Zen and the Art of Game Design
In February 1974, after eighteen months of hanging around Reed, Jobs decided to move back to his parents’ home in Los Altos and look for a job. It was not a difficult search. At peak times during the 1970s, the classified section of the San Jose Mercury carried up to sixty pages of technology help-wanted ads. One of those caught Jobs’s eye. “Have fun, make money,” it said. That day Jobs walked into the lobby of the video game manufacturer Atari and told the personnel director, who was startled by his unkempt hair and attire, that he wouldn’t leave until they gave him a job.
Atari’s founder was a burly entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell, who was a charismatic visionary with a nice touch of showmanship in him—in other words, another role model waiting to be emulated. After he became famous, he liked driving around in a Rolls, smoking dope, and holding staff meetings in a hot tub. As Friedland had done and as Jobs would learn to do, he was able to turn charm into a cunning force, to cajole and intimidate and distort reality with the power of his personality. His chief engineer was Al Alcorn, beefy and jovial and a bit more grounded, the house grown-up trying to implement the vision and curb the enthusiasms of Bushnell. Their big hit thus far was a video game called Pong, in which two players tried to volley a blip on a screen with two movable lines that acted as paddles. (If you’re under thirty, ask your parents.)
When Jobs arrived in the Atari lobby wearing sandals and demanding a job, Alcorn was the one who was summoned. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?’ I said bring him on in!”
Jobs thus became one of the first fifty employees at Atari, working as a technician for $5 an hour. “In retrospect, it was weird to hire a dropout from Reed,” Alcorn recalled. “But I saw something in him. He was very intelligent, enthusiastic, excited about tech.” Alcorn assigned him to work with a straitlaced engineer named Don Lang. The next day Lang complained, “This guy’s a goddamn hippie with b.o. Why did you do this to me? And he’s impossible to deal with.” Jobs clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor, even if he didn’t use deodorant or shower regularly. It was a flawed theory.
Lang and others wanted to let Jobs go, but Bushnell worked out a solution. “The smell and behavior wasn’t an issue with me,” he said. “Steve was prickly, but I kind of liked him. So I asked him to go on the night shift. It was a way to save him.” Jobs would come in after Lang and others had left and work through most of the night. Even thus isolated, he became known for his brashness. On those occasions when he happened to interact with others, he was prone to informing them that they were “dumb shits.” In retrospect, he stands by that judgment. “The only reason I shone was that everyone else was so bad,” Jobs recalled.
Despite his arrogance (or perhaps because of it) he was able to charm Atari’s boss. “He was more philosophical than the other people I worked with,” Bushnell recalled. “We used to discuss free will versus determinism. I tended to believe that things were much more determined, that we were programmed. If we had perfect information, we could predict people’s actions. Steve felt the opposite.” That outlook accorded with his faith in the power of the will to bend reality.
Jobs helped improve some of the games by pushing the chips to produce fun designs, and Bushnell’s inspiring willingness to play by his own rules rubbed off on him. In addition, he intuitively appreciated the simplicity of Atari’s games. They came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for Atari’s Star Trek game were “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.”
Not all of his coworkers shunned Jobs. He became friends with Ron Wayne, a draftsman at Atari, who had earlier started a company that built slot machines. It subsequently failed, but Jobs became fascinated with the idea that it was possible to start your own company. “Ron was an amazing guy,” said Jobs. “He started companies. I had never met anybody like that.” He proposed to Wayne that they go into business together; Jobs said he could borrow $50,000, and they could design and market a slot machine. But Wayne had already been burned in business, so he declined. “I said that was the quickest way to lose $50,000,” Wayne recalled, “but I admired the fact that he had a burning drive to start his own business.”
One weekend Jobs was visiting Wayne at his apartment, engaging as they often did in philosophical discussions, when Wayne said that there was something he needed to tell him. “Yeah, I think I know what it is,” Jobs replied. “I think you like men.” Wayne said yes. “It was my first encounter with someone who I knew was gay,” Jobs recalled. “He planted the right perspective of it for me.” Jobs grilled him: “When you see a beautiful woman, what do you feel?” Wayne replied, “It’s like when you look at a beautiful horse. You can appreciate it, but you don’t want to sleep with it. You appreciate beauty for what it is.” Wayne said that it is a testament to Jobs that he felt like revealing this to him. “Nobody at Atari knew, and I could count on my toes and fingers the number of people I told in my whole life. But I guess it just felt right to tell him, that he would understand, and it didn’t have any effect on our relationship.”
One reason Jobs was eager to make some money in early 1974 was that Robert Friedland, who had gone to India the summer before, was urging him to take his own spiritual journey there. Friedland had studied in India with Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), who had been the guru to much of the sixties hippie movement. Jobs decided he should do the same, and he recruited Daniel Kottke to go with him. Jobs was not motivated by mere adventure. “For me it was a serious search,” he said. “I’d been turned on to the idea of enlightenment and trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into things.” Kottke adds that Jobs’s quest seemed driven partly by not knowing his birth parents. “There was a hole in him, and he was trying to fill it.”
When Jobs told the folks at Atari that he was quitting to go search for a guru in India, the jovial Alcorn was amused. “He comes in and stares at me and declares, ‘I’m going to find my guru,’ and I say, ‘No shit, that’s super. Write me!’ And he says he wants me to help pay, and I tell him, ‘Bullshit!’” Then Alcorn had an idea. Atari was making kits and shipping them to Munich, where they were built into finished machines and distributed by a wholesaler in Turin. But there was a problem: Because the games were designed for the American rate of sixty frames per second, there were frustrating interference problems in Europe, where the rate was fifty frames per second. Alcorn sketched out a fix with Jobs and then offered to pay for him to go to Europe to implement it. “It’s got to be cheaper to get to India from there,” he said. Jobs agreed. So Alcorn sent him on his way with the exhortation, “Say hi to your guru for me.”
Jobs spent a few days in Munich, where he solved the interference problem, but in the process he flummoxed the dark-suited German managers. They complained to Alcorn that he dressed and smelled like a bum and behaved rudely. “I said, ‘Did he solve the problem?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘If you got any more problems, you just call me, I got more guys just like him!’ They said, ‘No, no we’ll take care of it next time.’” For his part, Jobs was upset that the Germans kept trying to feed him meat and potatoes. “They don’t even have a word for vegetarian,” he complained (incorrectly) in a phone call to Alcorn.
He had a better time when he took the train to see the distributor in Turin, where the Italian pastas and his host’s camaraderie were more simpatico. “I had a wonderful couple of weeks in Turin, which is this charged-up industrial town,” he recalled. “The distributor took me every night to dinner at this place where there were only eight tables and no menu. You’d just tell them what you wanted, and they made it. One of the tables was on reserve for the chairman of Fiat. It was really super.” He next went to Lugano, Switzerland, where he stayed with Friedland’s uncle, and from there took a flight to India.
When he got off the plane in New Delhi, he felt waves of heat rising from the tarmac, even though it was only April. He had been given the name of a hotel, but it was full, so he went to one his taxi driver insisted was good. “I’m sure he was getting some baksheesh, because he took me to this complete dive.” Jobs asked the owner whether the water was filtered and foolishly believed the answer. “I got dysentery pretty fast. I was sick, really sick, a really high fever. I dropped from 160 pounds to 120 in about a week.”
Once he got healthy enough to move, he decided that he needed to get out of Delhi. So he headed to the town of Haridwar, in western India near the source of the Ganges, which was having a festival known as the Kumbh Mela. More than ten million people poured into a town that usually contained fewer than 100,000 residents. “There were holy men all around. Tents with this teacher and that teacher. There were people riding elephants, you name it. I was there for a few days, but I decided that I needed to get out of there too.”
He went by train and bus to a village near Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas. That was where Neem Karoli Baba lived, or had lived. By the time Jobs got there, he was no longer alive, at least in the same incarnation. Jobs rented a room with a mattress on the floor from a family who helped him recuperate by feeding him vegetarian meals. “There was a copy there of Autobiography of a Yogi in English that a previous traveler had left, and I read it several times because there was not a lot to do, and I walked around from village to village and recovered from my dysentery.” Among those who were part of the community there was Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who was working to eradicate smallpox and who later ran Google’s philanthropic arm and the Skoll Foundation. He became Jobs’s lifelong friend.
At one point Jobs was told of a young Hindu holy man who was holding a gathering of his followers at the Himalayan estate of a wealthy businessman. “It was a chance to meet a spiritual being and hang out with his followers, but it was also a chance to have a good meal. I could smell the food as we got near, and I was very hungry.” As Jobs was eating, the holy man—who was not much older than Jobs—picked him out of the crowd, pointed at him, and began laughing maniacally. “He came running over and grabbed me and made a tooting sound and said, ‘You are just like a baby,’” recalled Jobs. “I was not relishing this attention.” Taking Jobs by the hand, he led him out of the worshipful crowd and walked him up to a hill, where there was a well and a small pond. “We sit down and he pulls out this straight razor. I’m thinking he’s a nutcase and begin to worry. Then he pulls out a bar of soap—I had long hair at the time—and he lathered up my hair and shaved my head. He told me that he was saving my health.”
Daniel Kottke arrived in India at the beginning of the summer, and Jobs went back to New Delhi to meet him. They wandered, mainly by bus, rather aimlessly. By this point Jobs was no longer trying to find a guru who could impart wisdom, but instead was seeking enlightenment through ascetic experience, deprivation, and simplicity. He was not able to achieve inner calm. Kottke remembers him getting into a furious shouting match with a Hindu woman in a village marketplace who, Jobs alleged, had been watering down the milk she was selling them.
Yet Jobs could also be generous. When they got to the town of Manali, Kottke’s sleeping bag was stolen with his traveler’s checks in it. “Steve covered my food expenses and bus ticket back to Delhi,” Kottke recalled. He also gave Kottke the rest of his own money, $100, to tide him over.
During his seven months in India, he had written to his parents only sporadically, getting mail at the American Express office in New Delhi when he passed through, and so they were somewhat surprised when they got a call from the Oakland airport asking them to pick him up. They immediately drove up from Los Altos. “My head had been shaved, I was wearing Indian cotton robes, and my skin had turned a deep, chocolate brown-red from the sun,” he recalled. “So I’m sitting there and my parents walked past me about five times and finally my mother came up and said ‘Steve?’ and I said ‘Hi!’”
They took him back home, where he continued trying to find himself. It was a pursuit with many paths toward enlightenment. In the mornings and evenings he would meditate and study Zen, and in between he would drop in to audit physics or engineering courses at Stanford.
Jobs’s interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the search for enlightenment was not merely the passing phase of a nineteen-year-old. Throughout his life he would seek to follow many of the basic precepts of Eastern religions, such as the emphasis on experiential praj?ā, wisdom or cognitive understanding that is intuitively experienced through concentration of the mind. Years later, sitting in his Palo Alto garden, he reflected on the lasting influence of his trip to India:
Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.
Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.
Coming back after seven months in Indian villages, I saw the craziness of the Western world as well as its capacity for rational thought. If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.
Zen has been a deep influence in my life ever since. At one point I was thinking about going to Japan and trying to get into the Eihei-ji monastery, but my spiritual advisor urged me to stay here. He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was correct. I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.
Jobs did in fact find a teacher right in his own neighborhood. Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and ran the San Francisco Zen Center, used to come to Los Altos every Wednesday evening to lecture and meditate with a small group of followers. After a while he asked his assistant, Kobun Chino Otogawa, to open a full-time center there. Jobs became a faithful follower, along with his occasional girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, and Daniel Kottke and Elizabeth Holmes. He also began to go by himself on retreats to the Tassajara Zen Center, a monastery near Carmel where Kobun also taught.
Kottke found Kobun amusing. “His English was atrocious,” he recalled. “He would speak in a kind of haiku, with poetic, suggestive phrases. We would sit and listen to him, and half the time we had no idea what he was going on about. I took the whole thing as a kind of lighthearted interlude.” Holmes was more into the scene. “We would go to Kobun’s meditations, sit on zafu cushions, and he would sit on a dais,” she said. “We learned how to tune out distractions. It was a magical thing. One evening we were meditating with Kobun when it was raining, and he taught us how to use ambient sounds to bring us back to focus on our meditation.”
As for Jobs, his devotion was intense. “He became really serious and self-important and just generally unbearable,” according to Kottke. He began meeting with Kobun almost daily, and every few months they went on retreats together to meditate. “I ended up spending as much time as I could with him,” Jobs recalled. “He had a wife who was a nurse at Stanford and two kids. She worked the night shift, so I would go over and hang out with him in the evenings. She would get home about midnight and shoo me away.” They sometimes discussed whether Jobs should devote himself fully to spiritual pursuits, but Kobun counseled otherwise. He assured Jobs that he could keep in touch with his spiritual side while working in a business. The relationship turned out to be lasting and deep; seventeen years later Kobun would perform Jobs’s wedding ceremony.
Jobs’s compulsive search for self-awareness also led him to undergo primal scream therapy, which had recently been developed and popularized by a Los Angeles psychotherapist named Arthur Janov. It was based on the Freudian theory that psychological problems are caused by the repressed pains of childhood; Janov argued that they could be resolved by re-suffering these primal moments while fully expressing the pain—sometimes in screams. To Jobs, this seemed preferable to talk therapy because it involved intuitive feeling and emotional action rather than just rational analyzing. “This was not something to think about,” he later said. “This was something to do: to close your eyes, hold your breath, jump in, and come out the other end more insightful.”
A group of Janov’s adherents ran a program called the Oregon Feeling Center in an old hotel in Eugene that was managed by Jobs’s Reed College guru Robert Friedland, whose All One Farm commune was nearby. In late 1974, Jobs signed up for a twelve-week course of therapy there costing $1,000. “Steve and I were both into personal growth, so I wanted to go with him,” Kottke recounted, “but I couldn’t afford it.”
Jobs confided to close friends that he was driven by the pain he was feeling about being put up for adoption and not knowing about his birth parents. “Steve had a very profound desire to know his physical parents so he could better know himself,” Friedland later said. He had learned from Paul and Clara Jobs that his birth parents had both been graduate students at a university and that his father might be Syrian. He had even thought about hiring a private investigator, but he decided not to do so for the time being. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents,” he recalled, referring to Paul and Clara.
“He was struggling with the fact that he had been adopted,” according to Elizabeth Holmes. “He felt that it was an issue that he needed to get hold of emotionally.” Jobs admitted as much to her. “This is something that is bothering me, and I need to focus on it,” he said. He was even more open with Greg Calhoun. “He was doing a lot of soul-searching about being adopted, and he talked about it with me a lot,” Calhoun recalled. “The primal scream and the mucusless diets, he was trying to cleanse himself and get deeper into his frustration about his birth. He told me he was deeply angry about the fact that he had been given up.”
John Lennon had undergone the same primal scream therapy in 1970, and in December of that year he released the song “Mother” with the Plastic Ono Band. It dealt with Lennon’s own feelings about a father who had abandoned him and a mother who had been killed when he was a teenager. The refrain includes the haunting chant “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home.” Jobs used to play the song often.
Jobs later said that Janov’s teachings did not prove very useful. “He offered a ready-made, buttoned-down answer which turned out to be far too oversimplistic. It became obvious that it was not going to yield any great insight.” But Holmes contended that it made him more confident: “After he did it, he was in a different place. He had a very abrasive personality, but there was a peace about him for a while. His confidence improved and his feelings of inadequacy were reduced.”
Jobs came to believe that he could impart that feeling of confidence to others and thus push them to do things they hadn’t thought possible. Holmes had broken up with Kottke and joined a religious cult in San Francisco that expected her to sever ties with all past friends. But Jobs rejected that injunction. He arrived at the cult house in his Ford Ranchero one day and announced that he was driving up to Friedland’s apple farm and she was to come. Even more brazenly, he said she would have to drive part of the way, even though she didn’t know how to use the stick shift. “Once we got on the open road, he made me get behind the wheel, and he shifted the car until we got up to 55 miles per hour,” she recalled. “Then he puts on a tape of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, lays his head in my lap, and goes to sleep. He had the attitude that he could do anything, and therefore so can you. He put his life in my hands. So that made me do something I didn’t think I could do.”
It was the brighter side of what would become known as his reality distortion field. “If you trust him, you can do things,” Holmes said. “If he’s decided that something should happen, then he’s just going to make it happen.”
One day in early 1975 Al Alcorn was sitting in his office at Atari when Ron Wayne burst in. “Hey, Stevie is back!” he shouted.
“Wow, bring him on in,” Alcorn replied.
Jobs shuffled in barefoot, wearing a saffron robe and carrying a copy of Be Here Now, which he handed to Alcorn and insisted he read. “Can I have my job back?” he asked.
“He looked like a Hare Krishna guy, but it was great to see him,” Alcorn recalled. “So I said, sure!”
Once again, for the sake of harmony, Jobs worked mostly at night. Wozniak, who was living in an apartment nearby and working at HP, would come by after dinner to hang out and play the video games. He had become addicted to Pong at a Sunnyvale bowling alley, and he was able to build a version that he hooked up to his home TV set.
One day in the late summer of 1975, Nolan Bushnell, defying the prevailing wisdom that paddle games were over, decided to develop a single-player version of Pong; instead of competing against an opponent, the player would volley the ball into a wall that lost a brick whenever it was hit. He called Jobs into his office, sketched it out on his little blackboard, and asked him to design it. There would be a bonus, Bushnell told him, for every chip fewer than fifty that he used. Bushnell knew that Jobs was not a great engineer, but he assumed, correctly, that he would recruit Wozniak, who was always hanging around. “I looked at it as a two-for-one thing,” Bushnell recalled. “Woz was a better engineer.”
Wozniak was thrilled when Jobs asked him to help and proposed splitting the fee. “This was the most wonderful offer in my life, to actually design a game that people would use,” he recalled. Jobs said it had to be done in four days and with the fewest chips possible. What he hid from Wozniak was that the deadline was one that Jobs had imposed, because he needed to get to the All One Farm to help prepare for the apple harvest. He also didn’t mention that there was a bonus tied to keeping down the number of chips.
“A game like this might take most engineers a few months,” Wozniak recalled. “I thought that there was no way I could do it, but Steve made me sure that I could.” So he stayed up four nights in a row and did it. During the day at HP, Wozniak would sketch out his design on paper. Then, after a fast-food meal, he would go right to Atari and stay all night. As Wozniak churned out the design, Jobs sat on a bench to his left implementing it by wire-wrapping the chips onto a breadboard. “While Steve was breadboarding, I spent time playing my favorite game ever, which was the auto racing game Gran Trak 10,” Wozniak said.
Astonishingly, they were able to get the job done in four days, and Wozniak used only forty-five chips. Recollections differ, but by most accounts Jobs simply gave Wozniak half of the base fee and not the bonus Bushnell paid for saving five chips. It would be another ten years before Wozniak discovered (by being shown the tale in a book on the history of Atari titled Zap) that Jobs had been paid this bonus. “I think that Steve needed the money, and he just didn’t tell me the truth,” Wozniak later said. When he talks about it now, there are long pauses, and he admits that it causes him pain. “I wish he had just been honest. If he had told me he needed the money, he should have known I would have just given it to him. He was a friend. You help your friends.” To Wozniak, it showed a fundamental difference in their characters. “Ethics always mattered to me, and I still don’t understand why he would’ve gotten paid one thing and told me he’d gotten paid another,” he said. “But, you know, people are different.”
When Jobs learned this story was published, he called Wozniak to deny it. “He told me that he didn’t remember doing it, and that if he did something like that he would remember it, so he probably didn’t do it,” Wozniak recalled. When I asked Jobs directly, he became unusually quiet and hesitant. “I don’t know where that allegation comes from,” he said. “I gave him half the money I ever got. That’s how I’ve always been with Woz. I mean, Woz stopped working in 1978. He never did one ounce of work after 1978. And yet he got exactly the same shares of Apple stock that I did.”
Is it possible that memories are muddled and that Jobs did not, in fact, shortchange Wozniak? “There’s a chance that my memory is all wrong and messed up,” Wozniak told me, but after a pause he reconsidered. “But no. I remember the details of this one, the $350 check.” He confirmed his memory with Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn. “I remember talking about the bonus money to Woz, and he was upset,” Bushnell said. “I said yes, there was a bonus for each chip they saved, and he just shook his head and then clucked his tongue.”
Whatever the truth, Wozniak later insisted that it was not worth rehashing. Jobs is a complex person, he said, and being manipulative is just the darker facet of the traits that make him successful. Wozniak would never have been that way, but as he points out, he also could never have built Apple. “I would rather let it pass,” he said when I pressed the point. “It’s not something I want to judge Steve by.”
The Atari experience helped shape Jobs’s approach to business and design. He appreciated the user-friendliness of Atari’s insert-quarter-avoid-Klingons games. “That simplicity rubbed off on him and made him a very focused product person,” said Ron Wayne. Jobs also absorbed some of Bushnell’s take-no-prisoners attitude. “Nolan wouldn’t take no for an answer,” according to Alcorn, “and this was Steve’s first impression of how things got done. Nolan was never abusive, like Steve sometimes is. But he had the same driven attitude. It made me cringe, but dammit, it got things done. In that way Nolan was a mentor for Jobs.”
Bushnell agreed. “There is something indefinable in an entrepreneur, and I saw that in Steve,” he said. “He was interested not just in engineering, but also the business aspects. I taught him that if you act like you can do something, then it will work. I told him, ‘Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.’”