Game Over: How We Faked the Atari Excavation and Got Away with It

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[NOTE: This post was originally published as an April Fool’s joke on April 1, 2015, and was taken down because a lot of people believed this story to be true. It’s not. I made it up! -Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming]

One year ago this month, I led a team of archaeologists to the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico to conduct a salvage excavation of thousands of games dumped in a landfill by Atari in 1983. The excavation was filmed as the capstone to a documentary conceived of and directed by Zak Penn, author of the screenplay for Ready Player One and writer/director of Incident at Loch Ness. This latter film is important, so keep it in mind while you read.

On April 16th, the Showtime cable network will premier Atari: Game Over for television audiences, and it will run on-demand through June. In an effort to get ahead of the film’s release (which has already been available to Xbox Live subscribers for months), I feel that now is the time to explain how we perpetuated a fraud that trended worldwide on social media on April 26, 2014. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, and it’s been a difficult decision. The truth has ways of finding a way out no matter what, so better that it come from me, than from a less reliable source.

I was in on the hoax from Day One (albeit initially unwittingly) back in the summer of 2013, right after the “leak” occurred from the Alamogordo city council meeting as reported on the Western Digs blog and elsewhere. I immediately wrote to Fuel Entertainment who had secured the rights (and would ultimately hand them over to Lightbox Entertainment, the producer of original content for Xbox) to see how they were planning on conducting the archaeology, and if it would be possible for me to participate in some way. I’m both a gamer (30+ years and counting) and a professional archaeologist, so it seemed like a good fit. After a few phone/Skype conversations, Fuel and Lightbox seemed to agree.

The initial conversations I had with Lightbox were about how to do the excavation: time, personnel, and materials needed to pull off a full excavation, and then a salvage. Instead of three weeks to retrieve the hundreds of thousands of games, we’d have (maybe) three days. I was ultimately invited up to a New York studio to meet and be interviewed by Zak Penn for the documentary, answering “before” questions and contemplating “what-if” scenarios on camera, unrehearsed. Not knowing Penn’s work (I would later understand him after seeing Incident at Loch Ness), I was surprised when he asked me what I would do if we didn’t find the games in time to shoot the film, or if we dug in the right spot, but there was nothing there.

We knew the games had been dumped in the Alamogordo landfill based on conversations with a Warner executive and with the person managing the Atari warehouse in El Paso, backed up by a news article in the New York Times that had since been forgotten about in the pre-Internet age. Landfill expert and Alamogordo resident Joe Lewendowksi had spent years conducting amateur photogrammetry to pinpoint where the cell might have been dug into which the Atari games were dumped by a fleet of trucks. The dumping event of 1983 happened. Finding the games was another matter.

Sitting at the table with Zak Penn

Sitting at the table with Zak Penn (left) and production staff.

After Penn interviewed me on camera, we sat at a table with others involved on the project to talk about the reality of the excavation we were about to undertake. And at this point I am violating the NDA I signed then, but I’m beyond caring at this point mainly because of professional ethics and the fact that this project cost a lot of people a lot of money. So at the table about three weeks before the excavation, I learned that the games had not been located. The state of New Mexico’s environmental agency granted permission to the city to drill 20 test holes with a bucket auger 30 feet down in the area Joe had identified as the likeliest place to dig. These coordinates differed greatly from the ones given to video game historian Raiford Guins by another Alamogordo source, and Guins had actually cautioned Penn and the city that they were going to dig in the wrong spot. We’ll never know if he was right, but we do know that the Atari games were not where we had expected them to be.

So we went to Plan B, which sounded eerily like we were going to fake the moon landing. Penn had done similar with Herzog in his Loch Ness documentary. We were already deep into the project, too deep to pull out anyway, and any semblance of archaeology was sacrificed to the gods of movie-making while creating something that team archaeologist Bill Caraher would call “archaeology theater”. Little did he know how right he was (and I am deeply sorry, Bill, that you have to find out this way). We decided to dig a hole one week ahead of the scheduled excavation, dump a set of about 1,000 Atari games, and then wait for the crowds to arrive for the day of filming on April 26th. It was a simple plan.

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Penn (left) surveys the purchased Atari games in the Alamogordo garage.

The production team managed to purchase just over 1,300 Atari games from retro-gaming stores and websites, and also on Ebay, which is ironic seeing that Alamogordo made its money back through re-selling what we buried only a week before, and at a profit. The games were loaded into an Alamogordo city garage, distressed by running them over with heavy equipment, then loaded into a dump truck to be taken to the landfill. An excavator was brought in to dig the pit, and the games were deposited there, covered by layers of dirt and trash pulled up from when the cell was dug. After that, bulldozers leveled the land, leaving it as it was prior to the digging. A white pipe was placed atop the pit so that we would know where to begin excavating on the 25th.

Pulling the games into the first pit.

Pulling the games into the first pit.

My team arrived on the afternoon of the 24th, and we ran through our excavation plan. As per prior agreement in New York, I told the team nothing so that their curiosity and enthusiasm would be genuine as the excavating machinery did its work. By the end of the 25th, we had reached the “Atari level”, and retired for the night.

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Keeping some of the early media at a distance during site-prep.

We made history on the afternoon of the 26th, recovering the Atari games. Team member Richard Rothaus found the first game, which luckily was E.T., the game and its urban legend that the documentary had ostensibly been about. I called Penn over, and we walked the game over to the fence where the crowd and media were standing. I unpacked the game for Penn, and he held it up to immediate fanfare and relief. Atari game designer and creator of E.T. was on-hand for the event, and visibly wept (you can see this touching moment in the film). I was a few feet away from him feeling absolutely nauseous at what I’d just done, but the emotions were so strong, and the feelings of the crowd and of Warshaw so high that I couldn’t do anything but fake a smile for Reuters and begin to answer questions from journalists.

Penn with E.T., and me looking noticeably ill. Photo: Cnet.

Penn with E.T., and me looking noticeably ill. Photo: Cnet.

The next day the team and I, along with city workers and the film crew, went through the games, photographed and organized them, and arranged for some to go to museums, while the city would hold on to the rest in order to sell them on Ebay to recover the excavation costs and to make some money for the city. The dig alone, now that it was a “success”, had earned Alamogordo a place in the weirdness that is southern New Mexico, prompting tourism hopefully for many, many years.

The city made money. The film got made and was well reviewed (it is good — and all of it true excepting the excavation itself). The crowd got what they came for. The media got their story. The archaeologists earned notoriety and maybe a bit of fame and certainly chances to publish in places such as the Atlantic. And to them, it was all real.

But I owe everyone an apology, and probably a lot more. I am a fraud and a liar. I lied to my friends and family and to my professional colleagues. People paid good money to buy the games we “found”, and museums have games in their collections that, although created in 1982 and 1983, weren’t from the landfill, but were purchased first and placed there. I should probably apologize the most to Warshaw. The film is about his redemption, and the excavation was almost like a surprise party we cooked up months before. I think what smarts the most is that I violated a code of ethics for archaeologists in being on-site to validate the finds in front of the world. I have damaged the profession and my own reputation, but a year after the dig, I needed to come clean, if only so I could live with myself.

I’m not sure what happens next, other than quitting various archaeology organizations, and maybe doing something as far away from cultural heritage as possible. Who knows? I’ll likely lose a lot of friends over this, but perhaps they (and the rest of the world) will forgive me once they realize that they are all victims of the first day of the fourth month.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

4 thoughts on “Game Over: How We Faked the Atari Excavation and Got Away with It

  1. Hang in there, Andrew. You violated the code of ethics, but coming clean just 2 years after the fact says a lot about your character. Some archaeologists have taken their violations to their graves, which is not an honorable thing to do. If you receive a lot of backlash from this, you can message me privately on social media.

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