Howard Scott Warshaw Pleads Not Guilty to Killing Video Games thumbnail

Howard Scott Warshaw Pleads Not Guilty to Killing Video Games

So, this is Christmas 1982. You’re 11 years old, just on the cusp of an oh-so-grown-up 12. There are a bevy of presents waiting for you under the glittering tree that cold winter’s morn, but three in particular immediately strike your greedy eyes as you come down the stairs. From the shape alone, you know that the three rectangular boxes propped up in front of the tree are motherflippin’ ATARI games … but which games?

You fling your younger brothers aside in a manner somewhat at odds with the yuletide axiom “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men,” as your mother squawks something along the lines of “Jerry, those are for all of you now …” 

Yeah, right they are, Mom. Those two blabbering ding-dongs aren’t laying a finger on these pristinely wrapped boxes. They can play with the stupid Hot Wheels or what-the-hell-ever. These boxes are mine.

The first box is ripped open in a blur of frenzied movement—boom: Raiders of the Lost Ark! This is a coup! Not only is Raiders your favorite movie of all time, but Indiana Jones is the greatest hero ever, and now you get to be him in this game. It’s an orgasm (not that you even know what that is at 11) disguised as an Atari cartridge!

The next box is rent open just as quickly—and, lo and behold, it’s your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in Atari cartridge form! Another cool game that will get tons of play time in the coming months.

The third and final box is now resting in your grubby hands. You have a pretty good idea what this game is, as the hype for it has been off the charts, and TV commercials for it have been on an almost constant loop for the past couple months. The wrapping comes off with ease and, yes, it is E.T. the video game! Everyone loved the movie—if you didn’t love that goddamn cute alien movie you were clearly a communist pinko spy who hated God, America, baseball, and apple pie—in that order. (I kid, I kid. But remember, this is 1982; it’s the height of the Cold War, so I’m not exaggerating that all that much.) 

Since the movie is an all-time classic, the video game has to be of the same quality … right? Right?

The E.T. game is … different. It’s not just an arcade-y, pick-up-play affair. You actually have to read the manual to understand the play mechanics, and once you do, it can still be a bit disorienting because of the quick movement between the various playfields.

Regardless, in a couple days you’ve mastered it (Raiders would prove a tougher nut to crack), and when you’re back in school the following week, you’re providing your classmates with a walk-through (before that was even a thing) for the game.

You’ll always have fond memories of that Christmas, and that E.T. game, but as the years progress and internet navel gazing becomes the law of the land, you’ll see the game’s creator, one Howard Scott Warshaw, get dragged by every goofball with an opinion and a two-bit blog, calling it the worst game of all time, while also screeching that Warshaw and the game he created in just five weeks almost single-handedly destroyed the nascent video game industry in the early ’80s. 

But that’s all hyperbolic nonsense, and Howard Scott Warshaw will tell you exactly why in his eloquently crafted (and pun-filled) memoir, Once upon Atari: How I Made History Killing an Industry.

HSW, as he is known far and wide, was cordial enough to take time away from his busy psychotherapy practice to answer a few questions about his new tome for WIRED.

* This interview was edited for clarity and length.

WIRED: It seems that this book was a long time coming, and you had produced a video documentary of the Atari story before, so why here and now for a print version of the story?

HSW: It’s a good question. I mean, people have been asking me to write my Atari book for a long, long time, and I never really felt I was quite there. I wasn’t sure what the story was and what I wanted to tell.  I did the documentary because that was my way of processing what went on at Atari, but Zak Penn, the guy who directed Atari: Game Over, watched my documentary when he was preparing that movie, and he made an interesting observation to me. He said, “You know, the one thing that’s really missing in your documentary is you.” Because I really didn’t talk much about myself in the DVD documentaries. It was mostly about everyone else, and I was the one who put it together and directed and produced, but I realized I have a story to tell also. I was reticent to do that in the DVD, and then when you are writing something that’s like a memoir or autobiographical stuff, there is always the issue of “Do I dare?” or “Do I really want to go there?” I had just gotten to the point where, after Alamogordo (where the Atari “vault” was uncovered in the Atari: Game Over documentary), I felt the whole thing. I felt there was a closure, and there it was. I had the story. I had at least the bookends, and I knew the rest of the pieces, so at that point I decided I was going to start working on it. About 2016 I started working, seriously taking notes, reviewing interviews that I had done, and starting to structure what was two years of research and two years of writing.

WIRED: Right, I noticed that almost every chapter had that narrative framework of you being at the Alamogordo dig site. It starts off with this crazy sandstorm, and then you are kind of reminiscing on the past, which was nicely done, so let’s keep reminiscing here. From your time at Atari, what would you say was the coolest moment you personally experienced? 

HSW:  Oooh, boy. There were some cool moments. I have to say the Learjet ride to go see Spielberg was well up there. That was pretty cool, although it was also tension-packed, because I am going to present this design [for the E.T. game]. Possibly one of the coolest moments was definitely when I found out they were finally going to release Yars’ Revenge, and I was finally going to join the club of people who have released a game on the Atari 2600. That was an important day, and the day I showed Spielberg the videotape of my play-through of Raiders of the Lost Ark (at CES in 1982) and he watched it through and said, “Boy, that looks just like a movie.” And the idea that Steven Spielberg was impressed with a video that I produced, you know, the game that I did—that was a real highlight for me. 

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WIRED: Of course. And it is hard to imagine now that you could look at an Atari 2600 game and say, “That looks like a movie!” It would be hard to get somebody to say that now, but …

HSW: It was a little absurd then too, I’ll tell you.

WIRED: What was the funniest moment you had at Atari? You describe moments in the book with Tod Frye (Atari programmer who wrote the 2600 version of Pac-Man) hitting his head on the ceiling sprinkler and doing his wall-walking stuff. 

HSW: There were a lot of moments. See, at Atari some of the funniest, wackiest moments were also some of the most dangerous and scary and edgy. Everything there had this thing of like, it’s really amusing, we are having a good time, but everything could go over the cliff at any moment. We were going out partying after my first corporate brainstorm session, and Tod’s dancing around on the balcony, and then he jumped. We were on the fifth floor. We really thought he had taken a dive, and the thing is, with Todd, you could believe he would do that. But then you see he’s just jumped down to another balcony right there. So, it was like, one of the scariest moments that turned into one of the funniest things. Then he pees in the bushes on that lower balcony. The whole thing was amazing.

WIRED:  Well, in fairness, the bushes were there, so …

HSW:  True. We just had a lot of fun. Just hanging out with my friend Jerome [Domurat, who did the graphics on E.T. and many other Atari classics] and reading National Lampoon’s Letters to the Editor in our office, those were some very funny moments too. They weren’t necessarily Atari related though.

WIRED: On the flip side of that, what were the most depressing, sad, or regrettable moments at Atari. If you can kind of coalesce that into one thing or one memory.

HSW:  Well, I would separate there. There’s depressing moments and scary moments. The depressing moment was when I realized it was over. When I realized that Atari was going too far down, too far away. When we knew they had sold Atari to Jack Tramiel [the former owner and CEO of Commodore who bought Atari from Warner Communications in 1984]. I have a lot of respect for Jack Tramiel, but he wasn’t a guy who was going to run the Atari I wanted to be a part of. My denial worked as hard as it could to keep me from recognizing that everything was ending, and then I found out a little bit about who he was and what was going on. It was very depressing, because I knew the gravy train was over. I knew that they had rained on my parade officially at that point. And then the scary moments, though. There were a lot of times where we literally didn’t know we were going to have a job by the end of the day. There would be management changes, things would go off—things would be great one moment, and they could suddenly turn, and suddenly we would be literally worried: Are we gonna have a job tomorrow? And those were a lot of clenches, you know? 

WIRED:  Sure.

HSW:  A lot of clenching!

WIRED:   Do you miss game dev? From the way you write about it in the book, it seems that you do in some primal way. Would you go back to game dev if someone offered you the proverbial “keys to the kingdom” to do so?

HSW:  I would definitely think about it. I have a design to do. There’s a game that I had designed back at Atari for a Yars’ Revenge sequel that I never ended up doing, and I still have it after all this time. I’ve never seen this gameplay done anywhere, and I think it would be fun, dynamic gameplay. So I do think that I probably will, in the next couple of years, grab a homebrew, get someone to program the game, and I’ll do the design and direct the development and put another game out. I think that would be a fun thing. It’s hard to get games out of your blood. 

WIRED:  So, who was it that accused you of doing the cut-and-paste job on the E.T. code? I think it was David Crane, but you tell me.

HSW:  It was not David Crane. I will tell you that. I’m not going to name the person. It’s touchy stuff, but I will tell you it was not David Crane.

WIRED: So, discuss “100% of original concept” in regard to E.T.  I feel the same way when it comes to writing. I loathe doing the guideline summaries, because whatever I’m working on is going to evolve as I’m writing, and yeah, I know I’m going to have better ideas as I’m going along. Obviously, you didn’t have time to implement those kinds of “inspirations” with E.T. or follow those kinds of instincts with a five-week sprint to the finish. So, explain a little bit how that constrained you.

HSW: It’s a funny thing to say, you know. One of the problems with the game was that it did deliver a hundred percent of its concept. But it’s not a good thing when you start off with a concept and you literally just deliver that concept. It means nothing grew; you didn’t learn anything, and nothing evolved over the course of the entire development. And I think that’s a shame, because I like any kind of development to be a journey as opposed to a sprint. And so there wasn’t time, though, to really do the wide-ranging exploring, because what happens is, when you have that sort of schedule, it’s no longer a programming problem. Trying to program something that takes six months in five weeks is the problem. It is just impossible. So, it became a design problem, which is to design a game that’s doable in five weeks. And that’s the best I could do with E.T. So I designed something I felt I could do in five weeks. I just delivered what my original concept was. I didn’t have time to tune, to do all the rumination and the things that usually make a product really good. So it was unfortunate that I ended up delivering a hundred percent of my original concept.

WIRED: That’s the irony of it, no doubt. Keeping in that space for a minute: What is your favorite computer language to write code in? What you find most comfortable? As an example, for me, screen/scriptwriting comes easiest, but I really have to focus when it comes to prose and journalistic styles of writing. Maybe you have a computer code or computer language in comparison to that or in that way?

HSW: It’s funny when you say that, because I’ve tried screenwriting and prose writing, and I find it’s easier for me to write prose than to write a screenplay. But with code, in a higher-level language, I really prefer C++ and things like that. That’s a nice language to write in, but I have to say, I like assembly language programming. I like really low-level. That’s programming. The thing is, you can’t do a big, big program in that, or you’ll drive yourself crazy. So there’s something unique about the 2600 that let me work right where I like to work—right at the level of the machine, and trying to innovate and find new ways of tweaking things and playing with them. And playing that close to the machine meant that any bit pattern or anything that has happened coincidentally and worked out I could take advantage of. I could see everything that was going on. In a higher-level language, you’re obscured from the lower levels in a lot of ways, and I don’t like that. I don’t like “blind spots” in the program. I like to see every piece of the operation.

WIRED: Sure, that makes sense. My father was a computer programmer. So I have some knowledge of that kind of stuff.  He always referred to the guys who made games and the like as “stars” or “geniuses.” I guess he considered himself more like a bench player guy. I remember him bringing stacks of punch cards home.

HSW:  Yeah, my first programming experience was on punch cards. When I first started programming computers in college, I was using punch cards, key-punches, and stuff. I’ll tell you, that was not my favorite programming.

WIRED: No. It seems extremely tedious, and if you dropped that stack you were screwed.

HSW: Extremely screwed! One thing they taught us is that you want to put card numbers, you want to sequence your cards, because if you don’t, when you drop that deck, you are going to be so sorry. 

WIRED: So, jumping forward a bit in your career, it seemed like you were only at 3DO for a short time, but do you still have the Swiss Army knife with your name engraved on it?

HSW:  Oh, I don’t think I do, which is such a shame, because I really should, yeah …

WIRED:  What did you do at 3DO? I mean, what did you work on during your stint there? Do you remember? Was it game-related stuff? Or was it more tech-related?

HSW:   It was all game stuff. I mean, I first worked on a project called War Jets. Then I was on Battle Tanks and then a game called Jacked, so there were about three games. I was there for about four years, actually mid-1999 to mid-2003. So actually, it’s about the same length of time I worked at Atari.

WIRED: It didn’t seem like that from the way you wrote about it in the book.

HSW: I definitely shortened it in the book, but it wasn’t as exciting an experience. And really returning to games with 3DO was a very different world, and what I realized was, it’s still nice. It’s nice to do games and be a part of that, but what I loved about games was that it was a work of authorship and control. The analogy I like to use is that doing video games at Atari was like driving a speed boat, and doing console games now is like a cruise ship. You can do a lot more stuff on a cruise ship. You can have a lot more supplies, a lot more people. You can have a lot of fun on a cruise ship, but one thing you cannot do on a cruise ship is change direction quickly, and I don’t like the inertia of a large crew trying to move something forward like that, because it’s hard to shift. I like the idea of when I find something new or something comes to me, I can jump in and rearrange it, redo it, and find the new gem in there, the thing that’s hiding. And working with the 2600 was a unique opportunity to do that sort of thing. I’ve got nothing against collaborative efforts, but aesthetically I much prefer the work of authorship.

WIRED:  For sure. Do you still play games at all? And if so, which ones?

HSW: I do. I’m embarrassed to say, I am horribly addicted to a lot of Candy Crush variants and just passed level a thousand in Candy Crush Friends!  I really enjoy that kind of thing and the console stuff. I pop in and out, but for the most part, I like that. I’m a big Sudoku fan as well. So, I’m always playing some kind of game here or there. I have a lot of other things going on in my life now, and I know that if I really start walking down the game path, I’m going to run out of time in my life. 

WIRED:  Your good friend Tod Frye we mentioned earlier, his 2600 version of Pac-Man also comes up when “the worst games of all time” or “it’s what caused the crash” discussions are bandied about. What are your thoughts on that and the 2600 version of Pac-Man as a whole?

HSW:  2600 Pac-Man was an interesting case, because a lot of people do say that E.T. and Pac-Man together were the one-two punches that ended everything back in ’83. I’m not sure that’s true. But what those two games did was reorient player expectations. I think it really kind of demonstrated in two big wallops the difference between what people were expecting and maybe what they were advertised they were getting and what they got, and how that went. 2600 Pac-Man is a perfectly respectable-playing game. A lot of people enjoy it, a lot of people think it’s good, but it is not the coin-operated version of Pac-Man by any means whatsoever and by any stretch of the imagination. And that verdict was sealed up once the 2600 Ms. Pac-Man came out and people saw what could’ve been done on the 2600. That made it even worse for Tod’s Pac-Man. So E.T. comes along, and E.T. is a different kind of thing, because people have an expectation, but it’s not a specific expectation, right? I mean, what do you expect from a video game from E.T.? Everybody thinks E.T. is a great movie. They had a great experience, and they just want a great experience, but who knows what the game is? 

WIRED:   According to Spielberg, it should have been a Pac-Man Clone.

Photograph: Mark Davis

HSW:  Yeah, that was … something. Honestly, I don’t think I could have done Pac-Man in five weeks. That was the other problem. And that was a real curveball moment—Spielberg wanted me to do a knock-off! E.T. is a game that people just … they didn’t really have a specific expectation, but I think they had high hopes, and it just didn’t meet them. It just absolutely did not meet them.  I think when things really fell apart was when suddenly people couldn’t tell if any game was going to have any kind of quality standard whatsoever. Pac-Man and E.T. were both super-high-expectation games, and those expectations were just not met for most people, and I think that really changed the way people viewed the platform overall.

WIRED: Did you ever meet or speak with Steve Ross, the head of Warner Communications at the time? It seems he’s the reason for the five-week crunch on E.T. He forced Ray Kassar’s [the head of Atari in 1983] hand with that insane schedule. Did he ever say anything to you or thank you or anything? 

HSW:  Oh no. I never had any communication with Steve Ross. The closest I came was Manny Gerard. He was the number two guy at Warner. He would be at Atari occasionally, and I actually got to share a plane ride with him on the company Hawker. 

WIRED:  I went back and did a little research as well, because I had read the Atari: Business Is Fun book, and in there it’s pretty clear that Steve Ross said “Hey Ray, we’re doing this game, and it’s going to out by Christmas,” then Ray makes a phone call to George Kiss, I believe? 

HSW:   Yeah. He called George Kiss [VP of VCS Development] first, and he explained to him that you can’t do a game in five weeks. That’s impossible.  And so after that, Ray called me directly. I didn’t know he’d already talked to my boss. So when I tell him, “Oh, yeah, I could do that. No problem.” I’m destroying my boss’s credibility, and my boss’s boss’s credibility, so I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. 

WIRED: Steve Wright was the director of game development at Atari. What was his issue with Yars’ Revenge? It seems like he was the guy who was pushing the continual play-testing it was forced to endure. He didn’t think it was ready, or real or, something else about it maybe?

HSW:  I wasn’t clear on who was forcing it at the time. It did turn out in retrospect that it seemed to be Steve Wright who was doing it. He felt there were long-term playability issues. He had a strategy for the games that you could just execute and win the game and play as long as you want, and he was pretty confident with that. So he felt that was a problem with Yars’. It’s just that none of the play-testers thought there was a problem with the game, but it was driving me crazy. You know, I went through what I called “Releases Interruptus” when we were about to release the game. I so wanted to get this game out, and once again it was, “No, you can’t go, you can’t go, you can’t go,” and then finally, you know when it beat “Missile Command” in the play test he really couldn’t hold it up any longer.  Steve Wright was an amazing, talented guy. I mean, this was a guy who had a lot of capacity, who had a lot of drive, a lot of capability, and he wanted to do everything, and he was pretty close to doing everything. He ran a lot of stuff, and he was really a remarkable character. There were a lot of amazing characters at Atari. Steve was definitely one of them.

WIRED: One of the coolest things in Yars’ is the sound design. How did you make that “buzzing throb” that permeates the game as you are playing? 

HSW: I won’t bother you with the technical details of a program, the sound registers. I wanted to have a soundscape in Yars’ Revenge, and the one thing I felt was really kind of lame about a lot of games at that point was it was just bleeps and bloops, right? The sounds are just things to mark an effect, and they didn’t contribute. When I came to game design, what I brought was film love, that kind of experience. I love film. One thing I learned in movies is that you can save a lot of money with the sound effect that you don’t have to shoot. And the resources were so limited on the 2600, I just thought about how I could use sound to elevate the experience, not just to mark that somebody fired a button, but to really elevate the experience, and I wanted a sci-fi theme. I like that idea. I’ve watched every B-movie—the old crappy, sci-fi stuff in the ‘50s and ’60s. I love that stuff. And one of the hallmarks of that was like they’re in the lab, and you have the arcing electricity. You know, that sound of the arcing electricity shooting up the electrodes? That was my inspiration for the bass sound. I wanted to have that thing where we’re in the lab, and something evil is happening, something ugly, and it is going to be scary. And then I used different frequencies and tones to achieve that. So I elevate your tension with the sound before the events in the game actually occur, to try and get you a little more hooked into it. 

WIRED: We kind of touched on this a bit earlier, but what would Yars’ 2 have been if you continued development on it instead of shifting to work on the original Saboteur concept? 

HSW: Well, I can tell you what the basic idea was. It was very frenetic gameplay. The concept was going to be the Yarian Olympics. That was going to be the title. The idea was that this was a skill development scene that you use to prepare Yars to go fight. S, this was a like a training ground for your Yars.

WIRED: Well, in today’s terminology it was a prequel then. You were doing a prequel before prequels were a thing.

HSW: Exactly. Yeah, that’s the Yars’ prequel. 

WIRED: In 2013, David Richardson “fixed” and/or hacked E.T. to make it better; I played that version last night (and I haven’t played E.T. since 1983), enjoyed it all over again, and I beat it the first time through. I was amazed at how much I recalled of the gameplay—although I did have a bit of an issue finding the “Call home” zone. What are your thoughts on that? Would you have made similar changes if you’d had more time back in August 1982?

HSW: I definitely would have made more tweaks. I wrote in the book, if I had one more day, these are some changes I would have made. If I had one more week, if I had one more month, etc. It would be a whole different thing. Some of the things that he Richardson did I absolutely would have done with one more day to work on it. I played it too. It’s fine. I have no problem with it. I think he did a good job. He did some clever stuff. 

WIRED: It’s funny, I played E.T. as a kid, and I didn’t have an issue with it. I figured it out pretty quickly just by reading the manual. I don’t understand why most people don’t get that. If you just read the manual for 10 minutes, you understand how to play the game. 

HSW:  Like we say in tech, “RTFM” [Read the f*cking manual].

WIRED:  Yes, definitely.

HSW: But people don’t want to.  One of the things with video games, for a lot of people the joy of it is just picking it up and playing. They don’t want to look at anything. They just want to get in and play it, and I didn’t always subscribe to that theory.

WIRED: Yeah, that was true of most arcade games and arcade ports of that time: Pick up and play. And easy to learn, difficult to master.

HSW: Exactly. Arcade games have to be that, but home games don’t. I think you can ask more of a player to learn a home game. I think you can deliver a deeper game. That’s what I was shooting for.

WIRED: And you did exactly that with both the Raiders of the Lost Ark game and the E.T. game. I also played Saboteur [a game Warshaw developed at Atari in 1984 but wasn’t released until 2004 as a homebrew], which actually I didn’t know existed until I read the book. How in the hell did Atari think that  a game about a robot, aliens, and a rocket would have translated into an A-Team game? 

HSW: Because you swap the graphics basically. 

WIRED: It’s as simple as that? You just would have made the robot Mr. T and the rocket ship the A-Team van, and there you go?

HSW: Well, you turn the robots into bad guys or leave them as robots. We had a Mr. T head, the main character was a giant Mr. T head, and so that was a great graphic for you. In the later screens, you are riding in a jeep and you are trying to avoid getting stopped before you reached a base to turn off the destruct button for the missile. But it was all about trying to stop people who are trying to blow up a city and create a world war. That’s the A-Team storyline. But yeah, it was basically a graphics change and a few other things, but it wasn’t really much of a change to the core gameplay itself. It did delay the release of the game enough though, so that it didn’t make it out before Atari closed.

WIRED: You write toward the end of the book, “The E.T. game did not cause the video game crash. It is, however, symptomatic of the thinking that caused the crash. I see it as the crowning achievement of this mindset.” Do you think that, hindsight being 20/20 of course, that Atari could have staved off the crash if they had the 2600 locked down so that third party devs couldn’t have made games for it, and they didn’t try to wring every last cent out of it?

HSW:  Absolutely. I think absolutely they could have staved off the crash. Because the truth is there wasn’t a crash in Japan or a lot of other places, right? Sure a crash happened in the United States, and what happened? What happened was, after a relatively brief period of time, there was the next generation of systems started coming to the market, but the special lesson that everybody got was, oh, there’s a product life cycle involved in these things, and you need to protect your platform. So you don’t have just anyone releasing crap on it. I think if they would have locked the system, they would have really held their quality stuff. And if they would have just paid David Crane and those guys a little bit more money that they were asking for, they wouldn’t have gone running out the door.., and a “third-party developer” might not have been a thing for a while. There were a lot of things Atari did that were kind of short-sighted. I don’t believe the crash was absolutely necessary, but it was inevitable.

WIRED: Yeah, it seems like with a couple of minor decisions here or there they could have really stemmed the tide. You mentioned Japan. Nintendo approached Atari to release the NES in America in ’85, I believe. Do you think that could have saved Atari too?

HSW:  Some of the best stories at Atari were the things they said no to. They blew off Jobs and Wozniak, who wanted to do a personal computer. They blew off VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet. They came to present that one to Atari, and everybody at Atari was like, “What is this? You can’t play a game with this. What are you showing us this for?” 

WIRED: They wanted to put VisiCalc on the original Atari computer lines? The 400 and 800 and the like? 

HSW:  Yeah, they came in with that. Atari blew them off. Then they blew off Nintendo. Atari was hell-bent on getting exactly where they showed up. You know, there’s an old Chinese proverb that says, if you don’t change direction, you’ll wind up where you’re headed. Nothing was going to deter them, it seems.

WIRED:  You had a part in the Angry Video Game Nerd movie, which focused on the Nerd finally reviewing E.T., and that’s far and away the best part of that movie, IMO. Your role was originally much larger [rewritten as the mad scientist in the desert cabin]. Why did you feel that role wasn’t “suitable” and ask for it to be rewritten? 

HSW:  To be honest, you know, that was the time where I was just becoming a psychotherapist. And so when I was thinking of this movie coming out and people seeing it, I was thinking, “I have clients who I’m trying to help with serious issues, and they’re going to go, Oh, yeah, that’s my therapist. He’s an insane person who lives in a shack in the desert and likes to shoot at government agents.” That really wasn’t the image I wanted to project for my practice. 

WIRED: Any interesting stories from that experience or from the shoot, or did you just show up and do your thing and that was that?

HSW: It was fun while reviewing the script. I was really grateful that they were open to my ideas. I have to be one of the first actors in history who argued to get a smaller part!

WIRED: How did you end up as a therapist, and do you find any skill set crossover with game development? You talk in the book about working on the most advanced piece of hardware, the human brain, and that’s a pithy way to phrase it. But it goes deeper than that, right? 

Photograph: Mark Davis

HSW:  Oh, absolutely. I mean a lot of people think it’s a really odd switch to go from being a programmer to being a therapist, because most people see programmers as not having many people skills. And in a lot of cases, they’re right, but it’s not universally true. Programmers and therapists are all systems analysts, right? So I just moved on to more sophisticated hardware in the human brain. That’s the way I like to phrase it. But you know, another thing I did learn from the AVGN people is that there was the suggestion, I can’t say it’s not true, but one of the reasons I felt it was important to become a psychotherapist was to deal with all the depression and trauma I had created with the E.T. video game. Sort of my way of apologizing and trying to give back to the people I had taken so much from … apparently. 

WIRED:  I can say at the time, getting that game as a Christmas gift as a lot of kids did, I remember people being confused by it, but not hating it. I explained to friends how to play it, and once they got it, they enjoyed it. But as you wrote in the book, I think it was more that as time went on, the internet evolved and we get these clickbait lists  where people say, “Oh, E.T. is terrible!” and the game truly doesn’t deserve any of that scorn. But, here we are discussing it 30 odd years later, so …

HSW: Right? That’s the thing about E.T. I look at video game production as a piece of broadcasting media. And, you know, and the point of media is to inform, to entertain, and to generate social discourse. And so one of the ways E.T. has always felt like a success to me, and even more so at that dig, was that even after three decades we’re still talking about. It’s still a thing, and people still get fun and enjoyment out of it. I got very emotional in Alamagordo at the end. Even when I watch the [Atari: Game Over] movie again, I see it. I get choked up, because there it was. This little 8K of assembly code that I wrote all those years ago was still creating excitement, joy, and enthusiasm. That was just overwhelming for me and so satisfying to still bring that to people. 

WIRED: Sure, and you also mention in the book that at the premiere of Atari: Game Over, you got a standing ovation at the end. Was it a vindication of sorts, and a “Wow, this is still important” moment?  A lot of people don’t get that. So it’s a great thing that you got to experience that twice.

HSW:  I am very grateful for that, because you don’t get that too often in life. That’s for sure.

WIRED:  So, are you still waiting on that call from Steven Spielberg?

HSW: You bet I am.

WIRED: I wonder why Zak Penn or Ernie Cline [who is in Atari: Game Over and wrote the forward for HSW’s book] didn’t make that happen for you by now?

HSW: Well, it’s not the same. I’m not trying to reach out to him. In the Once Upon Atari documentary, at the end of every episode during the credit roll, there’s a little thing in there that reads, “Hey, Steven. Call me!”

WIRED: You mention that credit roll in the book, and it stuck in my mind. So, if Spielberg did call after all this time, what would you want, or expect, him to say?

HSW: I hope he would just say, “Hey Howard, how you doing?” and I would love to just have a chat with him again. Steven Spielberg is a very interesting person from my experience. You know, when we were together and talking and chatting about stuff, I felt we had a really nice time. So I would just like to have a nice chat with him again. Ask him: “So. What have you been doing for the last 30 years?”

WIRED: That would be an interesting conversation, I’m sure.

HSW: It would. And I would ask him to buy the book, though.

WIRED: With A-list celebrities like him, people just hand him free stuff all the time, so he’s kind of used to that.

HSW: That’s true. Well, I don’t want to violate his expectations. Maybe I’ll give him an autographed copy then.

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