Why We Dug Atari

A combination of enthusiast verve, corporate ambivalence, and rumor-milling tumble-weeded for 30 years, making the process of locating the deposit a fascinating puzzle. Joe Lewandowski, Alamogordo’s resident solid waste management expert, obsessed over the this puzzle, working from memory, landscape, and photographs to lock in where the games were actually buried within the landfill. On April 26, 2014, city staff, contracted labor, and fandom unearthed the physical remains of a multi-national corporation that mismanaged its consumer electronics division, a moment in game history when the executive “suits” of Warner Communications culture clashed with Silicon Valley creative types accustomed to hot-tub Fridays and flip-flops. From 1976 to 1984, the imaginary entity nostalgically referred to simply as “Atari” was really “Atari Inc.” a subsidiary of a multi-billion dollar media empire. The cracking veneer of the North American games industry included a rapid descent from the January 18, 1982 cover headline of Time when video games were “blitzing the world” to the hushed 1983 convoy of semitrailers depositing the forsaken.

Departing from an otherwise featureless building in El Paso, Atari’s products passed through the hands of numerous retailers, consumers, and gamers. Warehouse workers packed them on trucks and retail employees then took them from nondescript boxes of six or 10. Gamers brought them home, opened the cardboard packaging, pressed the hard plastic cartridges into Atari game consoles, and then gripped rubberized joysticks to press their lone red button.

Within a year or so, some games made their way back to the warehouse, others remained unsold on the shelves or storerooms of retailers, and others never boarded trucks.

The most anticipated game of the 1982 holiday season—E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial—did not perform as expected and was, along with other Atari products, transported to the dump. The retail dispersal was reversed and in 1983 a convoy transported and then transformed Atari products from objects of desire into waste. Alamagordo’s landfill operators then buried the games under concrete and tons of domestic trash with their price stickers, return receipts, and their original packaging intact. Eventually, a layer of earth covered the trash that covered the games, and they evaporated into myth.

Maze Craze with “Defective” tag intact (Andrew Reinhard) 

Thirty years later, over the course of a weekend of digging and sorting, the games—mostly too damaged to function as such—were transformed once again into the material record of the past. Properly catalogued, arranged, and conserved, the materials serve as evidence to help document the political economy of games. The extracted, crushed game cartridges and gnarled packages reveal a stage in a product’s lifecycle beyond design, consumption, and utility. Brought to the surface, they prove intentional destruction: game software not as “revolutionary” invention but as discarded stuff along with mounds of plastic bags, bottles, cans, cardboard, newspapers, old Play-Doh, a porn mag, and domestic rubbish.

Missile Command, Defender, and Phoenix mixed with other landfill trash (Raiford Guins)

City staff, locals, eccentrics from across the nation, filmmakers, and archaeologists collectively witnessed the perilous moment when these objects made the leap from abandonment to return. Exceeding the scientific enthusiasm of an earlier generation of archaeological garbologists, the discarded games moved from rubbish to artifacts of study and then on to museum objects—evidence of past events preserved in the present, a memento mori. Some of the former trash will appear for sale once again as collectors’ items, or become part of museum collections (once the City of Alamogordo offers its gifts), and very possibly molder in a secure storage room of the community of Alamogordo who took possession and responsibility for the games as they came out of the earth.

Participating in the transition of these games from object of consumer desire to museum artifact, we became the archaeologists of these objects’ life history.

Our work transgressed the arc that most objects trace as they move from desire to discard. The team’s investment in this enterprise was neither to shout “eureka” nor to myth-bust, but to help ensure that excavated materials live on in cultural institutions, defying consumerist erasure.

The subversive act of resuscitating objects intentionally interred and forgotten draws upon the same punk intellectual tradition that celebrates squatting or repurposed, anachronistic melodies. Punk Archaeologists understand that the reinvention of 1950s pop by 1970s punk bands like the Heartbreakers, the MC5, and the Ramones exemplified the value in objects discarded in favor of newer, better, and faster models. For Caraher, the three-day excavation schedule for a deposit less than four decades old reinforced the ever-accelerating pace of life in late capitalism. Recycling, in a way, and recognizing the value in these discarded objects offers the opportunity to slow the pace of 21st century capitalism by reminding us that our actions can produce value in objects. Just as we can laugh about our involvement in an excavation funded in part by Microsoft, we can also see our work as undercutting the rapid commodification of experience by moving an object from being cast off to being venerated. Even the most disposable of objects pushed aside by rapidly changing tastes and technologies can become desirable once more, offering a post-ironic critique of our culture of discard.

It was not just the processes of bringing objects back to culture’s persistent gaze that piqued our professional interests, but also the games themselves: crushed, twisted, deformed, amalgamated, degraded, and even sometimes intact software that escaped the tread of a bulldozer. 

Guins in particular wanted to eat his own words. In Game After, he adopted a cynical view on the integrity of the Alamogordo remains, doubting that recognizable artifacts could be retrieved should the landfill ever be excavated. Guins’ doubt stemmed from what he learned of the measures the landfill took to discourage scavenging: the crushing of games mixed with waste, dirt, and globs of cement (no smooth layer was ever poured). He imagined ecofact not artifact, mulch not mummies preserved in the anaerobic bowels of the landfill. He was glad to be proved wrong—largely because of the desert-dry conditions and lack of waterlogged waste in this particular cell in the landfill. Atari catalogs, manuals, warrantees, packaging, controllers, and cartridges were vacuum-sealed and ripe for documenting.

Multiple bucket loads of landfill trash displayed on the surface (Raiford Guins)

Having such a vast range of legible materials confirmed Ricky Jones’ account of his scavenging trip back in 1983: E.T. shared its coffin with many other Atari titles. Also present: Howard Scott Warshaw’s more celebrated titles like Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both of which sold millions of units. The pallets that arrived at Alamogordo were loaded with games developed by other Atari programmers as well. Also exhumed were Tod Frye’s Pac-Man, Rob Fulop’s Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Night Driver, Larry Kaplan’s Air-Sea Battle, Carla Meninsky’s Warlords and Star Raiders, Bob Polaro’s Defender, and Warren Robinett’s Adventure, along with the creative labor of numerous other programmers. These intentionally abandoned products unearthed on April 26, 2014 had production runs spanning the period from 1977 to 1983, from the launch of the Atari VCS to the games crash.

Many games were recovered in their original shipping packages while thousands of loose cartridges dotted the surface. (Raiford Guins)

The sample we processed reveals a broad range of titles, but most importantly it demonstrates that Atari Inc. didn’t play favorites. They dumped the lot—regardless of any single title’s market performance, or lack thereof. Landfills don’t discriminate and they don’t lie. They are great levelers. The story of this particular dig and this particular layer is one that no amount of collective nostalgia and E.T. memorabilia can now shroud.

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Presented by

William Caraher is an historian and archaeologist at the University of North Dakota at Grand Folks.

Raiford Guins is an associate professor of culture and technology and curator of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection at Stony Brook University.

​ Andrew Reinhard

Andrew Reinhard is director of publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Richard Rothaus, an archaeologist and historian, is owner of Trefoil Cultural, a cultural resource management firm.

Bret Weber is an assistant professor in the University of North Dakota’s Social Work Department.

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