E29: Nolan Bushnell, Founder Chairman at Snap Institute and Founder of Atari – Interview

June 7, 2016



Nolan Bushnell probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. Nolan founded Atari in 1970, which as we now know is one of the most iconic names in US history. Nolan also was the guy behind Chuck E Cheese. Since then Nolan has been involved in numerous companies including an incubator called The Catalyst Group. Currently Nolan is the founder of BrainRush, which is a game engine for learning, they make it easier to turn curriculum into games, very cool. He’s also the author of the book “Finding the next Steve Jobs“. He’s also the Founder Chairman of Snap Institute.

In this interview we talk about Nolan’s background but mainly focus on his current passion, education. Nolan shares his thoughts on how education should be delivered across America and why. It’s a great interview.

Here are some other questions Nolan answered:

-How did you come up with the name Atari?
-Nolan posts a lot of interesting things on Twitter. Where do these ideas come from?
-How should students learn in the future?
-What will be the structure of the new entrepreneurial college Nolan is helping to start?


Dave Kruse: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs. This is Dave Kruse from Madison, Wisconsin, and today we have quite a legend with us. It is Nolan Bushnell, and Nolan probably does not need much of an introduction, but I will give you a quick one anyways. So, Nolan founded Atari in 1970, which as we now know is one of the most iconic names in the US history. He is also the guy behind Chuck E. Cheese and a number of other things. So, it’s hard to know even where to start, what questions to ask. Currently, Nolan is the founder of BrainRush, which is a game engine for learning, so they essentially make it easier turning curriculum into games, which is very cool. He is also the author of the book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” so like I said it is hard to know where to start. I have a lot of questions, but as we talked about beforehand we are going to keep this to 20 minutes, because after 20 minutes, the brain starts to get a little distracted, and we can talk about that, so we will talk briefly about his past, of course I have to ask about Atari, but I am definitely curious what he is up to today as well. So, Nolan, thanks for joining us today.

Nolan Bushnell: Great to be here, hope we can have some fun here.

Dave Kruse: Yes, definitely I appreciate it. So, let’s briefly talk about your background, most people can read about your background, so we don’t need to dive too much into that, you know, you’ve quite the background, but you started Atari back in 1970, I was curious, how did you come up with the idea, and how did you come up with the name?

Nolan Bushnell: I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time, and I put myself through college working at an amusement park and I was probably the only electrical engineering student in the world who was working as a carnie, you know, and I was good at being a carnie and they made me manager of the department, so I really understood the economics of Midway Games, and you know, throwing balls, knocking down the milk bottles, and arcades. I had 2 arcades reporting to me. Then, in winters, when I was at the University of Utah, it turns out Dr. Evans was connecting video screens to big computers and almost no one was doing that. In fact, there were only 3 places in the world, one was the University of Utah, one was Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the other one was MIT, and a guy named Steve Russell had designed a game called Spacewar and I played it on the big computers and was totally smitten by it, and I knew that if I could put a coin slot on that game that it would earn some money in one of my arcades, but you derive the cost of half-a-million dollar computer or a million, I have no idea how much it cost at the time and at 25 cents a play the math did not work, but the thought of it lingered with me and I felt that, you know, everyday because of Moore’s Law and various other things, the computers were getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, then I thought, you know, some day that price point is going to come within range, and one day I graduated, went to work in an industry for 2 years and I was sitting in my office and one day a magazine came across my desk that advertized a $5000 computer, which was just mind boggling and cheap at that point in time, and I thought maybe I can do that, and I started on some designs, ended up, you know, struggling with it for about 6 months, finally came up with the design that would work and we were off to the races.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, and how long did it take from the time that you came up with the designs to actually have a product in the market?

Nolan Bushnell: I had a theoretical design over the Thanksgiving holidays in 1969, by May of the following year I had essentially figured out a methodology enough that I could get a little bit of action on the screen, enough to, I licensed it to a company, and the product called Computer Space was in the market that fall.

Dave Kruse: Well, that’s fast. Okay, you know, I could talk for 3 hours to you about Atari, but last question on Atari, so how did you come up with the name?

Nolan Bushnell: I was a student of the Japanese game “Go,” and it is actually an Asian game played heavily in Korea and China, but I learned the vocabulary around Go, the Japanese game of Go, and a polite warning to your opponent that he was about to lose a bunch of stones, you would say Atari and I thought that was a cool name and it was kind of aggressive and that it had gameness in it and so I gave it a shot.

Dave Kruse: Well, it worked.

Nolan Bushnell: Yep.

Dave Kruse: Alright, so let’s talk more about what you’re working on now and your current interests and around change in education and I also want to ask you some questions about just how you find new ideas and as I mentioned before we got started on this interview, you know, everyone should check out your twitter feed, you have one of the more interesting twitter feeds, it makes you think like different posts that you have, so where did you find content or what do you read to stimulate your mind?

Nolan Bushnell: I read a lot of science fiction, it’s my favorite genre. I also like historical fiction. I am a consumer of YouTube videos like it’s going out of style and podcasts and I just feel like there is so much out there to know that, you know, inquiring minds want to know and I just constantly am trying to deep dive on various things that I become interested in, so I got interested in education in the process, I have 8 children and I started to believe intrinsically that the educational system in the world, not just the United States, is broken. It is patterned on an obsolete methodology that was created literally 300 years ago and it hasn’t really changed in construct and unlike most industries that have changed a great deal of efficacy and efficiency using technology, education has not, and I really think it is toxic in that way. I believe that school could get abandoned classrooms. Classrooms are everything, the minute you have a classroom everything is wrong. I would like to say there should be no grades and no grades. The difference between the lowest performer in the 3rd grade and the highest performer is about 4 grades, so to keep them clustered together is ridiculous. Batch processing kids is not only stupid, but it’s contraindicated by everything we know about how people learn. To put it another way, when you’re in a class, because of the differences in capabilities and backgrounds and life experiences and maturity half the kids are lost, half the kids are bored, there is maybe one kid that is being taught at the right speed, which is stupid, and I think that we need to get much more focused on careers, not academics for academics sake and I think that we need to have kids be able to progress at their own speed and to triumph against themselves. The whole idea of batch processing says that there are going to be some kids who are good performers, who don’t have to work very hard to stay ahead of the class and they can end up being really bored because, you know, the material is too fundamental, too boring, and you lose touch with them. The next thing is that you have somebody who self identifies as being “gee, I’m the dumbest kid in this class.” Well, he may not be dumb at all, it may be that the person is just slower to mature and that if you allow them to move with at their own pace they will be successful without the stigma of feeling like they are behind their peers. The other thing that’s a real problem with the classroom is that disruption. At inner city schools teachers spend as much time, if not more, in fact, I think it is 64% of their time trying to get the classroom to settle down so that any learning can be done and is it the fault of the teacher? No. It’s the fault of the kids. You know, if you are a 14-year-old boy and you can get a laugh out of the classroom by being disruptive, you do it. What a classroom provides is a stage for disruption and since teaching can’t go on during disruption, it basically make the classroom very toxic and inefficient, and boring because while the teacher is trying to restore order, 60 to 70% of the class is bored out of their minds because nothing is going on, and so you really need to get rid of the stage that a disruptive student can have because if nobody is listening to them they are not going to be disruptive, then I just think that by rethinking the classroom we can fix schools in a very fundamental way, so that’s my ___16:48___.

Dave Kruse: I like it. I like it. You said there might be a little controversy behind it, I think a lot of people will agree with you though, and so if you are made superintendent in a school district with absolute power, you know, what would you do and what is your vision, what you do that in that like year or, you know, over the next five years like do you have some ideas you would implement?

Nolan Bushnell: Yeah, I would get rid of most of the chairs, I think that sitting on pillows, working on tablets, I think there should be a great deal of individual learning going on, and the teacher roaming around student to student helping them through a tough phase, but I think the software can deliver educational content significantly better than a teacher can. Teachers should be an aide and a guide, not a source of information. I think we should totally get rid of books. I think that a kid with 50 pounds of books on their back is just stupid and it is bad for their spine.

Dave Kruse: Yes.

Nolan Bushnell: With Kindle you can underline, you can do all the nice things, and it is what, 7 ounces? And you have so many more books, so many more situations on a tablet, and then it becomes interactive. You can do math on it. You can even do internet searches. You can do a lot of things that are much more powerful than a book is. My school, particularly in high school, I don’t know if you have been in an incubator, a small business incubator, where there are tables and chairs and computers and what have you, that’s what high school should look like where everybody has their sort of niche, their computers, their stuff and they are learning, they have a schedule of things that they need to accomplish, as soon as they get them accomplished they can play games, they can, you know, go into the lunch room, they can hang out in the lounge, probably need to keep them on campus, but in certain cases, they can go home as soon as they got their work done, and you know, rewarding diligence and stick-to-itiveness is much better than rewarding how many times, you know, hey, did you make it to school every day all day, it’s stupid, this is not a merit system, that is an abusive system that is not focused in the right direction.

Dave Kruse: Do you know of any schools that are operating like this that you can kind of hold up or is that the problem? There are no schools.

Nolan Bushnell: There are some attempts that are sort of messing around with it, but everybody still has a classroom, and some of it has to do with laws and how schools are funded, which makes it very, very difficult.

Dave Kruse: Would you mix different grades together, because you gave an example of how two students in the same class maybe 4 grades apart, which I can imagine might even widen as this time goes on, especially if one student is allowed to accelerate, how would you break up kind of the classes this way.

Nolan Bushnell: I would have, anybody could hang out with anybody else if they wanted to. Having different ages, you know, being in the same room, if we have a proper system it should not matter. There are some benefit sometimes, because sometimes kids can learn more from an older peer than they can from a teacher.

Dave Kruse: That’s true. That’s very true. We have a couple of minutes left or so, what are you active in this space? I know you have BrainRush and I think I saw you are going to do some work at Spil Games.

Nolan Bushnell: Right. I am designing a series of mobile games. I am doing educational games and I am about to spin up an entrepreneurial college, it’s called a SNAP Institute, and we believe that we can teach very, very cheaply, all the skills you need to start a business to create your own job at a very, very low cost and our system will be a system like I am talking about. It won’t look like a classroom, it will look like a collection of people pursuing knowledge to be able to become a very successful, career minded individual.

Dave Kruse: Do you think a physical presence is essential or what about, you know, of course all the online learning?

Nolan Bushnell: You know, I think that there is a good blend. I think that working together in teams has a real benefit. I think a good education doesn’t have just a technical or a data bias, but I think there are personal skills, presentation skills that are better with the group. Most companies are collaborative these days and I think learning the right way and to collaborate and maybe even find your partner in business that you start is accelerated by having a physical presence.

Dave Kruse: That make sense and when do you hope to launch this new college?

Nolan Bushnell: The first class will start June 6th, the physical plant is in Las Vegas, Nevada, we are going to be using the vast number of trade shows that are in Vegas as part of our curriculum, because a trade show is actually a snap shot of an industry and I believe that many high school graduates have so little knowledge of the kinds of issues surrounding business that a day walking the trade show floor has to be one of the most educational experiences they could have.

Dave Kruse: That’s pretty brilliant. That’s a great idea. You could get so many ideas from trade shows, you connect with people, and you see what’s cutting edge in the industry, that’s good, I didn’t think about that, combining a college with trade shows, interesting, alright, I think we are about out of time unfortunately, since we got to adhere to the 20-minute mark.

Nolan Bushnell: Well, I will tell you what I will do.

Dave Kruse: Yeah.

Nolan Bushnell: Three months, six months from now, let’s do it again and cover some different subjects.

Dave Kruse: That would be awesome.

Nolan Bushnell: How is that, is that okay?

Dave Kruse: That’s perfect. I will reach back out and then we can get an update on the college and how that’s all doing, that would be excellent.

Nolan Bushnell: That would be great.

Dave Kruse: Awesome. We definitely appreciate your time and thoughts, I am very glad you created Atari, so I played a lot growing up, so dating myself a little bit, so thanks for coming on the show.

Nolan Bushnell: Nice talking to you and let’s do it again.

Dave Kruse: Sounds good, and thanks everyone for listening to another episode, and we will see you another time. Bye everyone.

Nolan Bushnell: Thank you.