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Atari video game burial

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Atari video game burial
Atari 2600 consoles and cartridges were amongst the material reportedly disposed of as a result of the burial.[1]
DateSeptember 26, 1983 (1983-09-26)
LocationAlamogordo, New Mexico
Coordinates32°53′11.87″N 105°57′38.69″W / 32.8866306°N 105.9607472°W / 32.8866306; -105.9607472

ParticipantsAtari, Inc., City of Alamogordo, New Mexico
ExcavatedApril 26, 2014 (2014-04-27)

The Atari video game burial was a mass burial of unsold video game cartridges, consoles, and computers in a New Mexico landfill site, undertaken by American video game and home computer company Atari, Inc. in 1983. The goods buried were believed to be unsold copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, one of the biggest commercial failures in video gaming and often cited as one of the worst video games ever released, and the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man, which was commercially successful but critically maligned.

Since the burial was first reported in the press, there have been doubts as to its veracity and scope, leading to a minority considering it an urban legend. However, the event has become a cultural icon and a reminder of the North American video game crash of 1983; it was the end result of a disastrous fiscal year which saw Atari, Inc. sold off by its parent company Warner Communications. Though it was believed that millions of copies of E.T. were disposed of in the landfill, Atari officials later verified the numbers to be around 700,000 cartridges of various titles, including E.T.

In 2014, Fuel Industries, Microsoft, and others worked with the New Mexico government to excavate the site to validate the contents of the landfill as part of a documentary called Atari: Game Over. On April 26, 2014, the excavation revealed discarded games and hardware. Only a small fraction, about 1300 games, were recovered during the excavation period, with a portion given for curation and the rest auctioned to raise money for a museum to commemorate the burial.

Circumstances[edit | edit source]

Financial difficulty[edit | edit source]

Atari, Inc. had been purchased by Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million, and had seen its net worth grow to $2 billion by 1982.[2] By this time, the company accounted for 80% of the video gaming market;[2] and was responsible for over half of its parent company's revenues,[3] earning some 65–70% of their operating profits.[2][3] By the last quarter of 1982, its growth in the following year was expected to be in the region of 50%.[2] However, on December 7, 1982, the company reported that its earnings had only increased by 10–15%, rather than the predicted figure.[2] The next day saw Warner Communications' share prices fall by a third, and the quarter ended with Warner's profits falling by 56%.[2] In addition, Atari's CEO, Ray Kassar, was later investigated for possible insider trading charges as a result of selling some five thousand shares in Warner less than half an hour before reporting Atari's lower-than-expected earnings. Kassar was later cleared of any wrongdoing, although he was forced to resign his position the following July.[4] Atari, Inc. would go on to lose $536 million in 1983, and was sold off by Warner Communications the following year.[2]

Problem titles[edit | edit source]

Atari's tendency to port arcade games for its home console had led to some of its most commercially successful games, including the port of its own coin-op Asteroids, and the licensed versions of Taito's Space Invaders and Namco's Pac-Man. When the latter game received its official port to the Atari 2600, Atari was confident that sales figures would be high, and manufactured 12 million cartridges—despite having sold only around 10 million Atari 2600 consoles.[2] It was believed that the game would be successful enough not only to earn an estimated $500 million, but also to boost sales of the console itself by several million as gamers sought to play the home conversion.[5][6] However, the finished product, released in March 1982, was critically panned for its poor gameplay,[2] and although it became the console's best-selling title after shipping 7 million units, it still left Atari with over 5 million unsold cartridges—a problem compounded by the high rate of customers returning the game for refunds.[5][7]

Further to the problems caused by Pac-Man's underwhelming sales, Atari also faced great difficulty as a result of its video game adaptation of the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game, also titled E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was a result of a deal between Warner Communications and the film's director Steven Spielberg. The concept of a video game based on a film, instead of porting an arcade coin-op or building on an established franchise, was unheard of at the time.[2] It was later reported that Warner had paid $20–25 million for the rights, which was at the time quite a high figure for video game licensing.[5] Atari manufactured 5 million cartridges for the game;[2] however, upon its release in December 1982, only 1.5 million copies were sold, leaving Atari still holding onto over half of the game cartridges.[8] The game was critically panned, and is now seen as one of the worst ever made.[9][10] Billboard magazine's Earl Paige reported that the large number of unsold E.T the Extra-Terrestrial games, along with an increase in competition, prompted retailers to demand official return programs from video game manufacturers.[11]

The failures of these titles were further compounded by Atari's business dealings from 1981. Confident in strong sales, the company had told its distributors to place their 1982 orders all at once. However, video game sales in 1982 had slowed, and distributors who had ordered en masse in expectation of high turnover were left to simply return large quantities of unsold stock to Atari. As a result, the company soon found itself in possession of several million essentially useless video game cartridges, which it would be entirely unable to sell.[2]

Burial[edit | edit source]

The burial is located in the southern part of the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico reported in a series of articles, that between 10 and 20[12] semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso, Texas, were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city. It was Atari's first dealings with the landfill, which was chosen because no scavenging was allowed and its garbage was crushed and buried nightly. Atari's stated reason for the burial was that it was changing from Atari 2600 to Atari 5200 games,[13] but this was later contradicted by a worker who claimed that this was not the case.[14] Atari official Bruce Enten stated that Atari was mostly sending broken and returned material to the Alamogordo dump and that it was "by-and-large inoperable stuff."[12]

On September 27, 1983, the news service UPI reported that "people watching the operation said it included cassettes of the popular video games E.T., Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, the consoles used to convey the games to television screens and high-priced personal computers."[15] The news service Knight-Ridder further reported on the looting of the dump on September 28 by local kids, stating "kids in this town of 25,000 began robbing the Atari grave, coming up with cartridges of such games as E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Defender, and Berzerk."[16]

On September 28, 1983, The New York Times reported on the story of Atari's dumping in New Mexico. An Atari representative confirmed the story for the newspaper, stating that the discarded inventory came from Atari's plant in El Paso, which was being closed and converted to a recycling facility.[17] The reports noted that the site was guarded to prevent reporters and the public from affirming the contents. The Times article never suggested any of the specific game titles being destroyed, but subsequent reports have generally linked the story of the dumping to the well-known failure of E.T.[2] Additionally, the headline "City to Atari: 'E.T.' trash go home" in one edition of the Alamogordo News seems to imply some of the cartridges were E.T., but then follows with a humorous interpretation of E.T. meaning "Extra-territorial" and never specifically mentions the game.[12]

Starting on September 29, 1983, a layer of concrete was poured on top of the crushed materials, a rare occurrence in waste disposal. An anonymous workman's stated reason for the concrete was: "There are dead animals down there. We wouldn't want any children to get hurt digging in the dump."[14] Eventually, the city began to protest the large amount of dumping Atari was doing, with one commissioner stating that the area did not want to become "an industrial waste dump for El Paso."[12] The local manager ordered the dumping to be ended shortly afterwards. Due to Atari's unpopular dumping, Alamogordo later passed an Emergency Management Act and created the Emergency Management Task Force to limit the future flexibility of the garbage contractor to secure outside business for the landfill for monetary purposes. Alamogordo's then mayor, Henry Pacelli, commented that, "We do not want to see something like this happen again."[14]

Cultural symbolism and speculation[edit | edit source]

All of these factors have led to wide speculation that most of the 3.5 million unsold copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ultimately wound up in this landfill, crushed and encased in concrete.[18] It has also been reported that prototypes for the proposed Atari Mindlink controller system were disposed of at the site,[19] which only further fuels speculation, since Atari Museum owner Curt Vendel actually currently owns the Mindlink prototypes.[20] Writing for the Pacific Historical Review, John Wills speculated that location's place in the public psyche—its proximity to the sites of both the Trinity nuclear test and Roswell UFO incident—has aided the popularity of the story.[21]

The conflicting information surrounding the burial has led to the claim of it being an "E.T. Dump" being referred to as an urban legend,[22] which in turn has led to a degree of skepticism and doubt over the veracity of the dumping story itself, and the relevance of conflating the event with the later industry downturn.[23][24] As recently as October 2004, Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer responsible for the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game, expressed doubts that the destruction of millions of copies of the game ever took place. Warshaw also believes that Atari's downfall was more a result of their business practices—including alleged block booking of poorly selling games with successful ones when dealing with distributors—than any specific failed games.[25] This latter view has been echoed by Travis Fahs of IGN, who believes that Atari's problems, including their huge surplus of unsold stock, arose from the company's overestimation of the sustainability of Atari 2600 sales, rather than being due to the individual quality of games being released.[26]

The incident has also become something of a cultural symbol representative of the North American video game crash of 1983, often cited as a cautionary tale about the hubris of poor business practices,[27][28][29] despite suggestions that the burial allowed the company to write off the disposed-of material for tax relief purposes.[28]

In popular culture[edit | edit source]

The legacy of the burial has led it to be referenced in popular culture.

The music video for the song "When I Wake Up" by Wintergreen depicts the band traveling to the landfill site and proceeding to dig up the abandoned cartridges;[30] the video's director Keith Schofield had worked with video game-based music videos before.[31]

The novel Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss features a scene which takes place outside of Alamogordo, in which two of the characters discuss a parking lot which has been built over the site of the burial.[32]

The 2014 film Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie features a plot centered on the burial.[33]

In December 2015 a fictionalized account of the burial and its legacy is a key element of the episode The Games Underfoot of the TV series Elementary.

Excavation[edit | edit source]

Excavating the landfill. Boxes of Yars' Revenge, Star Raiders, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender and Warlords can be seen.
Evidence of E.T., Centipede, and other Atari materials uncovered during the excavation

On May 28, 2013, the Alamogordo City Commission granted Fuel Industries, a Canadian entertainment company, six months of access to the landfill to film a documentary about the burial and to excavate the dump site.[34] Xbox Entertainment Studios planned to air this documentary series as an exclusive to the Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014 as part of a multi-part documentary series being produced by Lightbox, a US/UK production company.[35] Though the excavation was momentarily stalled due to a complaint by the New Mexico Environmental Protection Division Solid Waste Bureau citing potential hazards, the issues were resolved in early April 2014 to allow the excavation to proceed.[36]

Excavation started on April 26, 2014 as an open event to the public.[37] E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial designer Howard Scott Warshaw, Ready Player One author Ernest Cline and film director Zak Penn attended the event as part of a documentary about the burial,[38] as did local residents such as Armando Ortega, a city official who is reportedly one of the original children to raid the dump in 1983. Ortega stated that although he and his friends found dozens of quality games, they gave the E.T. cartridges away because the "game sucked ... you couldn't finish it".[39][40] James Heller, the former Atari manager in charge of the original burial, was also on hand at the excavation. Heller revealed that he had originally ordered the site to be covered in concrete. Contrary to the urban legend that claims millions of cartridges were buried there, Heller stated that only 728,000 cartridges were buried.[41]

Remnants of E.T. and other Atari games were discovered in the early hours of the excavation, as reported by Microsoft's Larry Hyrb.[42][43] A team of archaeologists was present to examine and document the Atari material unearthed by excavation machinery: Andrew Reinhard (American School of Classical Studies at Athens), Richard Rothaus (Trefoil Cultural and Environmental), Bill Caraher (University of North Dakota), with support from video game historian Raiford Guins (SUNY - Stony Brook) and historian Bret Weber (University of North Dakota).[44]

Only about 1300 cartridges of the estimated 700,000 were removed from the burial, as the remaining materials were deeper than expected, and made them more difficult to access, according to Alamogordo mayor Susie Galea. The burial was refilled following this event.[45] Joseph Lewandowski, who had worked to arrange the unearthing with the city, said that this was a one-time shot to recover materials from the site, as they do not expect the city to agree to a similar event again.[46]

The documentary Atari: Game Over, which features the burial site and its excavation, was released on November 20, 2014.[47][48]

Curation and auction[edit | edit source]

Of the recovered materials, a fraction has been given to the New Mexico Museum of Space History for display, and another 100 to the documentary producers Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment. Galea believes the remaining cartridges can be sold by the city of Alamogordo through the Museum of Space History. She hopes that the sale of these games can help fund recognition of the burial site as a tourist attraction in the future.[45] The City of Alamogordo approved the auction of the games in September 2014, to be sold through eBay and the Alamogordo Council website. As of September 2015, over $107,000 has been raised through the sales of about 880 unearthed cartridges, with one E.T. copy selling for more than $1,500. About 300 cartridges remain to be sold at a later date given the historical value of the cartridges.[49][50][51][52][46]

One of the E.T. cartridges that had been dug up was taken by the Smithsonian Institution for its records, calling the cartridge both representative of the burial site but also in terms of video games, how the cartridge represents "the ongoing challenge of making a good film to a video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle".[53]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Hubner, John; Kistner Jr, William F (December 5, 1983). "What went wrong at Atari?". InfoWorld 5 (49): 145–155. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P (May 10, 2011). "Buried Atari Cartridges". Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Staff (August 2011). "From the Archives: Atari Inc". Retro Gamer (93): 88. 
  4. Hubner, John; Kistner Jr, William F (November 28, 1983). "What went wrong at Atari?". InfoWorld 5 (48): 151–158. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Staff (April 1998). "What the hell happened?". Next Generation Magazine (40): 41. 
  6. Kent, Steven (2001). "The Fall". The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press. pp. 227–228. ISBN 0-7615-3643-4. 
  7. Goodman, Danny (Spring 1983). "Pac-Mania". Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games 1 (1): 122. 
  8. Buchanan, Levi (August 26, 2008). "IGN: Top 10 Best-Selling Atari 2600 Games". IGN. Archived from the original on July 26, 2011. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  9. Pileggi, Nicholas (January 24, 1983). "The Warner Case: Curiouser and Curiouser". New York 16 (4): 26. 
  10. Townsend, Emru (October 23, 2006). "The 10 Worst Games of All Time". PC World. Retrieved September 19, 2011. 
  11. Paige, Earl (January 8, 1983). "Video Game Firms Ready Formal Returns Policies". Billboard 95 (1): 1, 21. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 McQuiddy, Marian (September 27, 1983). "City to Atari: 'E.T.' trash go home". Alamogordo Daily News. "The number of actual trucks which have dumped locally was not known. Local BFI officials put it at 10. However, corporate spokesmen in Houston say it was closer to 20; and city officials say it is actually 14." 
  13. McQuiddy, Marian (September 25, 1983). "Dump here utilized". Alamogordo Daily News. "Moore said the truck drivers told him the reason they were dumping the games is that they are changing from series 2600 to 5200 games, due to excessive amount of black-marketing." 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 McQuiddy, Marian (September 28, 1983). "City cementing ban on dumping: Landfill won't house anymore 'Atari rejects'". Alamogordo Daily News. "He identified himself as being from Atari, but would not give his name. He also said the burial of the items did not mean a move away from the 2600 series of Atari games towards just offering the Atari 5200, and said the items buried were just cartridges." 
  15. UPI, UPI (September 27, 1983). "City dump gobbles Pacman". The Hawk Eye. 
  16. Knight-Ridder, Knight-Ridder (September 28, 1983). "'Pac Kids' gobble up dumped Atari cartridges". Chronicle-Telegram. 
  17. "Atari Parts Are Dumped". The New York Times. September 28, 1983. 
  18. Smith, Shelley (April 12, 2005). "The 1983 Atari Titanic is rising". Alamogordo Daily News. 
  19. Vendel, Curt (2008). "The Atari Mindlink". Cartridge Consoles. The Atari Museum. Retrieved November 24, 2013. 
  20. Wills, John (2008). "Pixel Cowboys and Silicon Gold Mines: Videogames of the American West". Pacific Historical Review (University of California Press) 77 (2): 273–275. doi:10.1525/phr.2008.77.2.273. JSTOR 10.1525/phr.2008.77.2.273. 
  21. Montfort, Nick; Bogost, Ian (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. MIT Press. p. 127. ISBN 0-262-01257-X. 
  22. Heim, Michael (2004). Exploring America's Highways: Minnesota Trip Trivia. Travel Organization Network Exchange, Inc.. p. 171. ISBN 0-9744358-1-3. 
  23. Berens, Kate; Howard, Geoff (September 16, 2008). The Rough Guide to Videogames. Rough Guides. p. 7. ISBN 1-84353-995-0. 
  24. Phipps, Keith (February 2, 2005). "Howard Scott Warshaw | Interview". The A.V. Club. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  25. Fahs, Travis (December 18, 2008). "Revising History: The Crash of '83". IGN. Retrieved September 12, 2011. 
  26. Dvorak, John C (August 12, 1985). "Is the PCJr Doomed To Be Landfill?". InfoWorld 7 (32): 64. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  27. 28.0 28.1 Jary, Simon (August 19, 2011). "HP TouchPads to be dumped in landfill?". PC Advisor. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  28. Kennedy, James (August 20, 2011). "Book Review: Super Mario". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 10, 2011. 
  29. "Keith Schofield / Wintergreen". Retrieved September 11, 2011. 
  30. Brown, Damon (May 2006). "Reset for Life". Spin: 99. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  31. Weiss, D.B. (2003). Lucky Wander Boy. Plume. pp. 177, 193–195. ISBN 0-452-28394-9. 
  32. "'Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie' – Trailer". Cinemassacre Productions. November 10, 2012. Retrieved November 11, 2012. 
  33. Goldsmith, Alex (May 30, 2013). "Alamogordo approves Atari excavation". KRQE. Archived from the original on June 1, 2013. Retrieved May 31, 2013. 
  34. Chieng, Kevin (December 13, 2013). "Documentary Debut on Xbox Will Explore E.T. Atari Landfill". GameTrailers. Retrieved April 27, 2014. 
  35. Campbell, Colin (April 4, 2014). "Historic Atari E.T. New Mexico dig set to proceed". Polygon. Retrieved April 4, 2014. 
  36. Nunneley, Stephanny (April 10, 2014). "Microsoft invites you to attend the Atari Landfill excavation on April 26". VG247. Retrieved April 10, 2014. 
  37. "Witness Video Game History: Attend Atari Landfill Excavation on April 26". Microsoft. April 10, 2014. Retrieved April 11, 2014.  External link in |work= (help)
  38. Terdiman, Daniel (April 26, 2014). "Success! Atari E.T. games found in New Mexico dump". CNET. Retrieved April 27, 2014. 
  39. Llorca, Juan Carlos (April 26, 2014). "Diggers begin quest to unearth Atari's E.T. games". The State Journal. Associated Press (Frankfort). Retrieved April 27, 2014. 
  40. "Diggers Find Atari's E.T. Games in Landfill". Associated Press. April 26, 2014. Retrieved April 26, 2014. 
  41. Hilliard, Kyle (April 26, 2014). "E.T. Atari Cartridge Landfill Excavation Uncovers Fabled Cache". Game Informer. Retrieved April 26, 2014. 
  42. Caliborn, Samual (April 26, 2014). "The Dig: Uncovering the Atari E.T. Games Buried in New Mexico Desert". IGN. Retrieved April 26, 2014. 
  43. "The Video Game Graveyard". Archaeology Magazine. June 9, 2014. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  44. 45.0 45.1 Crecente, Brian (May 30, 2014). "Unearthed E.T. Atari games will be sold at New Mexico space museum". Polygon. Retrieved May 30, 2014. 
  45. 46.0 46.1 Smith, Aaron (September 3, 2015). "New Mexico city finds buried treasure of Atari games". CNN. Retrieved September 3, 2015. 
  46. Crossley, Rob (July 27, 2014). "ET burial trailer unearths lost stories of industry crash". Computer and Video Games. Retrieved July 27, 2014. 
  47. Gasser, Marc (November 20, 2014). "Xbox Documentary on Atari's Lost 'E.T.' Games Debuts for Free". Variety. Retrieved November 20, 2014. 
  48. "Atari games buried in landfill net $37K on eBay". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. November 16, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2015. 
  49. "World's Worst Video Game To Be Auctioned". Reuters. September 10, 2014. Retrieved September 14, 2014. 
  50. Schulenberg, Thomas. "Excavated ET cartridges will be sold, distributed to museums". Joystiq. 
  51. Nutt, Christian (September 1, 2015). "Sales of unearthed Atari games from New Mexico dump generate over $100k". Gamasutra. Retrieved September 3, 2015. 
  52. Robarge, Drew (December 15, 2014). "From landfill to Smithsonian collections: "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" Atari 2600 game". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved December 15, 2014. 

External links[edit | edit source]