Nolan Bushnell Gaming To Educate Kids

Video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell has two ideas on how to make this world a better place.

One is for Nolan to procreate and the other to educate.

“I have eight children and it’s my responsibility to boost the genetic inventory. We need better DNA and I got some,” Bushnell cracked at a recent breakfast group gathering.

Nolan Bushnell at the Saturday METal meetup

Bushnell is best known as the co-inventor of Pong and founder of Atari in 1972, which launched the video game revolution. He has a long list of successful businesses as a life-long entrepreneur, including Chuck E Cheese’s.

But Nolan is not producing more children that I know of so it’s on to his other approach to improve the world, by creating better students.

“As a species we are at the top of the food chain because of our brain. Our inability to fix education threatens our position,” he said.

Bushnell’s method of making kids smarter is to get them to play more games. His startup would deploy edutainment, a game based education curriculum, into the classroom.

That may present some risk and reward. A new study says intense video gamers may develop more gray matter in the rewards center of their brains that might fuel addiction, as seen in gamblers. But if students become addicted to learning then its game on!

“I think we can teach 100% of high school curriculum, all four years, in six months,” said Bushnell.

He already claims success in the field with his Spanish-learning website that he says trains faster than Rosetta Stone.

“We’re teaching kids faster than ever before,” he said.

His current venture is Speed To Learn, a Web-based program still a work in progress about ten years after he conceived the idea. A lot has already been written on the program and Bushnell has hit the pavement expounding on his idea, as he did last Saturday to the METal networking group in Santa Monica, hosted by Ken Rutkowski.

“Everything you know about education is wrong,” he said.

He reels off statistics, such as a 2009 study that said 15-year old U.S. students trail behind their peers in a pack of higher performing nations. Interpretations of the study vary, with some saying it’s a shocking wake up call to one columnist who said “hysteria” about the report is sometimes hysterical.

I’m not sure what to think. My oldest son was a top student throughout high school in the advanced programs and is now studying electrical engineering at UCLA. And it seems his younger brother is doing even better.

Maybe I should do like Nolan and procreate some DNA. I dunno. My sons are great students, all through public education, so I don’t have a big beef with schools.

What I don’t like is that education has become a political football with all manner of meddling by the propeller heads in Washington. I’m also getting quite peeved about the rising cost of education. Getting a degree from UCLA now costs about $80,000, more or less. I want to release air from the tires of those UC Regents who keep raising tuition to maintain their cushy jobs and fat salaries, or so it seems to me. I’d give them and F for performance and a A for failure.

President Bush signs the "No Child Left Behind Act" in 2001

Still, my view is that education has more to do with parenting than teachers. This includes ensuring all their homework gets done, no excuses. I also believe success comes from instilling a good work ethic in kids and advising them to stay away from bad people – something I learned from experience.

When I came out of high school I was a C- student in English. I could barely write a decent paragraph yet I worked real hard over many years to become a successful journalist.

But maybe, as Nolan says, the education system in America is a train wreck. He said that in every field there are “work seekers” and “work avoiders,” and “our school system is populated by work avoiders that are driving out the work seekers.”

Nolan has been trashing the American educational system for a long time. He’s a strident western capitalist Republican. I mention that for this reason: Republicans love to trash our education system. They hate that teachers are unionized and doggone liberals who vote Democrat and therefore we must burn down the village in order to save it.

Oh, the angst.

Yet the last “success story” from Washington on education reform was the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which President George W. Bush proposed immediately after he took office and received bipartisan support. Many now think it does indeed leave our children behind and give it a failing grade.

But if Nolan can boost dumbbells into power lifters at a lower cost then I’m all for it.


But I asked him, if the way we teach kids in classrooms today is all wrong what about those foreign students and teachers who seem to outperform U.S. students by a long shot. What are they doing right?

Nolan said that while those offshore kids may get better grades, they do not think creatively and that’s a problem, too.

Nolan says his Speed To Learn teaching system will fuel an enthusiasm for learning and enhance creativity.

“Enthusiasm is a driver of success,” he said. “Boredom drives out enthusiasm.”

No kidding. Remember when you were in school and stared at the clock waiting for the bell to ring. Who knew  that one minute could take so long!

What isn’t clear is when Nolan is going to deliver this puppy. But if he takes too long I’ll have to give him a warning about falling behind, which can lead to a failing grade. Good luck, Nolan.

Strength & honor,


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