Why We Dug Atari

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.

Once one sidesteps nostalgia, other fascinating connections between the dumping of Atari Inc.’s products and U.S. history begin to materialize. Over the last three years, Caraher, Rothaus, and Weber have been working on the North Dakota Man Camp Project, which documents the social and material culture of man camps (temporary labor housing) in North Dakota’s oil boom counties. Spurred by new technology and higher oil prices, the boom has made the state into an economic powerhouse. But at the same time, long-term residents remain haunted by the economic crashes that killed previous booms in this remote and sparsely-populated region. The three found interesting parallels between the ephemeral nature and frenetic pace of extractive industry activity in North Dakota and the surreal experience of the weekend dig. 

The historian-cum-social worker of our group, Weber was particularly interested in the media circus, the intersection with frontier settings, and the uniquely American relationship with the boom-bust business cycle. The mystique of the desert was part of the attraction that weekend; after all, it was an X-Files style cliché that filmmakers and archaeologists were in New Mexico searching for buried aliens. But he also considered the American fascination with success, the readiness to denounce failure, and the tempering of both with the love of an underdog.

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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