Growing Up Bushnell: The First Family Of Fun

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and three of his kids, all entertainment entrepreneurs, will talk about tech, fun, and entertainment at SXSW.

Growing Up Bushnell: The First Family Of Fun
[Photo: Martin Cloutier via Shutterstock]

If anyone knows what fun is, it’s a Bushnell.


In 1972, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, which became one of the most important video-game companies in history. Then, in 1977, Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese, the first restaurant chain to offer customers food, entertainment, and video games.

Nolan BushnellPhoto: Flickr user Javier Candeira

A generation later, his son Brent Bushnell founded the Los Angeles experimental entertainment company Two Bit Circus, which produces virtual reality content for a number of clients, and puts on the STEAM Carnival, a celebration of art and science. Brent’s former company, Syyn Labs, created experiences for giant brands like Google and Disney and was responsible for rock band OK Go’s famous Rube Goldberg music video.

OK Go’s famous Rube Goldberg-inspired music video.

Another son, Tyler Bushnell, created the Polycade, an arcade machine for the home or office.

And Nolan’s daughter, Alissa Bushnell, said to be the first beta tester of the early Atari hit Pong, does public relations for organizations like Maker Faire, and was vice president of user experience and marketing for uWink, another Nolan Bushnell restaurant chain that aimed to mix food and entertainment.

This Sunday, the four Bushnells are taking the stage together at SXSW as part of the IEEE’s Tech for Humanity Series to discuss the future of fun.

“This is a coveted opportunity to join in a family debate,” the official panel description reads. “Learn how escape rooms, immersive theater, group gaming, circuses, and mixed reality will leverage tech to create immersive experiences. Find out how the ‘smartertainment’ of the future will engage, entertain, inspire, educate, motivate, and activate people like never before.”


Alissa Bushnell tells Fast Company that audience members will get a chance to hear the four family members discuss what they think fun is, and how technology influences play, fun, and entertainment. They’ll also talk about how fun can impact learning, and how entertainment and play can build and strengthen relationships.

But really, she said, the panel will be somewhat of a group therapy session. “We will be covering what it’s like to grow up in a crazy house with eight kids and an inventor father,” she says. “We broke things and it was okay. Who knows what else might happen?”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.