I received the comments below on Nov. 16, 2014, from an anonymous winning bidder of one of the E.T. games from the excavation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, that were up for auction on eBay last week. As an archaeologist, I’m interested in learning more about the history of use of an object (as well as the provenance of artifacts), and the Atari archaeological team of myself, Richard Rothaus, Bill Caraher, Raiford Guins, and Bret Weber have been hoping to contact the winning bidders to learn more about why they decided to bid on these games. We guessed that some bidders might be museums, while others were collectors or fanboys and/or people with a genuine interest in the history of video games. We also guessed that some buyers might be the equivalent of scalpers, buying now to sell at a higher price later.
Here are the comments exactly as I received them from one of the buyers who has asked to remain anonymous (I do not know the person’s name; I was contacted via an anonymous account) so as not to feed the trolls. The buyer did give me permission to post to this blog. Comments here on Archaeogaming are moderated, so if you choose to reply, let’s keep the conversation civil and on-topic.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming
Confessions of a Trash Collector
When I first heard of the the Atari Dig I was prepared to throw some clothes in my jalopy and drive over a thousand miles just to be there for the event. Unfortunately, it fell during my midterms and I had to settle on celebrating the success of the dig from afar in my sleep-deprived hyper-caffeinated delirium. When some of the excavated games were put up for auction I was extremely excited at the possibility of owning a piece of video gaming history. I have made the mistake of reading comments regarding the auction and I must confess I am somewhat bewildered at the response.
The dig was conceived as a sort of myth-busting essay so perhaps it is appropriate if I continue in that vein. I was one of the people who purchased an E.T. game. I am not independently wealthy, in fact, I live marginally above the poverty line. As a result, I am notoriously frugal with my spending doing so only with great deliberation. I did not snort a line of coke off my space bar and randomly click buttons on Ebay. I did so intentionally, of my own free will, and with a very clear understanding of what money is for.
Some common themes I have observed are: “It is just a piece of garbage”, “I’m going to crap on my copy of E.T. and sell it for a million dollars”, and “You can buy E.T. for like $.99, what are you doing?” Technically, these responses are correct. On one level, this item is simply a piece of garbage. Many seem to not understand the implications of the truism they level so severely in my direction: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is not an observation of how items may maintain differing usages for differing individuals. This is pretty obvious. Instead, the truism asks us to consider how objects may possess qualities our subjectivity blinds us to and to strive to remedy this.
Did some purchase this game speculatively with an eye towards profit? Undoubtedly. Still, if you watch some of the dramatized investment television shows you will know the people speculating on these games had to see some kind of value which prompted their actions. My purchase was not about monetary value. I do not expect subsequent auctions to command as high a price for this item and if more are excavated at a later date I am fully prepared to own a storied paperweight.
This was not a purchase of monetary value for me. The value in this item is historical, cultural, and ultimately very personal. I have not yet watched the documentary but I’m sure that it will end with an air of ambiguity having dispelled some of the myth and confirmed others. It does not really matter if these cartridges were dumped for the reasons everybody assumes they were dumped because their value has moved beyond their physicality and has become symbolic.
You laugh from your armchairs but please think about this as people who I assume grew up immersed in video game culture. I would love a boxed version of Chrono Trigger or Earthbound but these items command extremely large price tags which I cannot afford. Why do people pay exorbitant amounts for something they cannot use? It is because these items have obtained symbolic value above and beyond their utility. Owning the aforementioned items are worth so much because they remind us of the zenith of the 16-bit gaming era.
How are these auctioned Atari cartridges so different? They probably can’t be played. They are probably just a bunch of dirty plastics, papers, and PCB’s. We gamers are supposed to know better though, right? We know the sum of a game is more than its inanimate parts. I thought if items which symbolically represent one era of an industry can command such high prices, what about the items which symbolically created the modern culture of video games in which we are all so immersed?
I must admit, I am sometimes dismayed that the price of some of my old favorites have floated away into the stratosphere, even those which are relatively common. How can a simple Mario game cost $15? Then it dawns on you that maybe the pricing seems broken because the fringe industry you grew up immersed in has rounded a corner. It is not exactly clear when it did this, there was no watershed event like the dumping of a hojillion games in a dump. Suddenly we started caring about how inclusive games were or if they technically qualify as art. These are not conversations that existed 31 years ago. Everybody plays games now and I’ll admit it is sometimes hard to wrap my head around this. There is nothing you can buy to commemorate this process. There is, however, a way to celebrate when everything began.
I was an infant when E.T. was released so I do not have any special memories attached specifically with the title. Supposedly, these games were so terrible they were hidden away shamefully in a sort of orgy of consumeristic insanity. The discarded progeny of this unholy union coalesced underground like a seed and grew as I grew. For me, and I assume for many others, the maturation of the self and the maturation of the industry are concepts impossible to extricate. The opportunity afforded by this auction is thus not capitalism run amok but instead like being finally reunited with one more piece of your triforce.
So please, tell me more about the hedonistic materialism of paying a bunch of money for an inanimate thing. This should be a celebratory occasion for anybody who professes to have been influenced by video game culture. We are the choir and we, of all people, should know better. What are two months wages for a constant reminder of an industry that has shaped me from childhood and which has come so very far? Hedonism is not paying two months wages for a thing, hedonism is failing to recognize the soul of a thing. If, in twenty years, this thing I have bought has no monetary value, I accept that. I will share it with my grandchildren and I will explain the story of how this supposed paperweight has greatly influenced the games they play and love. I will tell them about how things made up of ones and zeroes, buried for 31 years, can make a man.
– a video game enthusiast