Hipster Archaeology

Curator's Note

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.


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 for this response, Andrew -- you're right that Lucky Wander Boy and Ready Player One are both key intertexts for this project, and ones that I'll definitely have to think about more as I continue working on it. And I'm intrigued by the parallel you draw between something like the lost materiality of the Atari burial and the timeline applications that play such a powerful role in so many people's daily technological experience. There's a strange irony in that those applications are in many ways self-archiving tools, yet the archives they produce are often out of reach, perhaps both to the layperson enduser and to the scholar who might seek to trace or study them. But I think that those issues play out in the earlier digital moment of the burial as well. Like the social sand you invoke at the end of your comment, those cartridges in the desert are there, but out of reach, finite in number but massive enough to dwarf (or at least be daunting to) human comprehension -- how much easier is a stockpile of five million identical cartridges to count, catalog, and comprehend than the content of a given hashtag or timespan on Twitter?

That's the kind of question I had in mind in invoking Borges in my post. There's a multilayered forensic problem present in those cartridges that very quickly descends down a kind of rabbit hole of materiality: which of them have been played? How many, and for how long? To what stage of completion in the game? How many were never shipped to retailers, how many returned from retailers unsold, how many returned from buyers unopened, how many opened but unplayed? What techniques and techologies of retrieval, restoration, and emulation would it take to find out? Obviously there's a certain kind of absurdity to questions along those lines, but I think there's also validity to the fact that past a certain point, both of the archives you've mentioned become equally difficult to comprehend.

I'm very skeptical of the notion that "long gone are the days where video game development can fall through the cracks." The Preserving Virtual Worlds reports are full of concrete and anecdotal evidence that retro and contemporary videogames alike are every bit as likely to disappear as an Atari cartridge buried in the desert--though perhaps not as dramatically. I also recommend James Newman's new book Best Before, about videogames and obsolescence.

After posting my comment, I regretted that particular dramatic word choice - for one, I thought of indie & small-scale games that never break into the spotlight, and are accordingly more vulnerable to be lost into obscurity. I guess I was just thinking about a large-scale, high-profile publisher deal like "E.T." somehow falling through the cracks - the video game audience is one of the most industry-aware consumer bases. The other reason for regret being that such a blanket statement has no place in academic thinking. Thanks for the book rec.

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?

 You raise a great tension in your last question about the band here, Michael. Their excitement at finding a mass grave of copies of a game they're already bored with echoes the way the myth of the burial circulates in culture at large. While whatever is buried has never been found or uncovered, the game itself is far from lost: it's readily available on eBay, and you can play it on a computer emulator (a different platform, admittedly, but still a point of access to the game). So I think the allure of the myth comes from the aura of the burial itself in particular, both in the Benjaminian sense of such a unique accumulation of media objects (so much reproduction that it becomes effectively unreproducible, as it were) and in the more general sense of the secreted, clandestine events surrounding it. But there's still a question of motivation there -- where and how do we distinguish among the "desire for alternative histories" you mention, a more reactionary nostalgia, and a kind of "so-bad-it's-good" kitsch fixation with a game that's infamously bad by conventional standards?

Thanks for your response -- I'm looking forward to your post later this week! 

 Yeah, well one of the things that's interesting about the video is that by the time the video's narrative begins the "so bad it's good" factor is failing to pay off for them. So why go through the trouble of finding more? It seems like one of the things the legend suggests is that the gaming industry has tried to obscure (literally "bury") the history of their failures, and one of the way gamers can assert control over gaming culture is to circulate different stories than the industry does. Hence all the Virtual Boy emulators, even though very few actually liked Virtual Boy. So one of the reasons to search for that archive is not because it's so bad it's good, but rather because it's so bad it's bad! I'm sort of thinking of Rob Craig's idea that emulators are important to preserve the history of games that have no commercial or aesthetic value for their producers. 

To chime in here - I think the video game culture has a built-in predisposition to what you call the "unique accumulation of media objects". Ever since the first Easter Egg in 1980's 'Adventure', the accumulation of secret cheat codes, mystery unlockables, and other hidden rewards have pulsed through video game audiences. A unique characteristic of the medium - the endless possibility of sidetracking for a secret experience around every corner, in a way that print or A/V media can hardly utilize. I feel you can attribute a lot of the obsessive accumulation and the devouring of mythology and lore to that obsessive pulse for the extra tier of experience, and status as well - to say your cartridge was buried by Atari in the desert is a supplementary paratextual reward, but a reward nonetheless.

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?

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)...

I think one thing worth underscoring about all of these explanations for "why E.T.?" is that they're all post facto -- as with the Daily News article Mark cites, The New York Times is equally nonspecific, and I haven't seen any material from the time of the burial that mentions E.T. as directly and specifically as the recent recountings do. So I think to really understand how the game got attached to the event, we'd have to know the history of the myth's circulation more thoroughly. Most recent accounts (on retro gaming sites, for example) tie the burial very closely to the video game industry crash of 1983 -- so does the NYT, but I tend to doubt that that kind of industry awareness was widespread in the gaming population in the early 80s. I'd be interested to see when and how all these threads (the failure of E.T., the industry crash, the burial) got tied together in the public imagination.

If we take that retrospective explanation into account, then, I think there's an element of industry critique (the schadenfreude Mark mentions) in the myth's focus on E.T. as the sole content of the landfill -- while it wasn't the first film tie-in (Montfort and Bogost note a copyright infringement on Jaws and a highly playable adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark as predecessors), it was perhaps the first time a game was part of a larger Hollywood synergy, as Michael's list of E.T. merchandising suggests. There's also the factor that tying the myth to a blockbuster film makes it accessible to people outside of gaming culture in a way that something like Berzerk wouldn't. In that sense, then, perhaps the myth fixates on the failure of E.T. in order to register a larger shift in productization and media markets rather than just reflecting on the gaming industry. 


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