There we were at a trash dump in New Mexico: archaeologists, a documentary film crew, Alamogordo city representatives, security and safety teams, a French gourmet food truck, a bevy of hundreds of curious onlookers, and reporters and photographers from Reuters, CNET, and other media outlets. Everyone was there to witness the rather unceremonious cracking of a sealed deposit of Atari Inc.’s e-waste on April 26, 2014. There were hundreds of old games buried in the landfill, casualties of a collapsing video-game market in the early 1980s—and some terrible game-making.
The media outlets—BBC, NPR, CNN, NBC, and many others—would go on to make the dig an international news item, just interesting enough, just weird enough, just nostalgia-inducing enough, to make the final minutes of broadcasts around the world.
But the stories about the buried games were more complex than the outputs of the media flurry.
The residents of Alamogordo, the town that houses the dump, have their version. The recent attention to their southern New Mexico city validated their first-hand accounts of the actual disposal from September 22–24, 1983. All exhumed remains supplied “concrete evidence” to quiet those who dismissed the disposal of Atari cartridges and hardware as urban legend.
Game collectors have their story, too. For them, the dig provided the extraordinary opportunity to get to the bottom of the “infamous Atari landfill.” Nostalgia had its role, playing upon the remembrances of 40-somethings hoping to reclaim a restorative piece of a childhood that Atari helped define.
Then there is the face of the “Atari Legend,” an Atari 2600 game called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which was subjected to merciless production constraints that resulted in its dubious reputation as the “worst game ever.” Many (mistakenly) hail the game as Atari’s death knell—if not the catalyst to the death spiral of the entire North American games industry. The validation of the dumping ground provided them with an authentic grave upon which to dance. The game’s creator, Howard Scott Warshaw, attended the dig, which tempered the cynicism and fed a real sentimentality toward the man, the game, and the game’s alien. For many, finding the games “brought E.T. home.”
There were, of course, economic interests as well. The dig was seen by some as a publicity stunt by the city of Alamogordo to cash in on its happenstance claim to fame and to generate profits by auctioning souvenirs to the highest bidders. And there was the fairground ballyhoo for Xbox Entertainment Studios and Lightbox Entertainment to promote Atari: Game Over (working title), the first in a new documentary series that may also be its last.
It was an extraordinary media blitz to say the least. Much of the frisson came from the dig’s presentation as archaeology, but few outlets focused on the actual work we, the archaeologists, did.
And we’d like to explain ourselves.
Here we all are. From left to right, we’re Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Raiford Guins, Brett Weber, and William Caraher. We’re a collective of Punk Archaeologists. The punk moniker harkens back to the suburban culture of the late 1970s/early 1980s that drove Atari to prosperity while simultaneously declaring a critique of those consumerist and materialist values. And, just as punk resisted any unified identity or agenda, our archaeological team embodied a range of motives, perspectives, and theoretical commitments that made us want to be there when the excavation machinery rumbled to life.
This is why we did what we did—a summary of our intentions and reflections on the aftermath.
* * *
To Reinhard, the leader of the archaeological team, it felt like a possible mistake, an out-nerding of the nerds to get beyond the velvet rope to see the Holy of Holies. Reinhard and Guins, completely unaware of one another’s actions, first reached out to Fuel Entertainment after it had acquired permission to excavate the landfill in June 2013. Their initial contact was motivated by personal research interests in video games, archaeological science, and video game history. Reinhard was ultimately asked to be the lead archaeologist for the project while Guins joined as the team’s historian based upon the field research on the landfill conducted for his book, Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. For some, the dig was seen as a tomb raid, but Reinhard wanted to expose the stratigraphy of the landfill and the interplay between domestic trash and the corporate dump of Atari products. As noble or scientific as those goals might have been, the team also operated out of enlightened self-interest: This excavation put archaeology on the global stage, and raised its profile and capital. After so many “digger shows,” the team sought to document this salvage excavation according to disciplinary standards. We pursued our work under the popular media microscope, distinct from looters in terms of intention, methods, and outcomes.
While generally agreeing on the larger mission, our team members had different expectations about what would be found and how the work would proceed in the brief window allocated by New Mexico safety restrictions. There were also varying concerns about likely tensions between scientific method and documentary filmmaking. The project was largely dependent on the overarching story and schedule of the director even as team member’s professional interests and intellectual investments in the histories and archaeology of late capitalism’s contemporary past exceeded the subject matter of the documentary.
So why did we, the archaeological team, dig Atari? Rothaus quipped, “Why not?” The games were not rare, but common. Searching for them reversed the expectations of a culture that values the past only if it is old and unique. The desert landfill would not provide clean emptiness, but the overwhelming toxic waste of the late 20th century. Instead of a stupidly over-hyped “here is why Mayan civilization collapsed!” or “look, the Santa Maria!” or “a sunken Mycenean town!” we turned our efforts to things that are so common they can be found on eBay for $1.99. We would shout over the dust storm, “value lies in experience, in memory, not just in the object.” We would fight fetishist fanboys who forget that context gives these games meaning.
Why dig? Not to determine if Atari games were really buried in Alamogordo, as so much coverage of the dig has implied. We knew that the games were there. This was a fact largely confirmed by Ricky Jones of Alamogordo, who ransacked the landfill on Thursday, September 22, 1983 before Atari Inc.’s products were crushed a few days later. No, rather than confirming a falsely-named “urban legend,” the Atari excavation offers a unique look into corporate history and end-of-lifecycle for products. Companies tend to hide the locations of disposed surplus and damaged goods. To most people, returned, overproduced, and undersold products just vanish, unnoticed. Last year’s models, failed releases, and returns contrast with the hyped sales figures, new advertising, and marketing plugs surrounding new products. Contrary to Atari’s long-dead corporate expectations, the publicity for its unsold titles came—unwelcomed and enduring. The so-called legend of the Atari dumping just would not die. The company either underestimated or simply never imagined the staying power of a brand in the minds of devotees raised on 1980s careless consumerism.