Material Culture and Absent Histories: Digging the Atari Dump

The sign to the former Alamagordo dump today (image KPBS)

The sign to the former Alamogordo dump today (image KPBS)

In September 1983 a phalanx of tractor trailers reportedly arrived in Alamogordo New Mexico and dumped a load of Atari games, of which the most infamous was rumored to be the ET: The Extraterrestrial game.  The story of the “Atari Dump” has assumed mythic dimensions in gaming lore, symbolizing the near-fatal misstep of Pong creators Atari, capturing the primal moments of the industry, and according ET a symbolic if not formal burial rarely accorded to commodities.  The likelihood that Atari or any other manufacturer might discard loads of equipment seems not at all noteworthy, but gamers have long been fascinated by the tale (or urban legend) that Atari discarded perhaps 3.5 million copies of the licensed game that is often considered perhaps the worst video game of all time.

In May the Alamogordo Daily News reported that the city has approved an “excavation” of the dump by the Canadian “digital branded entertainment company” FuelFuel’s six-month “dig” apparently will revolve around the production of a documentary at the now-closed landfill, so this is not an archaeological project as much as a digital marketing campaign.  ET game designer Howard Scott Warshaw is skeptical of the game dumping story and the likelihood that there is even anything to find; Alamogordo’s warm welcome for the dig appears to be focused more on public exposure than any interest in Atari or archaeology; and the shallow “archaeological” purpose of the project may be simply to prove or disprove the legend that tons of Atari products were discarded in the dump and sealed beneath concrete.

The ET game rumored to be amongst the Atari dump remains in Alamogordo (image from Wikipedia)

The ET game rumored to be amongst the Atari dump remains in Alamogordo (image from Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, there is something archaeologically telling in the popular allure of the project, and it is almost certainly that 30-year narrative about the ET game that a digital marketer would recognize as compelling.  The public fascination in the assemblage rests on the literal absence of the Atari games and the burial and potential recovery of their material remains.  In those respects, the Atari dump captures much of the allure of archaeological material culture as well that has relatively little to do with the antiquity of material things.  Paul Benzon acknowledges that the fascination with the Atari dump reflects some “hipster nostalgia for the 8-bit culture of early video gaming”:  yet Benzon recognizes that beyond this romanticism, the mythology of the Atari assemblage rests on its potential materialization of a manifestly “archaic” 1983 digital technology and style.  Benzon points to the 2006 Wintergreen music video of an excavation of the ET dump (see video director Keith Schofield’s thoughts) as a now-telling indication of the power of the absent games, suggesting that much of the power of the mythical ET cartridges lies in their literal absence.

An ad for the infamous ET game.

An ad for the infamous ET game.

The Atari assemblage is more symbolically powerful as an absent, imagined symbol embedded in mythology than as tangible excavated things in a parched New Mexico desert.  In a digital culture in general and gaming in particular—both revolving around transience and intentional obsolescence–, the desire for the detritus of long-lost gaming systems, video game cartridges, and experimental technologies may perhaps be exaggerated.  Yet this fascination for absence is more complex than simply musing over a lack of particular Atari things, instead reflecting how our imagination is charged by the absence of things that do (or did) conceivably exist (as opposed to Sasquatch, which a few people are simply trying to prove exists at all).  For instance, abandonment art is energized by the implied absences of people and things in ruined spaces, and archaeology itself acknowledges that it always interprets contexts characterized by absences of some things and people.

Reese's pieces are sprinkled about between Elliott and ET in this screen capture (image from Wikipedia)

Reese’s pieces are sprinkled about between Elliott and ET in this screen capture (image from Wikipedia)

An excavation of the Atari dump does not promise an especially compelling material analysis as much as it plumbs the complexities of memory and dissects the intersection of popular imagination and materiality.  Some of that memory for Atari games is inevitably a romanticization of technologically retro games that celebrates their playability, relives gamers’ childhood memories, provides downwardly mobile kitsch style, or even secures the status of art objects.  It seems unlikely that the recovery of any discarded ET games or Atari gaming systems will radically rewrite our understanding of Atari or the broader industry in the early 1980s, so it would be reasonable for scholars to resist calling this excavation an archaeological project.  Yet the process of digging the dump—the literal theater of an excavation—is what Fuel is leveraging when observers invoke the project as “archaeology.”  In fact much of public archaeological scholarship uses that same excavation site stage, but archaeologists normally champion critical pedagogical ends over a dig site as entertainment.  Fuel’s actual goals for the project remain unclear, but a reflective analysis of the memory for Atari games, the mythology of a mass Atari dumping, and the material detritus of early 1980’s game industry could actually provide some genuine scholarly insights without descending into insular theory or forsaking the emotional depth invested in games.

References

Aris Anagnostopoulos

2013 Archaeological Ethnographies of Absence.  Seminar Proposal.

Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Soerensen (editors)

2010 An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss.  Springer, New York.  (subscription access)

James Newman

2012 Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence.  Routledge, New York.

Jaakko Suominen

2008 The Past as the Future? Nostalgia and Retrogaming in Digital Culture.  Fibreculture 11.

Melanie Swalwell

2007 The Remembering and the Forgetting of Early Digital Games: From Novelty to Detritus and Back Again.  Journal of Visual Culture 6(2):255-273. (subscription access)

Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg

2012 Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun.  Syzygy Carmel, New York.

John Wills

2008 Pixel Cowboys and Silicon Gold Mines: Videogames of the American WestPacific Historical Review 77(2):273-303. (subscription access)

Images

ET video game cover and screen shot from Wikipedia

Alamogordo dump image from KPBS

Posted on July 15, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Fantastic – thanks so much for posting.

  2. Great post. The location of the supposed game dump — Alamogordo — also seems pretty significant. The symbolism of the location, with its close connections to secret military research, fits well with the “lost” games based on E.T. (And it’s not too far from Roswell, NM, which has even more direct connections to UFOs, etc.)

    • This is indeed a good point. Some observers have also noted that the mythology of the dump is fueled by this location on a landscape linked to alternative histories that may or may not have left material things on the New Mexico landscape. In all these cases–ET games, Roswell, and Area 51–it is interesting that people turn to archaeology and material things as evidence to support their causes, some of which receive skeptical receptions (the Atari dump) and others that really press the limits of credibility (Area 51). There is probably something to be said about the archaeology of such imagined histories.

  3. I am so impressed by your postings, they are thoughtful and always provide a new view on archaeological perspectives. Just great!

  4. BEST post on the WORST game ever, awesome!

  5. A digital marketing campaign is exactly what it is. We already solved the issue of what was buried there in our book released last year (Atari Inc. – Business Is Fun. and thanks for the inclusion in your references), thanks to manufacturing logs we were given by the former head of that area for Atari, as well as direct interviews and other internal documentation. It was simply a burial of unused parts and stock from the El Passo factory as it became automated and changed it’s focus from mostly game manufacturing to hardware. (Game manufacturing was being moved to the new plants in Asia announced earlier in ’83). In the span of a month El Passo was automated, it’s staff downsized, and it’s materials dumped.

    What’s interesting to note is that most of the myths and stories surrounding the dumping did not start popping up until the 90s. Absolutely none of the press coverage from the time of the dumping (both local and national) mention the ET dumping myth once. In fact, the local coverage was very accurate as to what was being dumped there – a wide assortment of game titles and hardware (computer and console), which is what the El Passo plant had been manufacturing up until that time. Even a revisit with some of the now grown kids who had been raiding the dump (causing Atari to have the dump steamrolled and capped with concrete) and people involved in the dumping itself produced the same results: a plethora of game titles (including ET) and an assortment of hardware had been dumped.

    During the mid 90s, articles started to slowly appear claiming the dumping to be actually be a dumping of all of Atari’s unsold or returned ET cartridges. From there it took on a life of it’s own, and by the mid 2000s grew to include all sorts of prototypes as well (an implausible concept as all development was done over in Sunnyvale, CA at Atari headquarters. El Passo was simply a manufacturing plant for actively in production products, no development or prototyping was ever done there).

    Most in Alamogordo have their doubts as to whether any digging will actually occur. If it does not, it will be interesting to see how this myth continues to grow. Likewise, if by some chance it does occur and anything salvageable is recovered, will the finding of a single ET cart among the rest of the game titles and hardware simply further prop up the myth?

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