12 ex-Atari women respond to #NotNolan controversy, offer ‘70s perspective

12 ex-Atari women respond to #NotNolan controversy, offer ‘70s perspective

The Atari 2600 (originally sold as the Atari Video Computer System, or VCS) was by far the most popular console of its era. It did much to

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The Atari 2600 (originally sold as the Atari Video Computer System, or VCS) was by far the most popular console of its era. It did much to popularize switchable cartridge-based games. Despite many efforts, Atari would never again replicate its success.

Almost immediately after Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell was un-nominated for a “Pioneer” award over accusations of sexism, questions arose from gaming fans and historians alike: was the reaction appropriate?

They wanted to know: was a “#NotNolan” campaign too quick to pass judgement based on salacious rumors? Or was it a measured response to how the gaming and technology industries look so many years later?

A report from Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio came closest to answering that question on Monday. For the report, she interviewed a compelling spectrum of women who are perhaps best equipped to speak to the question: Bushnell’s female peers within Atari, as well as female industry researchers and historians. The report doesn’t come close to a definitive answer, and its hesitation to render any verdict on the matter is perhaps its greatest strength.

Atari didn’t “prepare us for the real world”

The report’s most interesting details come from those who worked with Bushnell during his tenure, which ended when he sold the company to Warner in 1976. The company’s first market researcher, Carol Kantor, and credit manager, Mireille Chevalier, each tell stories about having opportunities to thrive based solely on their ability to deliver results. The report points to high numbers of female hires in the manufacturing and research departments, and it includes a refutation from longtime Bushnell business partner Loni Reeder: “There’s a collective anger amongst us toward the individuals who made [#NotNolan] a big deal.”

When pressed, two prominent women in the company’s creative forces—which were known for having fewer female hires—offered more unclear feedback. The first, Centipede co-creator Dona Bailey, declined comment to Kotaku and instead pointed out that she is working on a screenplay about her Atari experiences. (D’Anastasio also points to a comment Bailey made in a 2012 interview about growing “a thicker skin” to work with men.)

The second, graphic designer Evelyn Seto, acknowledged “a couple negative experiences, but it was mostly innuendo.” She then cut her Kotaku interview short: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

The rest of the piece confirms as many concrete details as it can about stories that have long circulated—which, D’Anastasio reminds readers, were “actively circulated” by Bushnell to up-sell the mythos and sexiness of Atari’s most successful era. (In defending the infamous hot tub installed at Atari HQ, Reeder compared it to the in-office perks found at some of the world’s most successful companies.)

“The 12 women I interviewed described Atari’s culture as a product of the free-love ’70s, but also, as an outgrowth of feminism’s second wave, which helped empower women to seek equal workplace opportunities,” D’Anastasio writes.

She continues:

“It was a different time,” nearly all of them said at some point during our conversation. It’s entirely possible that the women who choose to stay in touch and publicly affiliated with Atari’s brand are bonded over their positive experiences. It’s entirely possible unsavory and potentially damaging behavior occurred between men and women at Atari—but speaking up about 40-year-old incidents remains tricky for a variety of reasons.

The report is careful to remind readers that #NotNolan’s advocates didn’t set out to specifically tear Bushnell down. Instead, they spoke out because “holding him up for special honors in 2018 felt like it was sending the wrong message.” To that end, D’Anastasio also speaks to game-industry historians about the culture of sexualized male dominance that followed Atari’s success to other tech companies. Still, Atari’s female veterans offer a rejoinder to that perspective: that Atari didn’t “prepare us for the real world,” due to what they called a more egalitarian treatment of women at Atari than the other tech companies they eventually worked for.

Head to Kotaku to read the full, compelling report.

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