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What Atari Used to be Indubitably Love, In step with Ladies folk Who Had been There

Again in 1973, Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” became blaring from the PA in a California warehouse as two dozen females in flared jeans assembled Pong circuit boards. The smell of corned red meat and marijuana wafted down the manufacturing line. Orders for Atari’s landmark table tennis video game bear been silent pouring in on the crisp October day when Elaine Shirley first giddily entered the warehouse to enroll in the all-girl crew of Pong cabinet-stuffers.

A girl in a muumuu had employed Shirley, 18 years outdated school and new out of high college, on the dilemma after Shirley confirmed she can be able to also play the guitar. “She wanted to be optimistic I became merely with my fingers,” Shirley, now sixty two, told me. The pay became $2.25 an hour, sixty cents above minimum wage. By Thanksgiving she became making $2.75. Shirley had grown up in poverty in Austin, Texas, and moved out to Silicon Valley when she heard via her cousin that a brand unique firm known as Atari had hundreds job openings.

I’m a joker. I’m a smoker. I’m a heart of the night toker. The job became merely, and work hurried when rock n’ roll became pumping via the speakers. Even sooner on days when the pinnacle brass wanted 100 Pong boards ASAP. “One girl had something known as White Corrupt—I believe they bear been caffeine tablets,” Shirley said. (White Corrupt became the road name for pure ephedrine.) “Each person on the road took it.” They bear been finished by noon. You’re the cutest thing I ever did explore. Indubitably like your peaches, ought to shake your tree. In 1973, Shirley met a person with ringlets of hair flowing down his attend who labored in Atari’s model store. Later, they got married.

Elaine Shirley and Holly Lamontagne assembling circuit boards. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum

Two years after she started, Shirley moved to the manufacturing intention of job; after that, customer support. In 1986, she changed into that division’s director, sitting in on government conferences. Shirley left Atari in 1999 with a wage of $100 twenty 5,000.

“I do know of us that had psychological factors after Atari. It never willing us for the true world,” Shirley said. “No one will even bear requested for a a lot bigger abilities.”

Slack final month, the Sport Developers Convention announced that it could perchance give its annual Pioneer award to Atari’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell, who ran the firm except its sale to Warner in 1976. Advisors doubtless assumed the award, given to those who “developed a step forward abilities, game thought, or gameplay construct at a extraordinarily critical juncture video game history,” could be wholly uncontroversial—Bushnell based Atari, Atari created Pong, Pong’s success spawned your complete gaming industry. Bushnell himself had never been a controversial award recipient ahead of, like in 2009 when he got the coveted BAFTA Fellowship award. However GDC’s announcement became met with enormously more pushback.

Over Twitter, customers began circulating clips from video game history books and articles, with tales about Atari’s wild culture. Retaining board conferences in hot tubs, asking a secretary to get in with them. Meting out “basically the most efficient-having a explore secretaries” like prizes to the massive name workers. Code-naming the dwelling model of Pong after a female employee whom Bushnell said in 2012 “became stacked and had the tiniest waist.” Making a 1973 game known as Gotcha, with joysticks replaced by a pair of purple silicone domes, intended to explore and actually feel like breasts.

A #NotNolan hashtag started up. Ladies folk game designers requested GDC to rethink giving the award to Bushnell in the wake of #MeToo and a heightened awareness of sexism in the intention of job. They didn’t converse that Atari’s co-founder deserved no recognition—unbiased precise that keeping him up for special honors in 2018 felt love it became sending the wicked message.

Eighteen hours after the award became announced, GDC revoked it, asserting that its picks “ought to replicate the values of this day’s game industry.” Bushnell adopted up with assertion in which he apologized “if my private actions or the actions of someone who ever labored with me offended or ended in anguish,” and said that he “applaud[s] the GDC for guaranteeing that their institution reflects what is lawful, especially in relation to how of us desires to be handled in the intention of job.”

Bushnell declined to answer to particular questions for our memoir, finest offering a brief emailed assertion. “I bear no longer think exploring these variety of factors via a finite, forty-twelve months outdated school prism affords a productive reflection of our firm,” he wrote. “As a replace, I’d refer you to the thoughts and feedback of the ratings of historic workers.”

Over the final week, Kotaku interviewed 12 of Atari’s earliest female workers, in the hopes of hearing their tales—merely or immoral—about working at Atari in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The culture they told us about became for poke, as Playboy described it, one amongst “intercourse, tablets, and video games,” but one in which all 12 workers converse they freely participated, in the occasion that they participated in any respect. Many interviewees said it became basically the most efficient job they ever had, adding that info of Bushnell’s rescinded award struck them as beautiful or unfair.

Cynthia Villanueva working on a wirewrap board. Photo courtesy of the Atari Museum

“It’s drive-by assassination,” said Loni Reeder, who labored at Atari for two years and, later, co-based a firm with Bushnell. “I believe there’s a component of cell phone being played. Each day became no longer a moist t-shirt contest.” Reeder added, “There’s a collective infuriate amongst us against the oldsters who made this a honorable deal.”

On the present time, tales of hot tub parties, of romantic gestures from a firm founder and of lusted-after secretaries would inspire flooded HR e-mail inboxes. After decades of information about systemic inequalities in the tech industry, Atari’s culture appears to be like like a bubbling-over beaker of fiery, explosive substances, an experiment that laid some groundwork but, additionally, took risks. Whether or no longer it deserves to be honored this day, on the peak of the #MeToo scamper, appears to be like starkly a complete lot of searching on the put you’re standing. Light Atari workers who spoke to me converse their time there became deeply empowering; this day’s females in games can also argue that non-public boundaries are what fabricate the industry safer for them.


Atari became the fastest-rising firm in U.S. history, a premonition of this day’s startup giants cropping up in its Silicon Valley shadow. Atari pioneered arcade games, optimistic, on the choice hand it additionally established the culture of American entrepreneurial tech and games. Its co-founder, an engineer named Nolan Bushnell, became barking at a carnival arcade ahead of he stumbled upon Spacewar!, a ship-dueling game developed by the geeks over on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962. Stanford’s reproduction ran on a computer 1/2 the dimensions of a room, based on Atari Inc: Trade Is Relaxing, a biography of the pioneering gaming firm. Bushnell wondered whether he can also fabricate it itsy-bitsy and put a coin slot on it. Bushnell and engineer Ted Dabney developed hardware personalized particularly for a brand unique game they known as Pc Dwelling, put it in a cabinet, and spun a firm out of the basis.

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“The romance of the sport became told in the box artwork.”

– Evelyn Seto

Bushnell employed his kids’ 17-twelve months-outdated school babysitter, Cynthia Villanueva, as the firm’s first employee in 1972. (In 1973, a firm newsletter congratulated the “sexy, red-faced secretary” on her first anniversary.) Pong came alongside soon after, and Atari blossomed precise into a hundreds-stable operation. It became a wild, loose, bright firm that, based on historic workers I interviewed, flew by the seat of its pants—except Warner bought it in 1976 for $28 million and put in its hang company culture. However except then, the parties bear been legendary. There became certainly an on-intention hot tub. The detritus of fascinating jokes—balled up newspapers, lavatory seat covers—littered Atari’s campus. It became the spoil of day of standard startup culture, with the exception of for one thing: Atari employed females, and a complete lot of them.

In 1973, Carol Kantor became a precocious marketer who, after a gig at Clorox, made up our minds to agree to to work at a loopy unique firm known as Atari. The firm, she found, had never severely regarded as why some games’ money containers bear been overflowing after a debut weekend and why others’ bear been empty.

“They didn’t know market research from a gap in the bottom,” Kantor told me. “Their market research became: Within the occasion that they put a game out and there are coins in the money box, that’s merely. If no longer, that’s immoral. They never requested why.”

A potluck on the meeting line. Photo courtesy of the Atari Museum.

Historically educated and in her 20s, Kantor met with Atari’s hiring group and bet them that, in the occasion that they employed her for six months, she’d have the selection to listing them why some games made it and some didn’t. Kantor got the job and started the sport industry’s first-ever market research division. Kantor would drive out to arcades alongside the West Flee and intercept avid gamers, asking them pointed questions: What’d you adore? What didn’t you adore? Would you play it as soon as more? Would you point out it to chums?

“Market research became no longer very subtle,” Kantor, now Sixty eight and residing in Cupertino, California, said with amusing. She’d quit bundles of responses over to Atari’s game creators, who would buy customers’ suggestions into consideration. “It became nearly beautiful how they paid so basic consideration to so many info,” Kantor said of the arcadegoers she spoke with. “They bear been part-oriented attend then, too. They unbiased precise didn’t bear as basic part to decide on.” Kantor soon assembled a group of four a complete lot of females, who analyzed participant suggestions on games like Missile Represent, Centipede, and Dragster.

In 1976, a darkish-haired French girl named Mireille Chevalier showed up at Atari’s offices to decide the role of credit manager. Bushnell had picked her up around Paris at an arcade, and to initiating with, nobody on the firm had a clue why he’d brought her attend to The US. “We’d fabricate up tales about Mireille on memoir of she didn’t communicate English,” said Carol Kantor. Soon, they learned the truth. “She grew up in the gambling commerce in France!” Kantor said. “Smarter than a whip.”

“I started working games when I became 19, outdoor of Paris,” Chevalier said no longer too long ago, in her thick French accent. “It became my firm. I went for it. I got money.” When she met Bushnell in Paris, he became shopping for someone to distribute Atari games in Europe. Chevalier told him she wanted to learn English. Bushnell invited her to work for him in The US.

Wanda Hill raising a tumbler at an Atari social match. Photo courtesy of Wanda Hill.

“I became speculated to be there six months to a twelve months, but I got promoted mercurial,” Chevalier said. She found Atari to be a complete lot of from the companies she became outmoded to working with in France. “Whenever you knew bear the job, you bear been promoted. Coming from customers the put you bear been the assistant of the director on memoir of you have to also never get that intention—they bear been very chauvinistic—I went from assistant to credit manager at Atari.” After three months, she became the division’s director. For the final 26 years, Chevalier has owned her hang firm, a warehouse for slot machines outdoor Las Vegas.

At Atari, the research division and the cabinet-stuffing line bear been nearly exclusively the area of females for intervals of time in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. In a complete lot of divisions, predictably the more technical ones, females bear been more sparsely scattered. Dona Bailey, co-creator of the hit 1981 game Centipede became Atari’s finest female programmer.

In these divisions, a few females bear indicated that they suffered some rotten, gender-based habits. “It became roughly tough generally,” Bailey said in a 2012 interview. “It became a culture that I don’t think they bear been taking into consideration, ‘There’s one girl, we ought to adjust our habits for her sake’ … I grew a thicker skin.” Reached for comment via e-mail by Kotaku, Bailey said she is now not any longer at conceal participating in interviews about Atari since she is at conceal writing a screenplay about her time on the firm.

Atari’s Gotcha. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Evelyn Seto, a graphic designer who inked Atari’s well-liked build and helped construct the Atari 2600 and 5200 console’s box packaging, said she had “a pair detrimental experiences, on the choice hand it became mostly innuendo,” ahead of adding, “I don’t ought to chat about it.”

Wanda Hill became an electrical-mechanical drafter who, with pencil and paper, sketched out patterns for printed circuit boards for games like Asteroids, which would get handed off to the board producers. When Hill and her engineering family members bear been preparing to transfer to the unique mustard-yellow engineering building, her cubicle neighbor became tasked with drawing up plans for a volleyball court. Staff, a complete lot of whom bear been in their 20s, changed into brief shorts and cropped tops to play. “There became an even amount of sexism as some distance as ogling,” she said. “However that went every techniques.” Hill left in the early ‘80s. “If I will even bear developed more there, I’d bear cherished to bear stayed,” she said.


Within the books chronicling video game history, Atari is painted like something of a frat dwelling, a post-Summer season of Be pleased den of pot and intercourse. These tales weren’t secret whispers—they bear been tales told proudly by Bushnell and a complete lot of Atari better-united statesto the historians shopping for the within tales of the sport commerce. Strung collectively, they conjure a imaginative and prescient of a Indignant Men-esque work atmosphere, riddled with toxic vitality dynamics between males and females.

The truth, as it generally is, is more durable to nail down. These which bear written history books on Atari listing that many of the tales traded around Twitter in the wake of #NotNolan bear been distorted. Whereas Bushnell did in my thought listing the memoir of “Darlene,” the sexy secretary for whom Dwelling Pong became allegedly named, nobody I spoke to became capable of pin down a particular source for it or name somebody in my thought involved. And whereas the boob-grabbing game Gotcha for poke existed, Twitter lore had Bushnell himself giving the construct orders, which wasn’t lawful, based on Atari historian Martin Goldberg, who has interviewed hundreds of early Atari workers. Gigantic tales of a bleeding-edge money-maker staffed with hot secretaries make a contribution to Atari’s mythos, one which Bushnell has actively cultivated in interviews with journalists and historians.

Image courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Yes, Atari walked a skinny tightrope between sexy and sexist, searching on who you search info from about it. The 12 females I interviewed described Atari’s culture as a fabricated from the free-like ‘70s, but additionally, as an outgrowth of feminism’s second wave, which helped empower females to appear equal intention of job alternatives. “It became a peculiar time,” virtually all of them said in some unspecified time in the future all via our dialog. It’s entirely conceivable that the females who spend to preserve involved, and publicly affiliated with Atari’s build, are bonded over their optimistic experiences. It’s entirely conceivable unsavory and doubtlessly unfavorable habits came about between males and females at Atari—but speaking up about forty-twelve months-outdated school incidents remains hard for a complete lot of reasons.

Place of business romances bear been extraordinarily commonplace at Atari, but nobody Kotaku became capable of build described any coercive habits from male workers. Several workers converse that male colleagues, including Bushnell, requested them on dates to dinner, motion pictures or concert events, and customarily they said optimistic, and customarily, no. Relationships that formed can also final a day, a few weeks, months or, in Elaine Shirley’s case, plenty of decades. Usually, there became no song-and-dance of candlelit dinners. Shirley became as soon as invited to a clothing-non-mandatory celebration, and declined.

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“The putrid hot tub exclaim, I helped to construct! I did the coloration schemes and the total lot for the total building.”

– Loni Reeder

A in point of fact ‘70s porno known as A Cadillac Named Desire became it appears filmed at Atari’s headquarters,. In step with Goldberg, who co-wrote the e-book Atari Inc.: Trade Is Relaxing, there became one other capacity partner scoping out Bushnell’s Atari venture who made up our minds to fund the grownup movie after missing the boat on games. The rumor is that, in a few neighborhood scenes, some Atari workers participated.

And optimistic, Atari became certainly dwelling to a hot tub that, on alternating days, allowed in females or males, and on Friday, became co-ed. The tub became partly designed, with an Atari build embedded in the orange and blue tiles, by Atari employee Loni Reeder, who became the department coordinator for communications, security and services. She told Kotaku that the unique tub became outmoded to trap doubtlessly colossal designing skill on the firm on memoir of, on the time, as a lot as date tech companies in Silicon Valley didn’t bear those roughly perks.

“You’re an engineer with out a social life, so near work right here,” Reeder said with amusing. “There became a flirty facet of Atari between all americans. In some aspects, the females bear been more aggressive than the males,” she said.

Ladies folk at Atari assembling circuit boards. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Carol Kantor said Bushnell would “fabricate lewd feedback, but incessantly with a smile on his face, jokingly,” or tease her employee Colette Weil ample to fabricate her face flip red.

“One time, [Nolan] approached us and said, ‘Howdy, we’re going to my dwelling to get in the unique tub, the put clothing is non-mandatory,’” said Holly Lamontagne, who additionally labored on the Pong meeting line. “We bear been like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so.’”

“I actually think it became a droll memoir,” said Elaine Shirley, who became additionally there. “It became at a firm celebration, we laughed and said ‘no’ and persisted on our scamper. No honorable deal. With all my coronary heart, I accept as true with he became joking.”

Mireille Chevalier said she happily attended Atari’s hot tub parties and went on dates with colleagues. “Nolan became never, ever bothering me,” she said. “If a girl wanted to exit with Nolan, it became their commerce. It became never stress. I went out with one amongst the administrators for 10 years.”

“Where are you going to fulfill a person whereas you’re younger?” Chevalier said. “We didn’t bear the facts superhighway. We outmoded to fulfill our boyfriends at work.”


Forty years’ time accounts for a behemoth cultural shift in what’s regarded as acceptable intention of job habits. On the present time, asking out female colleagues is controversial. Animated female colleagues to no-dresses parties would nearly for poke incite a firm letter to HR. The demand of whether Atari became a sexist intention to work is finest answerable by the of us that labored there, but the demand of whether we desires to be celebrating the person that created this culture in 2018 is up for debate.

The percentage of females working in computing occupations has declined since the mid-1980s, after a handy book a rough spike around 1991, stats from the Nationwide Heart for Ladies folk & Knowledge Technology yarn. The games industry this day has a definite command hiring and maintaining female game builders, with finest 15 p.c of game builders in 2016 identifying as females. Sexual harassment in the tech and games industry bear pushed many, many females out, based on anecdotes in books like Lean Out: The Battle For Gender Equality in Tech and Commence-up Tradition. On the present time, when there’s a quantifiable breakdown across gender traces in who holds vitality at tech companies, it could perchance even be discouraged and doubtlessly perilous for females in games to flip down romantic advances from males they work with.

In a complete lot of words: For every girl who stayed at Atari on memoir of they enjoyed the freewheeling atmosphere and can roll with the punches, how many females bounced off the sport industry on memoir of they didn’t ought to tackle the habits?

Elaine Shirley on the outlet of Chuck E. Cheese, Bushnell’s subsequent venture. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Carly Kocurek is a professor on the Illinois institute of Technology who actually wrote the e-book on the early culture around coin-operated games: Coin-Operated Individuals: Rebooting Boyhood on the Video Sport Arcade. She even flew out to the Contemporary Mexico wasteland in 2014 when Microsoft-backed excavators followers dug up buried copies of Atari’s E.T. and a complete lot of games from a landfill. However when the GDC announced Bushnell’s award, Kocurek balked. An myth came to her mind about an early games firm firing a girl for being pregnant, though she couldn’t consider the put it took intention. It will even bear took intention anyplace, she concept, flipping via her notes, and to her, that became telling. “The demand isn’t whether sexual harassment became rampant at Atari,” Kocurek said, “but, are these incidents—the documented ones—reflective of what the industry desires to be now?” That’s what led Kocurek to enroll in in on the #NotNolan hashtag final month.

Over the phone, Kocurek recalled a memoir about being a freshman at her college in Texas. Older college students bear been passing down a protracted-held custom of outrageous cheers to her class. Cock suck, mother fuck, spend a win of shit / Cunt hair, douche win, suck your mother’s tit / We are basically the most efficient college, your complete others suck / Edgar Odell Lovett, rah rah fuck!. At the initiating, she found it thrilling, in the spirit of school. Then, , there became a scamper pushing attend against it. “I believed it became ridiculous,” Kocurek said. She concept the cheers bear been enjoyable. Years later, when she heard the cheers as soon as more, something clicked. I get it, she concept. I understand how this would maybe perchance also merely be intimidating to someone who’s no longer me. Kocurek regarded as how the cheers can also fabricate her Southern Baptist friend or her Muslim friend actually feel unwelcome, like the college wasn’t a cozy intention for them to learn and flourish. “What bear you bear when all americans wasn’t having a merely time?”

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“We unbiased precise loved a complete lot of games than they loved. That’s why Centipede did so merely—it appealed to females whereas outdated games didn’t.”

Elaine Shirley

Gillian Smith, a professor of game construct on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, had a viral #NotNolan tweet that gentle plenty of of the aforementioned anecdotes about the firm. “When of us explore award winners, they’re no longer seeing nuance or multiple views,” she said. “They’re seeing someone who is famed, neatly-behaved of recognition, and who we ought to aspire to be in due direction.”

“All americans is conscious of sexism is now not any longer unnecessary in our industry,” Smith said. “Self reliant of the experiences person females had—whether they found it empowering and cushty, or whether they found it much less so—we are capable of’t exclaim that there’s sexist habits going on in the games industry this day.” Smith believes that the true demand Nolan Bushnell’s lost award asks is: “What bear we rate and ought to celebrate this day?”.


The free-inviting, no-guidelines, tanks-and-shorts, pot-and-tablets era of Atari came to an abrupt cease when Bushnell ceded administration of Atari to what historic workers name “the fits.” In 1976, to decide funds for the originate of its first dwelling gaming console, Bushnell equipped the firm to Warner Communications for $28 million, a behemoth sum. Within two years, Bushnell became out. Warner put in as president Ray Kassar, an government from the textiles industry. With its bullish spirit wrestled to the bottom, Atari got company.

As historian Martin Goldberg tells it, Kassar known as a gathering early on to chat a pair of brand unique commerce Atari would soon transfer into: private computers. Would possibly maybe doubtless they construct these items to be coloration-coordinated, he requested—, for females in the kitchen? How about adding in purposes so females can also file all their recipes? For a complete lot of females, that didn’t take a seat properly. The vibes bear been harsh. Many started to depart for diverse tech companies, the put their gender changed into out to be more of a command.

Kathleen Jardine began at Atari as a customer support clerk and left as a manufacturing planning supervisor in 1983. She indirectly landed at a tech firm known as Zitel, the put, she said, she encountered “stout amounts of bias.”

“I became told by my boss’s secretary that I’d never approach on memoir of I became a girl,” Jardine said over e-mail.

A Cadillac Named Desire

And 26 years after she first walked onto that Pong meeting line, Elaine Shirley took one other job, one the put her unique boss generally lost his mood and yelled. She tried to quit in her first meeting with him. “I told him, I came from a firm the put all americans became fine, no longer imply,” she said. A pair of quarter of the females I interviewed said that they are able to utter #MeToo, but that their time at Atari had nothing to bear with it.

If it isn’t the females of Atari who paint a immoral listing of Nolan Bushnell, it’s the culture he created there that, decades later, has mushroomed into something else. It’s a culture the put bragging about “stacked” secretaries as gradual as 2012 garnishes Atari’s mythos in its put of muddying it. It’s a culture the put Carol Kantor’s groundbreaking research isn’t evoked as generally as a hot tub bought to trap in unique skill. It’s a culture that, this day, celebrates the sexiness of Atari’s early females workers more loudly than their contributions. If it isn’t the females of Atari who paint a immoral listing of Nolan Bushnell, it’s his braggadocio perspective, his carnival-barker hype with a chauvinist tinge, that does.

Atari’s females carved out their very hang legacy, which, at traditional reunions, they proceed to celebrate this day—and, by system of the demand of celebrating Nolan Bushnell, giving these females the opportunity to be colossal is nowhere approach as basic as their accomplishments.

Correction—eleven:00 a.m., 2/13/18: It became Wanda Hill’s cubicle neighbor, and no longer her, who drew up plans for Atari’s volleyball court. We bear changed the article to replicate this and remorse the error.

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