There’s been a rumor for decades that video game company Atari buried tons of unsold copies of its legendarily bad video game ET in a, Alamogordo, New Mexico dump. While Atari spokespersons at the time did confirm that they had dumped some material there, they described it as largely consisting of defective equipment (as opposed to defective ideas for video games). Now, entertainment company Fuel is planning to excavate the site to see what’s really under all of that New Mexico dirt.
Superficially, the story itself is little more than smirk-worthy. Even people who grew up playing the 2600 might only barely remember the ET game, and the history of video games based on movies is rife with missteps. Historical archaeologist Paul Mullens isn’t content with a superficial examination, instead taking a wider perspective on the activity in a short essay, which you can find at his blog.
Nevertheless, there is something archaeologically telling in the popular allure of the project, and it is almost certainly that 30-year narrative about the ET game that a digital marketer would recognize as compelling. The public fascination in the assemblage rests on the literal absence of the Atari games and the burial and potential recovery of their material remains. In those respects, the Atari dump captures much of the allure of archaeological material culture as well that has relatively little to do with the antiquity of material things. Paul Benzon acknowledges that the fascination with the Atari dump reflects some “hipster nostalgia for the 8-bit culture of early video gaming”: yet Benzon recognizes that beyond this romanticism, the mythology of the Atari assemblage rests on its potential materialization of a manifestly “archaic” 1983 digital technology and style. Benzon points to the 2006 Wintergreen music video of an excavation of the ET dump (see video director Keith Schofield’s thoughts) as a now-telling indication of the power of the absent games, suggesting that much of the power of the mythical ET cartridges lies in their literal absence.