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GDC to empty chair 2018 Pioneer Award following #NotNolan backlash

The GDC Awards Advisory Committee, reacting to community feedback, have made a change to the 2018 GDC Pioneer Award.

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GDC 2018 empty chair Pioneer Award

The GDC Awards Advisory Committee, reacting to community feedback, have made a change to the 2018 GDC Pioneer Award.

GDC, and the Games Developer’s Choice Awards Advisory Committee, picked out a long list of nominees, for everything from Best Design and Best Narrative right up to the hotly-contested Game of the Year award.

In addition to the game nominations – where the winners will be revealed in March, during GDC 2018 – they also selected three recipients of special awards: the Lifetime Achievement award, the Pioneer award, and the Ambassador award. Those recipients were Tim Schafer, Nolan Bushnell, and Rami Ismail respectively.

As we reported at the time however, eyebrows were raised on social media at the inclusion of Nolan Bushnell, founding father of Atari.

While nobody can dispute the pioneering impact Bushnell has had on gaming, concerns were voiced that it perhaps might not be appropriate to recognise Bushnell in this way, following interviews and reports of inappropriate behaviour and questionable working culture at Atari. The Twitter hashtag #NotNolan began trending, and many prominent voices in the industry called for the award to be withdrawn or re-awarded.

Others have of course come out in Bushnell’s corner, citing a “boys will be boys” defence and frequently stating that “it was a different era”, with most of the impropriety taking place in the 1970s, during Atari’s pomp.

But in a world that is forever changed by movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, the GDC Awards Advisory Committee have taken the decision to not present the Pioneer Award for 2018, offering the following statement via Twitter:

“The Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, who vote on the Special Award Winners for each show, have made the decision not to give out a Pioneer Award for this year’s event, following additional feedback from the community. They believe their picks should reflect the values of today’s game industry and will dedicate this year’s award to honor the pioneering and unheard voices of the past.”

In effect, the committee would instead prefer to leave an empty chair for the award in 2018.

As is typical in these scenarios, many have come out on social media to decry the decision. We won’t quote or link anything here, because a great deal of internet comment quickly turns unpleasant – as is the way with these sensitive subjects on social media – but the typical allegations of “censorship” and a “left-wing agenda” are once again being thrown around.

In reality, GDC has heard the feedback of the community, and has promptly made the decision – based on that feedback – to implement a change. Reacting to feedback isn’t censorship, and while many online are quick to conflate the two, it’s how people and organisations grow and evolve in a modern, changing world.

You only have to look at recent allegations of impropriety at Quantic Dream – not so dissimilar to the behaviour at Atari in the 1970s – to realise that this sort of behaviour is still very much an issue in the video game industry.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a different era, after all.


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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.