Why We Dug Atari

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.

The Atari boom of the 1970s and 1980s came about as youth culture transitioned from baby-boomers to Gen Xers, from 45s to home computers. There was also the fading excitement about—or maybe even a hangover from—a Space Age that no longer held the same fascination as the earlier race to the moon, but instead flirted with a less pragmatic, more romanticized and almost maudlin notion of discovering and joining life from elsewhere in the universe. This all came together in the fall of 1982, leavened by the lingering hype of Spielberg’s summer blockbuster and proofed by the consumerism of the hotly anticipated Christmas season. Many who unwrapped Christmas gifts during those years clearly remember the magical name “Atari.”

Atari’s bust coincided almost simultaneously with the peak of the 1980s recession, when unemployment in the U.S. hit its highest level since the Great Depression: 10.8 percent during the Christmas shopping season of 1982. Like so many boom-era companies before it, Atari Inc. suffered from corporate hubris: Skyrocketing sales fed a sense that they could do no wrong. A frantically compressed production schedule for the E.T. game failed to produce a quality product, and nevertheless overshot the deadline to be included in that year’s Sears’ Christmas Wish Book.

Economic booms, corporate hubris, and fading dreams of the galaxy are insufficient explanations for the excitement at exhuming them in the spring of 2014. There was talk about the 30th anniversary of the dumping of the games, but that date had already come and gone. Maybe the social and economic standing of the aging gamers had more to do with it—the young players of 1982 were now old enough to be nostalgic, and wealthy enough to finance an indulgence in fabricated memory. Capital, time, rose-colored memories… such resources flowed more freely and widely in the age of social media. The revered Atari had fallen and E.T. became "the worst game ever."

During that weekend in April, many waited for the resurrection. The filmmakers and their sponsors could create buzz in a way that would not have been possible when the games were originally dumped. And it wasn’t just those players. The city councilor in Weber reflected on the city of Alamogordo’s decision not just to allow this strange excavation but actively to engage with it. He wanted to see how they would try to brand and market trash dug up from thirty feet below their closed landfill. Economic development is always a tricky puzzle for small cities in sparsely populated areas, and Alamogordo lacks the artsy aura and mountain mystique of Santa Fe. So Weber was curious to see how the city was going to play this.

Like everyone, Weber was curious to see the games, but he also wanted to see the concrete, the liminal space between product and trash, the threshold between the legend and the spoiled treasure. After Ricky Jones and his friends had gone “shopping” in the open landfill in the Fall of 1983, Atari had allegedly sealed the deal by encasing the layer of games under concrete. In reality, it seems they just puddled enough concrete atop it to discourage the resale of products still stocked on store shelves. The heavy equipment operators working in 2014 did not find a concrete floor that needed to be cracked, no tomb to break into. Instead, there was only limited evidence of concrete (at least in the sampled area), as though Atari had pissed on its product in disgust one last time.

In the media storm that followed the actual dust storm at the dig site, the archaeology was overlooked by most newspapers, wire services, and bloggers. The story was (and will likely remain) that filmmakers had found the games (or, the game, E.T.). A not-untrue statement. But the filmmakers had also engaged archaeologists as scientists, and looking back on the weekend in the desert, one can choose between a cynical or an optimistic view. On the one hand, the filmmakers understood that the excavation offered a genuine, golden opportunity for archaeologists, garbologists, anthropologists, and historians to get a glimpse into a modern landfill, excavating our recent past while watching the audience react to the discovery. Would that hundreds of cheering people be the norm for any moment of discovery as it happens! Cynicism sets in with the view that the team merely served as props in “archaeology theater,” adding a new dimension to the documentary, a new tension as scoop after scoop of trash was sifted, and ultimately a kind of scientific validation over what was originally tagged by many as a publicity stunt.

Brett Weber and William Caraher documenting E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial games on April 27, 2014. (Richard Rothaus)

Talking with the documentary director Zak Penn, along with others associated with the project suggests we might blend these two outlooks together. The documentary earnestly seeks to explore the near-destruction of the gaming industry, focusing on the Atari Dump Site and burial of E.T. as a very real metaphor for its failure. As archaeologists and historians, we treated this event with sincerity while recognizing the project for what it was: entertainment largely produced for gamers and geeks. It was a compromise, but one we made gladly. None of us had ever excavated e-waste, and digging a landfill with archaeological methods is still (and sadly) a once-in-a-lifetime event. We were more than willing to work in front of the cameras for a career day in the field.

Andrew Reinhard documenting various titles and game controllers on April 27, 2014 (Richard Rothaus)

In a symbiotic effort, all parties got what they wanted. The archaeologists got to excavate and record the Atari material—eventually we will publish our work for both the general public and for the professional archaeological community, opening up our data and images for free use by anyone who remains interested in what we recovered and observed. The filmmakers got the footage they needed for their documentary. The city enjoyed worldwide attention that weekend. The audience was vindicated when the first games were recovered from the landfill. Fans of Atari rejoiced in their recovered cultural heritage. Ours was a salvage in these many different senses.

We dug Atari because this spectacle provided the necessary means to directly access the contemporary past for purposes of archaeological and historical research. How could we refuse?

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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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