Nolan Bushnell's Take on Gaming Culture and Education

Even if you don't know him by name, he probably affected your childhood. As the founder of Atari, Chuck E Cheese, and a multitude of other fun-inducing revolutions, Nolan Bushnell still strives to make sure everyone can look forward to growing up. 

We asked him what he thinks of GamerGate, his ideas on revamping the American education system, and what the next Nolan Bushnell should look out for. 

Gaming Culture in 2015

Photo of Nolan Bushnell from Wikipedia

Photo of Nolan Bushnell from Wikipedia

Kt Sagona: So many generations have grown up with your [influence in] games. Have you noticed changes with generations and their taste in gaming?

Nolan Bushnell: There’s always a lot of changes with everything. Games are pretty ubiquitous now with gaming on cell phones. More people are playing games now than ever before, but there is still a variety of immersive games, and I think that’s going to continue aggressively.

With that variety, we’re seeing stronger group divides. There’s GamerGate, the debate between a casual gamer and hardcore...what do you think about these social conflicts?

There’s something I call an ubergamer, where games are 80% their life. I think that tends to [surround] longform games. A lot of the time, their wife, their friends are all online. And then there’s a whole group of people who actually have a life [Laughter], where games are just salt and pepper on things and not the main course.

Which groups do you have more faith in going forward?

I’ll put it this way. I’m really interested right now in virtual reality. That becomes very very interesting as reality, life and game emerges. But...a lot of sci-fi has been written about societies that have become so addicted to synthetic constructs, drugs, immersive gaming situations.They become truly addicted. I think we’re seeing a little of that now in some cases.

"Building games is always more fun than playing them."

It’s just a start, but there’s a lot of people who are totally escaping into the world of games.

Speaking of virtual reality...with Oculus Rift and other VR headsets emerging, should future game devs rely upon existing hardware, or focus on building hardware for their own game ideas?

[It’s] different for different people based on your skills. In any of these things there’s a tremendous amount of innovation that’s needed, and it takes a lot of different ideas. I think that people should always build their own hardware if they can. That’s where real innovation happens.


Regardless, building games is always more fun than playing them. And so whether it’s the hardware portion, the software portion, I’m kind of like Nike -- I say just do it.

Are you not concerned then, with our DDR pads and Oculus Rift and all of our wearable tech, that we might get overrun with hardware?

A really good video game is closely matched to its user interface. And there are some games that are just no damn fun on an iPad. It’s touchy, you don’t get good vectors, you don’t get nuance. And likewise...Pong was really fun on a knob. It’s not fun with anything else. It’s not fun with a mouse, keyboard, joystick...and yet, playing Halo with a knob is playing with a lame experience.

Where Education Meets Fun

"In any class, half the kids are bored and half the kids are lost, and there’s maybe one at the proper speed."

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you want to focus more in the gaming education space. What would your ideal elementary public school classroom look like?

I think the first thing we need to do is open up the debate as to what the goal of education should be. I think that right now there’s too much murky thought on that.

The consensus opinion is that K-12 should be all about preparing kids to go to college. And I think that’s a really horrible idea. I think that most kids shouldn’t go to college -- they should get an apprentice program and learn skilled jobs. The United States virtually has no master machinists, and yet we have a whole bunch of paleontologists who can’t get a job. If you look at Germany with their apprentice program, they always run negative unemployment. Their economy creates more jobs than there are Germans. And yet, only 20% per capita of the Germans go to college, but they have this wonderful apprentice program. I just think it’s so much more efficient, so much cheaper for the economy.

So many kids drop out of high school just because they know they’re not going to college, and their high school experience is not relative. You’re not learning anything that’s going to make a living.

What would be your ideal goal for K-12?

Learning, problem solving, and learning core skills. For example, I don't think anybody should graduate high school [without] being able to touch type at 50 words/minute. Second, I don’t believe anyone should graduate high school without knowing how to sell something on eBay. I don’t believe anyone should graduate without writing a short story and publishing it on kindle singles and have somebody buy it. Everyone should know how to make and put up a YouTube video. Everyone should know how to set up a webpage, not necessarily write HTML...but know these key digital skills.

It seems like you want to redefine what Liberal Arts means.

"The consensus opinion is that K-12 should be all about preparing kids to go to college. And I think that’s a really horrible idea."

The school environment was invented before the Internet. There were things that were perceived before you wanted to know. And so they were sort of [forced] into you. What should be done is that kids should have their curiosity maintained. The minute you have kids drifting off because the lecture is boring, you’re destroying their desire to learn.

I think school right now in many cases is more destructive than helpful. It drains creativity. School in general is not an exciting place. There are several schools that are, but most aren’t. Teaching in the classroom is wrong. There should be no grades. Schools should be much more nuanced. Everybody should proceed at their own best speed. In any class, half the kids are bored and half the kids are lost, and there’s maybe one at the proper speed.

We can solve this through computerized education. You can’t solve it with the current teacher in front of the classroom.

So games are always fun, but what happens when you’re forced to play a game. Is that game still fun?

You get rid of the concept of force. Kids, by their nature, will explore a rich environment that has a lot of things to do. You can truncate the options, but when you give kids options, freedom is really a wonderful thing, and kids respond to freedom. People respond to freedom. Doing something because you want to is so much more effective than doing something because you have to.

What for you would be a successful schedule for a classroom?

I would never have a schedule. Each student would have a laptop. The school would look much more like a workshop, each small group of students would have a cubicle...where they could work on projects. They would have several companies they could join, like clubs, that would have a goal. Kids could learn all kinds of useful skills, and have a lot of time to investigate interesting things.

"Doing something because you want to is so much more effective than doing something because you have to."

I was just on a series of YouTube videos last night that posed interesting questions of physics that were so damn entertaining. I’ve seen things that just make chemistry and history sparkle. Just having those around and easily indexed, so that kids can access them without searching all around...Maybe the only thing [I would] say is that you need to be doing something, you can’t just sit and gaze all of the time. You can sit and gaze some of the time, just not all of the time [Laughter].

Are there other forms of learning you feel are missed in mainstream games? Are there any opportunities you see very clearly that you think to yourself “Why hasn’t anyone done that yet?”

I think there are a lot of really good educational games. Early on, there was this thing called the Incredible Machine. I think that Luminosity has some interesting, simple, easy to play good brain exercises, I think there are several ways of learning languages that have become quite entertaining. I just see things all the time that [I think] “Oh, that’s a good one.” [I think] they will just keep getting better and better.

The Future of Gaming

We’re seeing a lot of mainstream sites creating “gameified” systems, even from sites not related to gaming at all.  Is this where you saw gamification heading, if you saw it at all?

Yeah it was quite predictable. Games are a self-contained environment -- the goals are somewhat clear, there’s just a lot of things that make games powerful. In a lot of cases, once you have a computer, you can gamify an awful lot of things really simply. It’s quite rewarding and satisfying. It’s totally expected, but it wouldn’t happen without a computer. Computers drive gaming metrics -- it’s easier to score and back decisions.

Is there anything in the world you think shouldn’t be gameified, or turned into a game?

Love. Other than that, nothing [Laughs].

Loving is something that is already a complex game, so I don’t think we need to gamify it any more. I’ve been married 37 years and I have eight kids. That is without a doubt one of the most interesting games you can play. In terms of outcomes, I think you want to learn rules and be able to win games, but in relationships it’s not satisfying to manipulate people.

You’ve said elsewhere that the more people think your idea is crazy, the more you should pursue it. At what point do you then say that you should fail?

You’re asking an impossible to quantify question. When do you just finally just say “This isn’t working,” or “I know it’s right,” and stay the course? I think it’s just a subtle distinction to quantify.

Final question - any advice to the next Nolan Bushnell?

Don’t make all the mistakes I made. Be nicer [Laughs]. Maybe...when you know somebody isn’t right in your company, fire them sooner. One of the biggest mistakes: I gave people too many chances, when I knew that people really weren’t right for the position

The hardest part of building a company, when you get right down to it, is selecting and keeping the people you want. That’s just always hard.

Thanks so much for interviewing with Sevencut, Nolan. It was a pleasure to have you talk with us! 

Nolan Bushnell is the founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, among many other successful companies. His investing prowess influenced many generations in the gaming space. You can buys his book Finding the Next Steve Jobs, or check him out on Twitter.