Many heroes go unsung, but rarely does a legend go unsung. Nevertheless, such is the case with Nolan Bushnell. A Utah native, Bushnell has been credited by Newsweek Magazine as one of the “50 Men Who Changed America” for his role in launching the video game industry with the founding of Atari in 1972. One would think his name would be more known to the average Utahn.
Born in Ogden in 1943, Bushnell first became inspired to enter the industry after working the midway arcade games at Lagoon Amusement Park Later at the University of Utah, he played Space War on a multi-million dollar computer in a class lab. “[It] showed me how games could be fun for everyone once the economics made sense,” Bushnell says. He graduated from the U with a degree in engineering. “The U of U is first class and it was particularly advanced in computer graphics thanks to Dr. David Evans.” Yes, that David Evans, one-half of Evans and Sutherland, the world-renowned video gaming company that now focuses on digital theaters and planetariums.
Bushnell soon moved from Utah to California and founded Atari, Inc. Since then, he has launched more than 20 companies in his lifetime, most notably the Chuck E. Cheese franchise (a family restaurant that combined pizza and video games). Bushnell maintains that much of his success can be attributed to his Utah upbringing. “Utah has always had an underground entrepreneurial spirit,” he notes.
The gaming industry has come a long way from the popular Pong game invented by Atari, but Bushnell believes that many innovations still lie in store. “It’s not even close to an end game. Virtual reality and augmented reality are showing the signs of becoming robust and affordable. There’s always room for innovation.”
While the knowledge of coding and engineering is important, Bushnell also believes that a strong understanding of marketing is vital to the success of any startup institution. Part of his business philosophy is to go where nobody else is. For example, with the saturation of the app market, Bushnell would advise young innovators to look for success in less crowded arenas.
Currently, Bushnell himself has shifted from entertainment to educational outlets. Anti-AgingGames.com features interactive games to help maintain and improve memory, cognitive ability and function for healthy individuals age 35 and over. His most recent company, BrainRush, takes education lessons and turns them into a variety of mini-games.
“We hope to change the way people are educated by accelerating learning using technology,” he says. Its “Adaptive Practice” model, at each level the difficulty increases, teaches that any subject can be learned through interactive game dynamics.
In spite of all his success, Bushnell still goes back to the family values he learned growing up in Utah.
“I always believe that my family and the quality of my children is the most enduring legacy.”