university labs in the 1960s. Nolan had been one of them at the University of Utah, playing a video game called Spacewar.
‘I knew video games could be a big deal,’ says Nolan. ‘The only question was how to bring them to everyone, not just those of us who could sneak into a computer lab late at night.’
That was what led to Atari. Though there were other players in the field, Nolan was the person who turned video games from technology restricted to a chosen few into mass-produced home entertainment. Nolan was also among the first entrepreneurs to sell the company he’d set up from scratch. He sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million, primarily to raise money for the enormous amount of research that’s required to pioneer video technology. He was still presiding over the company.
But, by 1978, he was clashing with Warner executives over the running of the company, and was forced out of the company he co-founded. ‘The reason we clashed was that we were working on a game network that would be played over telephone lines, but Warner couldn’t figure out why people would want to play games with people they couldn’t see!’ says Nolan.
‘If we had gone ahead and done it, it could have essentially been the internet, only in our hands!’
He shrugs and smiles wryly. ‘I learnt that you better put your own money into your company,’ he says. ‘Certainly, keep away from corporate investment!’ The original serial entrepreneur, Nolan went on to start around 27 businesses of his own, including the highly successful arcade and pizza parlour, Chuck E Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre; the first technology incubator Catalyst Technologies; Etak, the first digital navigation system; the first online ordering system ByVideo; and the first touchscreen menu-ordering and entertainment system uWink, among others.
He’s still at it today with his new company Brainrush, which tries to ‘enhance and improve the educational process by integrating the latest in brain science’. Additionally, he travels all over the world delivering motivational talks on entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation and education and also consults for corporations such as IBM and California-headquartered Cisco Systems. Nolan is credited with creating many business culture innovations that have become the norm too, including unique business planning sessions, flat egalitarian management organisations, casual work attire, play/work environments, creativity as a competitive weapon, as well as the innovator’s bonus.
‘All true!’ guffaws Nolan.
‘Though they sound pretty cheesy now, I guess they can be traced to Atari and Chuck E Cheese.’ Of course, these practices found their way into Apple and other Silicon Valley corporations later. Even if his protégé overshadowed him in that sphere too with two biopics based on Jobs’ life, Nolan just might still best him in this. Leonardo DiCaprio has just bought a script based on Nolan’s life.
‘There have been several meetings, but I don’t know when they will finally get around to making it,’ he says. ‘If it does, fine, if not, then that’s OK too.’
Does he regret not investing in Apple when Jobs offered him a $50,000 stake – a whopping third of the company?
Nolan smiles, and exhales expansively. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Just think, if I had invested in Apple, I may have had too much influence on it, and then maybe it may not have turned out to be what it has now.’