Nolan Bushnell wants your children. He says you're undermining their future if you don't hand them over.
Bushnell is the man who sprang the electronic game craze on the nation with the invention of Pong and the development of Atari. He is also the creator of Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre, the chain of restaurants that also are game arcades and stages for electronic puppets and viewing rooms for giant-screen televisions and, soon, computer schools.
It's in the restaurants that Bushnell is planning to take on the tradition-minded educators and parents who think electronic games are addictive and moronic. He says Pizza Time theaters are the key to the country's educational future, the laboratories where the next generation will free itself from stodgy, outmoded curricula to become "computer literate" and competitive in the electronic age.
In short, Bushnell is either a visionary genius or a mad scientist, depending on one's point of view. The answer could become clear over the next six months as parents, customers and Pizza Time investors get a look at Bushnell's newest ventures.
Pizza Time Theatre is installing personal-size computers in the restaurants, and offering promotions that will enable schools to get computers for their classrooms if they spend enough money at the restaurants.
According to Bushnell, "We want to transfer the entertainment aspect of computers to a learning function that promotes computer literacy. One of the best ways of doing that is through Chuck E. Cheese," the oversized rodent character who roams the restaurant. "Chuck E. is the perfect incentive for a school group to start working with a computer."
In addition, Bushnell said, the restaurants will introduce next spring a new batch of electronic games aimed at the toddler set, the 4-year-olds, who are too young or too small to play the games or use the keyboards on equipment designed for teen-agers. If parents and educators don't like this, Bushnell said in an interview at the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant at Bailey's Crossroads, if they think it's just an effort to get the kids hooked earlier, it's because they don't understand children, or education, or the future.
"Woe to those parents who deliberately restrict their children" from playing with these new games, he said. "They will be handicapping their children. Ask them, is the computer here to stay? Does a child need to learn word processing to succeed in college? And where is he going to learn it?" Why, at Pizza Time Theatre, of course, where in Bushnell's vision entire families will eat, play, compute, learn -- and spend -- in an enlightened electronic future.
Bushnell, 39, dapper in a three-piece pinstriped suit and pale pink tie, said his own son is approaching computer literacy at the age of four by manipulating electronic gadgets at home. Bushnell said this confirms his belief that electronic games can be educational, in subjects today's youngsters really need to learn, and amusing at the same time. "It's education by osmosis," he said.
"Small children," he said, "have very good mental facilities, ahead of their eye-hand coordination. They need play structures where they can learn computers by running and jumping, not by sitting at a terminal. We have an item with buttons that are fist-sized--the little kids can't use an ordinary keyboard but they can sure use their fists to bash one with big buttons on it."
Bushnell's enthusiasm about the future is apparently not shared by professional investors. The company's stock, traded over the counter, has dropped to less than $16 a share, half its price earlier this year. But Bushnell said Pizza Time is now large enough to amortize the engineering costs of the new machines. They are now going into production, he said, and will make it possible for Pizza Time to challenge youngsters who have "plateaued" on existing equipment.
His goal, he said, is "to have an educational experience superior to that in the average public school. That's what the educators are afraid of" in their antipathy to video games, he said. "The public schools are predicated on the theory that education has to be drudgery. That's bull. Kids waste more time in school than they do in a Pizza Time Theatre."
In fact, the restaurants, sensitive to parental and educational opposition to the games, deny admission to children under the age of 18 who are not accompanied by an adult. The computer-in-school campaign, company executives said, is aimed partly at overcoming public hostility to the games concept.