In a way, yesterday’s dig at Alamogordo, New Mexico’s legendary Atari landfill, was an important, once-in-a-lifetime moment in video game history. The dig confirms a story that has taken on near-mythical status in the annals of a still fledgling video game industry – a powerful physical reminder of the hubris of the company that was at the top of the world in 1982 and at the bottom of the literal world. and metaphorical landfill by September 1983.
There’s another way to look at it, though: Some guys with cameras hired garbage collectors to dig up a pile of 31-year-old junk they knew was there and no one wanted even when it was new .
The truth is that there has always been a difference between the legend of the Atari dump and the historical facts behind it. The fundamental existence of the hoard of Atari junk found yesterday was well confirmed by contemporaneous news reports at the time. This also applies to the oft-cited piece in the papers, The New York Times, which even includes confirmation from an Atari spokesperson. The real reason for the dumping appears to be a simple tax write-off for “unsold goods” when Atari closed a West Texas plant to move production overseas.
Several accounts at the time squabbled over the details – like how many trucks actually went to the landfill – but no one who’s bothered to research the history of the event should be surprised that a trove of buried Atari material was actually tossed out beneath the New Mexico desert.
Yet much of its meaning is missing if we look at the Atari dump as a series of dry, relatively easily corroborated historical facts. That’s because over the past 30 years, both before and after the Internet, the story has gained legendary status in countless “heard from a friend” or “read it somewhere” retellings, alterations, and amendments. Talk to enough people about the event and you’ll get a lot of “I heard” statements like the following:
- “I’ve heard that Atari didn’t really dump anything at all, no less than the programmer behind it ET confirmed it.”
- “I’ve heard that the entire landfill consists of nothing but 3.5 million copies ET“
- “I heard that there are also rare, unreleased hardware prototypes down there. Plus, I heard that at least half of the trucks were full of Pacman.”
- “I heard they made 12 million copies of it Pacman even though they had only sold 10 million consoles at the time because they were so confident it was going to be a system seller.”
- “I heard the New Mexico dump only has a handful of defective cartridges, and most of the ‘unsold’ games were just sitting in warehouses.”
- “I heard most of it was really buried in a heap other landfills you never hear about.”
- “I heard Atari’s failure ET by dumping the cartridges in the middle of the night, but the media eventually caught on.”
- “I heard they were so concerned about garbage collectors that they encased it in concrete, which is pretty much never happens for normal waste.”
And so on and on, going far beyond basic facts and into the realm of myth. Even Snopes, which prides itself on determining the truth or falsity of internet rumors, simply labels the story a “legend.” That despite the fact that the actual dumping was not really under discussion at the time it happened.
“‘Urban legend’ is now everything you haven’t read on the internet,” says Georgia Tech professor and author of the Atari history book Race against the beam That’s what Ian Bogost told Ars after this weekend’s excavation. “This isn’t just for games. Anything someone hasn’t personally read online or can find in a Top 20 Google results is obscured to the point of legend…People seem to think that if they don’t know something, then it becomes a myth… …because they only heard about it as a legend, rather than in a historical context.’
That’s actually not a bad definition of a myth. The fact that there’s a reliable, reliable confirming source on the internet doesn’t mean much if no one bothers to find it. If enough people start spreading the legend instead of the historical fact, a story as boring as “a failing company dumps unsold waste in a landfill” could become something much bigger. Through the power of the myth, the story and location have become symbols, totemic reminders of a historic destruction of a video game market, often wrapped around the narrator’s imperfect understanding of how that crash really happened.
Which brings us to the myths surrounding the ET game itself. Most people only know it as a game so bad and so overhyped that it single-handedly crushed Atari under the weight of millions of returned units. In reality, the game actually isn’t That bad if you bother to read the instructions, and ET was more a symptom of Atari’s general problems (such as a glut of rushed, low-quality software) than a direct cause of the crash.
“Very few people have ever played ET for Atari,” Bogost noted. “Even fewer have tried to appreciate it in its context… Usually it’s an idea, a worthless game that destroyed the industry, a talisman of sorts… the idea is that if you find it, you can one way or another use another way to ward off future danger… [It’s] an object to hate, a simple answer to the crash of ’83.
“The idea of things is more important than their reality,” Bogost continued. “The idea of the game is what this is [excavation] however, is after, not the game itself. The legendary ETthe ET that ruined the industry, etc. Although, once you find it, then what? Then you take Instagrams, that’s what.”
The simple fact that the film crew found some cartridges probably doesn’t seem to kill the legend completely. Even today, new conspiracy theories are emerging to replace the old ones. Some Internet trolls are already suggesting that the Microsoft-affiliated film crew planted the cartridges for the benefit of the cameras and that the media has snookered or is on it. Yesterday’s dig debunked some of those “I’ve heard…” myths (there were some games down there too ETfor example), but it left others frustratingly untouched (archaeologist Andrew Reinhard told Ars “there’s no way” to estimate how many games were buried).
To the conspiracy theorists, it seems unlikely that the excavation crew will excavate the excavation Real reason those patterns were there in the first place. And while the mythical nature of the Atari dump certainly predates the recent movie project, the producers certainly hyped up the more-than-just-the-facts angle for publicity purposes.
“However, people are getting interested in events,” Bogost said. “Things that seem to happen once in a while. Events are one of the few kinds of experiences that seem unique and untainted to people, no matter how contrived. This is also why people love Kickstarters.”
As for the cartridges themselves, many people already seem eager to own one, even though the manufacturing company behind the project has not announced any plans to sell them. “It’s fetishized as [a] collector’s item,” said Bogost. “Not just stuff like this, even plain old carts, unopened games… It’s about possession [more than play]. The game-as-box is different from the game-as-experience. The game-as-trash is different, the game-as-trash-as-art something else.”
All in all, the story of the Atari dump is perhaps less interesting than the story of how the Atari dump story became so epic in the first place. Through the power of urban folklore, a simple, factual case of waste disposal became a mythical, widely questioned focal point representing the destruction of an entire industry. A dig intended to publicize a movie became confirmation of something that was never really questioned in the first place.
Or, as Bogost puts it, “People need these things, I think. We need to make the world seem more interesting than it really is.”
Frame image by Megan Geuss