FROM THE EDITOR: A second winning eBay bidder reached out to Archaeogaming to talk about the reasons behind the desire to obtain one of the copies of E.T. excavated from the Alamogordo landfill. To guard against trolls, the buyer has chosen to remain anonymous, and contacted me through a generic email account. Read the narrative below, which is used by permission, and feel free to discuss politely in the Comments section:
Did I grow up with Atari? Yes and no. I was 4 years old when Atari folded in 1984, so I don’t have any fuzzy memories of unwrapping a 2600 on Christmas morning. Growing up, my friends all had Nintendo and Sega systems; I’d go over to play Mario and Sonic with them, but when I came home I’d always go back to my older siblings’ Atari games. I preferred the 8-bit graphics, I adored the artwork on the boxes, and I was entranced by the way a game like Adventure could do so much with so few squares and squiggles.
My favorites included Kaboom!, River Raid, Surround… and E.T. There was so much to admire about the E.T. game. For one thing, it was never the same game twice; there was randomness built in that kept you guessing every time you hit reset. There were easter eggs and Reese’s Pieces and even some cool alien teleporting/telepathy tricks. Sure, falling into the pits over and over was annoying, but it was possible to figure it out. And while there were plenty of things I never understood about the game— like why E.T. was green, or where he learned to fly, or why the game’s theme had to sound so atrociously different from the movie’s theme— all of that was forgivable, because the game was fun.
And here’s where this story really begins:
In 2010, a college friend came to visit me and my wife. While I was giving him a quick walk-through of our home, he noticed my Atari 2600 set-up. His eyes grew large when he saw I had E.T. on display. “You actually own E.T.?” he said in disbelief. “Of course,” I replied, not understanding his reaction. “I’ve got Raiders and Empire Strikes Back, too.” But he didn’t care about those titles— instead, he took pictures of my E .T. cartridge and manual, which he giddily posted to Facebook with this caption: The worst video game of all time.
News to me. So I pressed my friend: Worst game ever? Says who? And so it began: the fight for the rights to make the official game, Spielberg’s desire for something like Pac-Man, Warshaw’s desire for something totally different, the impending Christmas season, a rushed production schedule, scores of negative reviews, warehouses of unsold/returned copies, and, lo and behold, a little urban legend that Atari had once buried millions of copies of the game in the New Mexico desert.
I was astonished. How had I never heard any of this? My beloved E.T. game was so bad they had to take it out the desert and kill it?
I headed to Google to find out more but only turned up conflicting stories. One page said the games were definitely there; the New York Times had done a story about it and there were pictures to prove it. But another page cited a handful of former Atari employees—Warshaw included—who swore that no dump had ever occurred. And still another page claimed the supposed dump site had long since been paved over by parking lots and businesses; if anything were down there, we’d never know. So as quickly as it came to me, it slipped away again; like Jimmy Hoffa’s grave or Andy Kaufman’s whereabouts, the truth behind this urban legend would remain an unsolved mystery.
Then in the summer of 2013 I happened to see a short news story about a film crew being granted permission by the city of Alamogordo to dig in the dump. I was beyond excited. Was this really going to happen? Would the dig be open to the public? Would they actually find millions of copies of E.T. or would the evidence tell a different story? And would there be any option of owning a piece of the legend— after all, if a legion of Atari enthusiasts wanted to take some trash off the city’s hands, it would be a win-win, right?
In the coming months I followed the story as closely as I could, although updates were scarce. I was impressed to learn the film crew was bringing archaeologists along to assist them. It seemed they didn’t want this dig to be an amateur operation or publicity stunt; they were actually approaching it (ie, both the original dump and the excavation) as a historical event and documenting it as such. It blew my mind: games that were younger than I am were being treated as museum-worthy artifacts. (I couldn’t help but think of Belloq’s words from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Look at this. It’s worthless. Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless!”)
I was even more intrigued when I learned these archaeologists are interested in video game history and contemporary culture, and that they were volunteering their time in order to push this burgeoning field forward. As someone who did undergrad work on Ghostbusters and grad work on Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Stephen King’s The Stand, I felt like I could resonate with this team and with some of the pushback they’ve probably been receiving from the wider academic community. I love hearing that they’re planning on submitting papers about the dig to peer-reviewed journals and I hope we’ll get to see some of the fruits of their research soon. And I’m also interested to consider what the dig means for contemporary history. Will more landfills be excavated in the future, maybe for unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi or boxes of Ecto Cooler? My dad used to bemoan how his mother threw away all his baseball cards; in the future will we just go down to the landfill and dig our missing cards up (and drive their prices down while we’re at it)? Will it become normative for us to consider artifacts from our lifetimes as valuable as centuries-old antiquities, if not more valuable? And where will we draw the line between nostalgia and research? I think in cracking the seal of the Alamogordo landfill, the Atari dig team may have also cracked the seal of a whole new Pandora’s box.
As for the Atari dig itself, it wasn’t feasible for me to be there in person but I was there in spirit. On April 25 and 26, 2014, I was glued to my Twitter feed for any and all updates from the dump. When they finally exhumed E.T., I felt ecstatic. And when reports came in that my beloved E.T. wasn’t the only game down there— they had found at least 30 other titles, including classics like Yars’ Revenge— I felt vindicated.
And now that we’re on the other side of the urban legend, I want to say I can understand the archaeologists’ concerns over the ethics of selling these games, especially when the research is so new, the field is so young, and future access to the dig site seems unlikely. If the numbers I’ve seen are right, 1,300 games were recovered of an estimated 792,000 dumped (that’s a sample size of 0.16%) and now 800 of those are going away to anonymous bidders around the world. Who knows what these scientists— or future scientists— may want to go back and take a closer look at. Once again Indy comes to mind and I hear the voice of pop culture’s most famous archaeologist shouting at me, “It belongs in a museum!”
But at the same time, when I heard some of the games would indeed be sold, I couldn’t resist. I do not consider myself a big collector. I haven’t bought a comic book in years and the one thing I did collect as a kid— PEZ dispensers— I’ve gradually given away to my nieces and nephews over time. So why buy one of these games? Nostalgia for the 80s plays a large part, for sure, but that’s not all of it. Part of me genuinely believes E.T. cartridge #8209— as smelly as it is— is a real historical artifact. For me, this is about the opportunity to have something framed and hanging on my wall that I could conceivably loan to a museum one day. It’s not the Ark of the Covenant, but it is a Holy Grail of sorts.
So in closing, I want to say I’m open to working out ways to let this team of archaeologists (or any future archaeologists) have access to my prized possession if it would help further their research. I also hope they might be able to tell me some things about #8209 that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. And lastly, I would encourage the other winning bidders to consider reaching out to the archaeology team in the same way I have; since eBay keeps all information about winning bidders private, the winners need to be the ones to make contact. Why not give them the opportunity to phone home every once in a while?