Atari: Sex, drugs and video games

There are plenty of places in the world that would make for great soap opera material.

Perhaps one could be forgiven for thinking the world of advertising is boring, but Mad Men’s made a hell of a show out of it, and considering there’s politics and behind the scenes shenanigans everywhere you look, practically any business could be the subject of a tell-all expose.


So at the newsstand I see the new issue of Playboy with the headline, “Sex, Drugs and Video Games.” That definitely grabbed my attention, and the story is all about video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell, who writer David Kushner calls “the original Zuckerberg whiz kid.” Kushner has covered the gaming industry extensively, and also penned the books Masters of Doom, and Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto.


As Kushner writes in Playboy, “Bushnell is the godfather of video games. He pulled a hat trick in the 1970s and 1980s that remains unrivaled: creating the first arcade smash (Pong), the first video game company (Atari) and the first arcade pizza chain (Chuck E. Cheese’s). Bushnell discovered gaming technology all the way back in the ’60s, at the University of Utah, where Spacewar! was the first fame made on a mini-computer.”


Bushnell learned how to make a game with TV signals instead of working with computer technology, which was way too expensive back then. He did his own version of Spacewar!, which he called Computer Space. Then came Pong, which was set up at a Silicon Valley bar where he charged people a quarter to play it. Things exploded from there.


Atari definitely had a lot of ups and downs, the company lost a lot of money when they didn’t copyright Pong and it was ripped off everywhere. But most importantly, Atari did have a rep for being “the party company,” with beer kegs, cocaine, pot, and meetings in hot tubs. It was the 70’s after all, and as one exec put it, “Our attitude was work hard and play hard.”


And as all of us who grew up in the 80’s know, Atari grew into an enormous company, both for the arcade and the home, but it had a steep fall from its peak without a gradual decline.
 Of course there’s much more to the story, we don’t want to give too much away, but the whole Atari saga has always been fascinating, especially considering the gaming industry, even to this day, is very mercurial.


As Playboy reports, Bushnell is hoping to reinvent himself, and there’s even talk of Leonardo DiCaprio playing him in a biopic. We could see Bushnell pulling it off, because there’s too much technology out there to play with these days, and he could definitely come up with something cool once again.