The founder of the Atari video-game company and the Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain is bringing his technology know-how and business acumen to George Mason University’s Virginia Serious Game Institute in Prince William County.
Nolan Bushnell recently was named VSGI’s “Game Pioneer in Residence,” and he began his service by connecting with GMU computer-game design students and giving a public lecture Oct. 3.
Scott Martin, founding director of GMU’s computer-game design program, said the college wanted to work with Bushnell because he’s such a big name in his field.
“He’s known as one of the fathers — or the father — of the game industry,” Martin said, noting that Bushnell was a mentor to Apple computing legend Steve Jobs and is still close with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
He also pointed out that, as an entrepreneur, Bushnell can teach GMU students about running a company, as well as about using technology.
“So he’s ideal for what we do at Mason,” Martin said. VSGI, Martin’s creation, is a video-game and computer-simulation business incubator on GMU’s Science and Technology Campus near Manassas.
Bushnell said last week that students need to understand that they can’t simply create a video game and wait around for customers to appear; they have to know the market and have a strategy for selling their products.
“They’re starting a business, not just a game,” the entrepreneur said.
That doesn’t mean they have to hew to established norms, Bushnell said, noting the importance of creativity.
“I try to kind of wake up their rebel, their out-of-the-box thinking,” he said.
Bushnell is due to return to GMU next month to work with students, and he’s scheduled to give a lecture in the spring and continue in-classroom lessons.
One of the students benefiting from Bushnell’s contribution to GMU is Daniel Greenberg, who is finishing work on a master’s degree and is teaching game history and design as a graduate lecturer.
The perspective and insight Bushnell brings as “arguably the most influential American in video game history” is incredibly valuable to the aspiring game developers at GMU, Greenberg said in an email.
“He’s always found ways to use his anecdotes as a way to lend context to tackling a present or future solution to a problem,” said Greenberg, who’s also a video-game festival panelist and the founder of the Clifton-based Winterion Game Studios, which produces a YouTube gaming series.
He said Bushnell is open to talking about when success proved elusive, too.
“He’s humble about his failures, knowing that demonstrating ownership of them helps dispel the fear and inertia that holds newcomers back,” Greenberg said.
Bushnell put it more bluntly:
“I’ve had some real serious face-plants,” he said.
However, Bushnell is known more for his accomplishments. In addition to his work with Atari and the kids’ pizza-and-game emporium Chuck E. Cheese’s, he founded “Catalyst Technologies, the first technology incubator; Etak, the first digital navigation system; ByVideo, the first online ordering system; and uWink, the first touchscreen menu ordering and entertainment system,” according to his website.
Bushnell’s efforts in business continue. He announced last week the launch of Modal VR, an industrial-grade virtual-reality platform. He is the co-founder of the firm and serves as chairman of its board.