In the 1970s, it was not unheard of at Atari’s headquarters to have business meetings in the office hot tub. While these antics would make any current HR professional tear their hair out, they didn’t stop Atari from revolutionizing the gaming industry or from being on top – until it wasn’t.
If you’re of a certain age, the name Atari immediately evokes a sense of nostalgia. The Atari home gaming console, which hit the market in 1977, wasn’t the first-ever console for playing games in your living room, but it was the first to actually be commercially successful. After building arcade style coin-operated games, Atari saw that the industry was changing, and the release of the Atari 2600 brought popular games like Pong and Space Invaders into people’s homes. It quickly became the dominant force in the home gaming console market. Atari outsold Intellivision’s console, it’s closest rival, by ten to one.
Before all that, Atari was founded in the early 1970s by Nolan Bushnell, an engineer who had worked at an amusement park arcade, and his fellow engineer Ted Dabney. The seeds of what would become Atari were planted when Bushnell happened upon a game called Spacewar that had been developed in 1962 by students at MIT. Thanks to his history with carnival games, Bushnell had the idea to build a more compact version of Spacewar (the original took up an entire room full of servers), encase it in a cabinet, and make it coin operated. He called his game Computer Space, and Atari was born from there.
Not all of Atari’s practices were 100% above board in the early days. Pong, for example, was pretty clearly based on a demo Bushnell saw of a table tennis game on the Magnavox Odyssey home gaming console (Atari agreed to pay a one-time licensing fee after Magnavox sued). And because its early business centered on licensing games to arcades, the company got around the fact that most arcades worked with two distributors in a region by setting up a separate entity that sold knock-offs of its games and posed as a competitor.
Women in the workplace
There was one thing Atari did from the start that made it stand out from other Silicon Valley startups in a good way: It employed a lot of women right from the very start. In fact, Bushnell hired his kids’ 17-year-old babysitter as Atari’s first employee in 1972. Pong made its debut not long after and hiring kicked into high gear for men and women alike.
By 1973, Atari had lots of employees and a very loose corporate culture. How loose? The office featured the infamous hot tub, and business meetings were frequently held there – and women often fielded offers to attend those meetings topless. The smell of marijuana (decades away from being legalized in California) wafted through the offices.
Despite this bro-forward culture, women were unquestionably more than eye candy at Atari. And it might not have been the huge success it was without one very determined woman. Carol Kantor had experience in market research with Clorox and in 1973, she applied for a job with hot, new company Atari. She was astonished to find the company had no real marketing department, let alone anyone focused on market research. Once she was hired, Kantor established the very first market research department at a gaming company. To conduct her research, she went to arcades up and down the coast of California and asked people playing Atari’s games what they thought.
Atari not only hired many women, it promoted them up through the ranks of the company. Cantor’s market research department and the video game cabinet assembly line were primarily composed of women throughout the ’70s and early ’80s.
The tech department, though, was male-dominated, with the exception of Dona Bailey, who co-created the game Centipede. She was one of the only female programmers at Atari. In an interview with NBC Bay Area in 2012, Bailey said, “It was kind of rough sometimes. It was a culture that I don’t think they were thinking, ‘There is one woman, we should modify our behavior for her sake’ ... I grew a thicker skin.”
A complicated legacy
The reign of Bushnell (and the hot tub) didn’t last forever, though. In 1976, he sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million, of which he received $15 million.
Bushnell was eventually forced out of Atari in 1978, not long after the debut of the revolutionary Atari 2600, which had been under development since 1975. But just before Bushnell exited Atari came up with Chuck E Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, a circus like restaurant with an attached arcade. The idea was that the chain would stock Atari games. The Chuck E. Cheese concept was sold to Warner along with Atari, but Bushnell bought it back after leaving and expanded into new locations.
Since Bushnell’s departure, the Atari brand has changed hands a number of times. In 1984, Warner split the company into parts and sold them off. Companies bearing the Atari name have been owned by many since then, including Commodore Computer founder Jack Trameil, Hasbro Interactive and French video game company Infogrames. It’s fortunes began to fall in the 1980’s as computer games surged and Nintendo became the dominant console game maker. In 2013, there was even an Atari bankruptcy, but the brand name persists and is used to this day.
In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bushnell said: "Atari had an extraordinary corporate culture that was destroyed within two years of the sale. I think that Atari would still be important today if that sale hadn't occurred."
Whatever the ultimate fate of the brand, Atari’s influence – and Bushnell’s – is clearly felt in Silicon Valley even today. It’s worth noting that Bushnell hired a teenage Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Atari. They must have liked their experience there, because when they came up with the idea for the Apple I computer – which they built with parts from Atari – they offered it to Bushnell, who turned the product down. Later, Jobs and Wozniak offered their former boss a one-third share of Apple for $50,000. He declined again, a decision he later acknowledged as the big mistake it was.
Bushnell is widely credited as one of the fathers of electronic gaming and has been inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame and the Consumer Electronics Association Hall of Fame. Celebrations of his influence, with no critical eye toward how the culture at Atari might have impacted women, continued until 2018, when Bushnell was nominated by the Game Developers Conference for its Pioneer Award.
That's when the #MeToo movement caught up with Atari. People started coming out of the woodwork on Twitter, posting clips from books, articles, and documentaries about the rise of Atari and its sex-filled culture. Stories about hot tub meetings, best looking secretary awards, and a 1973 game called Gotcha that was controlled with squishy pink domes modeled after a woman’s breasts all made waves on the social media platform. A #NotNolan hashtag started popping up, and less than 24 hours after the GDC Pioneer award was announced, it was revoked.
Still, many women who actually worked at Atari, including Kantor, pointed out that the backlash wasn’t coming from them, that workplace norms were different at the time and that they remembered their jobs there fondly.
For his part, Bushnell, who has never shied away from talking about Atari’s wild early days, owned it. “I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace,” he said when the decision was made. “And if that means an award is the price I have to pay personally so the whole industry may be more aware and sensitive to these issues, I applaud that, too. If my personal actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.”