Material Culture and Absent Histories: Digging the Atari Dump
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” Fuel. Fuel’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.
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.
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.
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.
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Alamogordo dump image from KPBS