Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's Founder Writing Sci-Fi Book


Nolan Bushnell has always been a man slightly ahead of his time. After co-founding Atari in 1972 -- and some might say the video game industry as a whole -- he was forced from the company just before it became a multi-billion dollar business. He followed that up by launching the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant chain, but again left the company in the mid-'80s over a disagreement with management. (There are more than 500 locations now.) Bushnell's latest venture takes him into uncharted territory on a smaller scale but is nonetheless bold: He's going to the future.

Well, literarily speaking, anyway. "You do crazy things as you get older," says the 66-year-old entrepreneur. "I'm actually writing a science fiction book now, because in science fiction, you don't need to be bound by today's technologies. You can let your mind go free."

While he won't go too deep into the plot, Bushnell says the protagonist of the story is a video game designer in the future. "It has been a hilarious experiment," he chuckles.

Fans of the gaming guru will be relieved to know that Bushnell is also getting back to his roots, with plans to return to the gaming world after a 30-year break.

He recently co-founded Reality Gap, a publisher of massively multiplayer online games. The company differentiates itself from the pack by offering a common online currency -- called MetaTIX -- that can be used to purchase in-game items (such as armor, weapons upgrades and costumes) in any title the company publishes.

It's not that different, really, from what Bushnell did with tokens at Chuck E. Cheese's: creating an artificial monetary system that distracts people from the fact that they're spending real cash. "The token system was very key to the success of Chuck E. Cheese," says Bushnell. "It's something you can promote. You don't want to give away quarters, but with tokens, you can give away games. It gives you some very interesting flexibility to do cool and interesting things."

This innovation in the economic model of video games was part of what drew him back to the industry, but Bushnell also believes the audience he cornered with the Atari 2600 is coming back.

"What I love of the past four or five years is that the industry has taken on some of the aspects of the early '80s," he says. "Back then, almost everyone played video games - whether it was businessmen at lunch or people at the local bar or women playing 'Pac Man.' But in 1983 or 1984, the games got very violent and very complex. That violence lost the female audience and the complexity lost the casual gamer."

Bushnell has spoken out before about some of gaming's modern hits – specifically 'Grand Theft Auto' – but notes that too many people misinterpreted his criticism of that game as a knock on all action and shooter games.

"I'm not one of these guys who says I'm against violence. I think there are certain games that are very cathartic, " says Bushnell. "It's just when the violence is against a whore, pimp or police officer and you get points for that. I perceived that to not be a good thing for society. ... Now, I don't mind killing zombies. They're already dead!"

This bodes well for literary fans who like a little action with their science fiction. Bushnell remains mum, though, on whether the undead will play a part in the book.

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