Why We Dug Atari

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.

An issue of the Alamogordo Daily News from September 25, 1983 with the headline, “Tons of Atari games buried: Dump here utilized” found mixed in with the subject of its front-page story. (Raiford Guins)

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.

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.

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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