History's 'Game Changers: Inside the Video Game Wars' Director Talks "Human Thread" in New Doc

Nolan Bushnell HISTORY's Game Changers - H Promo 2019
History Channel

Oscar winner Daniel Jung says his latest film covers "the sweet spot for my video game life."

With a history spanning over half a century, the video game industry has grown significantly from its humble beginnings of Pong and Atari. 

Oscar winner Daniel Jung's latest documentary, Game Changers: Inside the Video Game Wars, premieres on History on Sunday night, telling the story of the video game industry's early successes, failures, rivalries and lawsuits between gaming giants such as Atari, Nintendo, Sega and Sony.

Featuring new interviews with Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell; former head of Nintendo of America, Howard Lincoln; and former head of Sega of America, Tom Kalinske, the doc tells, in chronological order, how the gaming industry went from arcades to consoles to one of the biggest grossers in entertainment.

Jung spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his new film and what attracted him to the project, how he was able to get his subjects to open up about the turbulent starts of their companies and whether he'd be interested in a follow-up doc.

What about this topic attracted you?

The film was pitched without me on board. I’ve done films with History before and they introduced me to the production company because they thought I might be a nice fit for it. It wasn’t a passion project where I went out and found it, but as soon as I heard about it I said, "Yeah, I’d love to do that." This era was such a part of my youth, especially the Atari story. The area this covers, all the way up to Sony, is really the sweet spot for my video game life.

You grew up as a gamer?

Yeah, I was one of those kids when the Atari 2600 was selling like hotcakes I cajoled my parents into buying one.

How hard was it to get a hold of the subjects in this film, many of whom have checkered pasts with one another?

It was surprisingly not difficult. I mean, they were guarded, but I think that they recognized there was a caliber to this film that gave them some comfort. I let them know that ultimately I wanted it to be celebratory even though we’re certainly going into personal conflicts that existed behind the scenes.

Why did you decide to focus on the time period leading up to the mid-'90s?

There was a very conscious effort. It shows the birth of the video game industry, though we don’t focus a lot on the very, very beginning, but it’s more or less the birth of the industry through what I consider the end of the era where single individuals made an impact. It’s arguable that the era right after where we cover, or even to this day, there are incredible individuals who are making an impact on the industry, but not to the same degree. Once Sony came in it became a much more corporate affair than it was before. I was interested in the era where single individuals could not only affect a single game but they could affect an entire platform and the entire industry.

Where did you get the footage from Atari in this movie?

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to answer that. We had an archival producer on the show and I myself saw some of those gems come into the cut and was equally surprised.

This doc shows that Ralph Baer kept very detailed notes during his time at Atari. Does that type of record-keeping make your job easier?

No, because I think it’s just as helpful for us because we’re really telling a personal story.

When you make a documentary, are you more focused on the personal stories of the subjects or the wider industry or topic that the film is centered around?

There are great filmmakers who can tell topical stories, I’m not one of them. I’m not smart enough to make those films. I need a human thread. That’s why we ended the film with Sony because that’s where the human thread, to me, is certainly minimized. Wherever there’s people rubbing up against other people, that’s interesting to me. That’s what you’ve got in the first 20-30 years in this industry.

Do you have any plans to release this doc theatrically or on any other platforms?

It’s been discussed. I hope it lives on some digital platforms, as well. That question is kind of above my pay grade, but I can say that it was part of this initial thrust that History wanted to do called the History 100. They announced 10 films at the beginning of this initiative and they were all interesting subjects with interesting filmmakers. I was just really fortunate to be a part of that.

Gaming has garnered increased exposure in recent years. Why do you think this is a good time to release this documentary?

I think that gamers now, a lot of them, don’t know the history. While I know there are some retro gamers that want to play Dig Dug, I think if they see the human stories behind this industry that they’re now fully enmeshed in, I think it will be interesting to them. My generation, the gray beards who did play Space Invaders, will dig it, but hopefully the new generation will get into it as well.

Do you have any interest in doing a follow-up film picking up where this one left off?

It’s interesting. There’s something in the zeitgeist because I’ve been approached to do several different video game projects just since I’ve done this one. There’s something in the air. I think it’s because it’s such a huge industry and no one’s quite cracked that nut of how to tell the story. But I am thinking about it, yes. It’s much harder though. This was an era where single, prescient individuals could make such an impact and also were bumping into each other. Now, it’s such a massive industry that I’d have to crack the nut in a different way.