The Atari video game burial is a central urban legend of video gaming culture. Popular belief has it that in September 1983, faced with the resounding failure of their adaptation of the blockbuster film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the Atari corporation drove somewhere between 10 and 20 truckloads of merchandise, including but not limited to a massive collection of unsold and returned E.T. cartridges, to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, buried this material, and paved over it with concrete.
The burial strikes me as a useful ground zero, both literally and figuratively, for a media archaeology of digital culture. Jussi Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo describe media archaeology as concerned with recovering “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’” In the case of the burial, the usually metaphorical valence of media archaeology as a critical rubric is tantalizingly literal: what remains to be unearthed here is not merely a lost history of digital things, but indeed the lost things themselves—not only the economic and cultural failure of the E.T. game, but also its material detritus.
What might this sedimentary burial in the desert have to tell us about materiality, capital, circulation, labor, play, and waste within digital culture? How might we recover the history of a media object that seems to refuse physical recovery? What might it mean to construct history, memory, and/or nostalgia around an object that may not even exist to begin with? In their video for “When I Wake Up,” the band Wintergreen addresses these questions, yet their narrative of retrieval and recovery domesticates the uneasy materiality of the Atari burial, playing upon hipster nostalgia for the 8-bit culture of early video gaming. Bored with playing E.T. in their living room, the band drives out to the middle of the desert and uncovers a trove of E.T. cartridges, claiming the past on behalf of the present in a directly material fashion. Yet in remaining out of sight, the Atari landfill poses a relation between technological materiality and temporality that complicates the retro chic of Wintergreen’s archaeological expedition. Present through its absence—nothing more and nothing less—the burial’s Borgesian lost library of trash is an archive that is itself a gap in the archive, a phantom memory produced through secrecy, sedimentation, and the fluctuations of the technological market.
An underexplored topic
Thanks for this piece, it really made me think about video game nostalgia in a more structured way. Tacking on to your specific example, the Atari burial - it makes a great appearance in 'Lucky Wander Boy' - an essential read for the genre/topic. I'd also bring in 'Ready Player One' as a popular take, yet constructive form of video game nostalgia - that addresses the possibility of near-physical recovery of intangible media. In it, classic nostalgia 8-bit titles are reborn as minigames in a virtual reality world. Video game hipsters (the usage here meaning more "otaku" than "fashionable") receive rewards for comprehensive knowledge of retro games that exist outside of those games - like X-Box's "Achievements" or PS3's "Trophies," but of actual significance and meaningful clout instead of in frivolous title alone. To consider a serial connection that exists beyond game series alone implies a textual meaningfulness that otherwise escapes video games beyond Nintendo titles and the Konami code. But I digress. ET may exist as a relic and a myth, but long gone are the days where video game development can fall through the cracks. The digitality of our current culture, combined with the rise of the industry's popularity means the era of lost video games are over. But the new area in danger of being lost to insufficient archiving is the current trend of 'timeline' media applications. Realtime distribution like Twitter and its many imitators have countless exceptional applications, but we lack the digital infastructure to sort through the noise or to take accurate snapshots. I've actually faced this problem professionally - the last part of development of any product is the ability understand it. Tools are being made for digital media that are a step in the right direction, but the macro scope and independently curated content make a comprehensive record near impossible. The sand is piling up in the social media desert, and it won't be nearly as easy to dig through.
Thanks Paul, both for your post and for kicking this week's entries off.
One of the things that caught my attention in your post is the persistence of the urban legend. What is it about this story that makes it so appealing to gamers? Does circulating the story display cultural capital? Is it a reflection on the state of contemporary gaming? Does it reflect a desire for alternative histories that don't lead us teleologically to Sony, Starcraft and Steam? To put it in a different way, if the band is so bored with playing the game, why are they so visibly stoked to find 500 copies of it in the desert?
What always strikes me most about this urban legend is the detail that the game ROMs buried in the desert were unsold cartridges of E.T.
The 9/25/83 newspaper article in the Alamogordo Daily News that inspired the urban legend makes no mention of specific games. But somehow E.T. is always mentioned as the game being dumped into the landfill. I don't think this is an insignificant detail. But what does it mean?
Is the insistence upon E.T. a reaction somehow to the schmaltz of the movie? Is it a reaction of gamers, desperate to separate their emerging medium from the predominant medium of film? Is it wish fulfillment about the future of franchises and marketing tie-ins? Is there a bit a schadenfreude to the urban legend? And would the urban legend be so persistent if it were another Atari VCS game from 1982--say, Berzerk--that was the central detail of the story?
et game -> sign of changes in 1980s entertainment industries?
I wonder if it's less about the schmaltz of the movie and more about E.T. being one of the early super-merchandized products of synergy-obsessed 1980s Hollywood. As a kid I definitely had an ET bike, an ET storybook record (with a weird poster of ET with Michael Jackson), an ET halloween costume, ET dolls (ugliest things of all time)...
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