Play It Again, Nolan

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell has a game-changer in store for education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Nolan BushnellBefore there was Apple, there was Atari. And behind Atari was Nolan Bushnell. One of the founding fathers of the video game industry, he is also the founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza-Time Theaters chain, has been inducted into both the Video Game and the Consumer Electronics Association Halls of Fame, was named Newsweek’s “50 Men Who Changed America” and has founded more than 20 companies. His latest is an educational software company that he believes will fundamentally change education and will be his biggest success yet. Here, Nolan talks about BrainRush, a company that is based on the idea that many curriculum lessons can be turned into mini-games. Take geography, multiplication tables, chemistry or anatomy for examples, and no matter what it is, one may gamify the experience. He calls the underlying technology “adaptive practice” and sees where learning, practice and testing can all condense into play. His Zynga-meets-Wikipedia approach provides an open authoring system where teachers or anyone else can create games of their own on whatever they wish. Does it work? In a two-year test run on Spanish language vocabulary with over 2,000 teachers and 80,000 students, they claim to have increased learning speeds between 8 and 10 times traditional learning; now, they’re rolling out the full platform in the Fall of 2013. Why is it successful? “Games keep people hyper focused and this hyper focus is what makes learning happen,” says Nolan. In this EdTech Digest interview, he elaborates on this simple premise, discusses why he believes that BrainRush will be his biggest venture yet — and explains the importance of keeping students in a state of flow.

Victor: What have been some key advances from an historical perspective, with gaming and learning and, from your view, what makes these particular advances notable?

BrainRush logoNolan: An immature mind responds better to games than to lecture. Games require the student to think about something and then respond, and that is a much more effective learning mechanism than just watching, listening or reading.  If a student just watches a lecture or reads a book, that activity, very little lights up in the brain. The minute you ask a student to make a decision, that is much more effective in making the concept stick.

When we designed BrainRush, we required students to make a decision every six to eight seconds because our research showed that is really valuable. If you really want to look at brain rules, there are five.

The first rule is the student should be under extreme time pressure — that causes the student to hyper focus.

The second rule is that the student needs to respond; answer questions and be active.

The third rule is the process needs repetition. Your brain is designed to reject, not to remember. And it is only through repetition that the brain decides to pay attention. Repetition is more effective if it spaced — if time has passed before the information is repeated again.

The fourth principal is that games need to be adapted. Everyone’s cognition works at different speeds, so the software needs to watch the students and adapt the time and complexity of the tasks to that student.

The fifth rule is the most difficult. It’s called schema, which examines whether the concept that is being taught can be fit into something that the student knows and has an affinity for. For example, it is much easier to teach students physics in the construct of baseball if they like baseball.

If you follow those five rules, students can be taught at speeds 10 to 20 times better than in a classroom. Better understanding equals better retention.

Victor: Is there a clear line between entertainment and education?

Nolan: A properly designed game should be both entertaining and educational. By definition, things that are entertaining are not educational — even though things that are educational are often not entertaining. The truth is, if you can get kids to learn quickly and under pressure, then the actual act itself is entertaining.

Victor: What is a formative experience you’d like to share that has led you to your current approach to education and technology?

brainrush boyNolan: I have eight children. I have always felt that it was the father’s job to be a primary educator to his family. So I made sure I took a look at a lot of the early attempts at education games. Some were interesting and engaging, some weren’t, but all were relevant. My kids grew up on Putt Putt, Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam and The Incredible Machine, probably one of the best physics games around. These were not considered educational, just purely for entertainment, but I really felt they were also educational.

Victor: Got any great stories or anecdotes that characterize your current mission?

Nolan: One of the things I find is that the creation of a BrainRush, one of our games, is highly educational to the person who is putting it together. It’s making tools available to students that allow them to become teachers is very beneficial. Our software allows that. We want our kids to create curriculum and publish it for the world to see.

Victor: How would you describe BrainRush to a teacher in an elevator conversation?

brainrush teacherNolan: If you have your kids, either through homework or through 10 minutes of class time, do one BrainRush, it will increase the learning outcome by up to 10 times. We are sentimental. We are here to make teachers’ jobs easier. We’re doing this because we believe we will make a huge difference in the outcome of your students, very quickly.

Victor: What are the essential elements to any game? Why do games and education go so well together?

Nolan: Games provide context. They provide an ability to focus in students and a way to measure outcomes. In a lecture, teachers have no way of knowing if students are listening, or just daydreaming. Games provide information that allows students to increase their brain capacity over time. It is very difficult in a classroom to qualify effectiveness. With games you can do that.

Victor: You’ve said BrainRush will be your biggest venture yet. What makes you say that?

Nolan: Education is typical, if not foundational, to everything we do. It is the second largest business in the world. Everyone knows that education right now is somewhat broken, in that it’s not really fulfilling the needs of a significant part of the population. Kids are not being prepared properly to become active, financially secure citizens.

We have very good tools that will help us move into the future. We have what I like to call “the perfect storm.”  Our network is robust; tools are cheap; and the incentive is there. The only thing that is missing is accurate, finely tuned software, and that is where we want to be.

Victor: What is your definition of Adaptive Practice? Why is it important in learning and education?

brainrush girlNolan: Adaptive Practice centers around the concept of flow. Flow is the concept of tapping a perfect mind opening. The objective is to keep the student in a state of flow.

The reason videogames are so addictive is because being challenged right to the edge of your capability makes a human being as happy as they can get.  Adaptive practice is the concept of keeping a student in that state of flow, i.e. perfect happiness.

Victor: Do you like BrainRush’s characterization as “Zynga meets Wikipedia”? Is that accurate?

Nolan: Pretty much. What we’re saying is, Zynga has the perfect model. Free is a very good marketing program. We basically want to give our product away and make our money other ways.

The Wikipedia aspect is about letting everybody create these lessons and let the best ones bubble to the top. We believe we will end up creating 20 to 30 engines but the curriculum will only create a small percentage compared to the rest of the world. All of us are as good as any of us and we will end up with some surprising results from surprising places.

Victor: It seems to me BrainRush is on the very early edge of something big – making all of education into games. Do you see that ultimately happening? Are there parts of education just simply not suited to becoming gamified?

Nolan: One-on-one student and teacher relationships have some really important characteristics.  Group discussions are also part of a fully rounded education program. A lot of things are completely teachable through games, but games will not have the nuance that teachers, peers and mentors bring to things.

Victor: What is your 2-3 year vision for BrainRush?

Nolan: That we will have all of our engines in place and our tools will be used in school districts throughout the world for 10 minutes a day per subject.

If we achieve that we can really make an impact on how fast kids learn and how happy they are with their learning experience. We can really make a difference, for adults too. We’re not just aimed at kids.

Victor: How about in 5-7 years?

Nolan: There is a whole series of things we don’t know about learning in general, and one of the benefits of BrainRush is the massive amounts of data. We can tell in one session how fast a student is learning. This begs the question: can we fine tune education even further? I believe we can answer the question definitively, and by ‘feeding’ kids directly, we can increase their ability to perform.

Interesting research has been done on exercise before learning: How much exercise should you do? For how long? Also relevant research is how much sleep someone needs. Should you nap during the day? Does this increase productivity? These are questions I think that we can answer as our technology and ability advances. If we answer these questions, and then properly apply the results, we can fundamentally change the nature of the world by developing really capable children.

Victor: What message would you like to give to education leaders? What makes you say that?

Nolan: In general, change is hard for people who have done the same thing for 20 years. However, for the sake of their brains, it turns out change will keep you from getting dementia when you retire. Administrators and teachers will resist this thinking. They should reevaluate and understand that the brain science of this truth is irrefutable. To adopt and to embrace is the height of being an effective teacher or administrator. Let their legacy be known as an innovator, not as a Luddite.

Victor: Anything else you’d like to add or emphasize concerning learning, gaming, both of these together, or anything else at all? Some important area for EdTech Digest readers that we haven’t touched upon and that should be remarked on?

Nolan: Sometimes when change is going on, proper use of vocabulary is important. For example, Ed Tech is a much better way of describing what is going on than Gamification, as peoples’ knee-jerk reaction to games is entertainment. What is really happening is brain science is finally being applied to the training and education of young brains. Using games trivializes the fact that hard science is going on.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


  1. Our district has teamed with BrainRush and started creating “games” using their website. I have to say it’s very exciting to see our teachers dive into the ‘gamification’ of educational material and make learning fun. This company is just starting out but has an experienced team that are very fast about creating content.

  2. I agree with Nolan Bushnell that the term “games” gives the wrong impression. So does “entertainment,” IMO. What he is really talking about is “engagement,” the joy of learning.

    I don’t agree that video games keep you on the edge of learning, however. They put you there now and then. I guess it’s often enough because they succeed — at least those that can manage to do that succeed. The massive online games also succeed by being a social activity.

    The goal of ten minutes per day per subject of intense online learning is good even if the immersion is not in BrainRush. That leaves adequate time for other learning experiences and also avoids brain overload. Most online game players go for long times, even hours or days, at a time. It’s a different experience. I don’t think that it’s entirely parallel as this interview suggests.

    I’m a scientist. I now specialize in new ways to use the Internet to teach science, real science — not a bunch of science factoids. I see tools such as BrainRush as backstopping what I’m doing but not as replacing it.

    My goal is teaching students how to think well, to think critically, creatively, and rationally. It’s not the same thing as learning Spanish at breakneck speed. There’s no quick way to reprogram our brains for thinking. We are born with certain instinctual thinking habits. Left alone, we end up with mostly our “gut” analysis without any real thinking. As valuable as intuition is, it fails utterly in many circumstances. Our children absolutely must have good thinking skills. They must also develop good communication skills and learn how to innovate.

    These things are far more important, in the long run, than learning Spanish faster. Yet, we sit with many of our students entering high school without basic math skills. Hopefully, BrainRush or its equal will fill that void along with other similar ones.

  3. Do we really want the man who infested the world with Chuck E. Cheese — a place where children are given tokens to spend on truly stupid games, where they learn to be consumers, where they are barraged by loud music seemingly played by mechanical puppets, where parents pay extra for crappy pizza, etc. — do we really want this greedy entrepreneur revamping our schools’ curriculum? Bushnell is ultimately a huckster — OK, an entrepreneur, a guy who made a lot of money riding a few timely technology waves and figuring out how to separate parents from their money. Why anyone gives him any credence as a serious educator is beyond me. I can remember interviewing hi9m about his interactive CD scheme, also touted as a educational tool. It was a bust, a complete flop.

    • You may be right about the past. Education must be changed. If it takes a huckster to change it, then so be it. Our federal and state governments are doing a mostly lousy job (except for a ray of hope in Massachusetts). The districts and schools aren’t fixing things.

      Nolan Bushnell is also a parent. I think his heart is in the right place. To succeed in this world, you must have some flash, some glitz — as long as something truly substantial lies underneath. He may well fail miserably, but at least he’s trying.

      Personally, I’m not a big fan of adapting games for education. You spend too much brain bandwidth on the game, leaving too little for real learning. Maybe he has a way around that. Maybe not. We’ll just have to wait and see. No one will force schools to use this software.

      Hey, I wouldn’t enter a Chuck-E-Cheese if you paid me, but they make money. If you don’t have a dozen ideas before breakfast, you’re not being an innovator. If you don’t reject 99 out of 100 of them, you’re a fool. The only real way to know if an idea is any good is to implement it. Nolan Bushnell is putting is money where his mouth is just as any good entrepreneur does — including myself. If his idea stinks, he loses his money. Don’t knock him for trying. Education should have all of the help it can get.

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