The Glitch in the Video-Game Graveyard
An anthropological dispatch from the landfill dig to unearth Atari’s E.T.
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An anthropological dispatch from the landfill dig to unearth Atari’s E.T.
I park between a DeLorean and a Port-A-Potty and walk through the dark toward mounds of unearthed garbage all hot and shadowy from Hollywood floodlights. The rusty steel arm and bucket of an excavator hang menacingly over a hole a hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep in the landfill. On Friday night of Easter Week in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a documentary crew has descended on my hometown to dig up our old dump in hopes of resurrecting hundreds of thousands of copies of E.T. the Extraterrestrial video-game cartridges that in September of 1983 were reportedly hauled 90 miles from an Atari warehouse in El Paso, Texas, and left for dead thirty feet down.
Everyone on the film crew is wearing a respirator, goggles, or a bandanna mask. They claim they haven’t yet dug through enough trash to find the games. They’re saving the moment of discovery for tomorrow, when a big crowd is expected to show up. But tonight we’re staging part of the epiphany anyway. I stand with about twenty handpicked townies and VIPs along the edge of an excavation trench called the Pit. We’re directed to glare into the bright lights and gaze in collective wonder as Joe Lewandowski, a long-time local garbage contractor, walks cautiously toward the source of the wonder-inducing light emanating from the Pit. We’re recreating the obligatory ’80s Spielberg shot: a group of slack-jawed humans transfixed by the strange light of E.T. going home or a spaceship landing at Devil’s Tower or face-melting specters roaring out from the Lost Ark.
Behind me some guys in hard hats are complaining about not getting to gather more data and complete more analysis of the Pit before the public arrives tomorrow. They’re a group of self-proclaimed “punk archaeologists” who bullied their way into participating in the dig by insisting that it has sufficient value as cultural heritage to deserve some measure of archaeological methodology. But they didn’t sign up to be props.
Even though I’m unclear about the exact nature of punk archaeology and what this crack team of scholars hopes to accomplish here, I dub them the Arch Punks and resolve to fall in with them the next morning. Beyond the oddness of replicating Spielberg’s paranormal sentimentality, the ethical quandary of staging scenes for a documentary, and the general weirdness of a small-town dump at night, the Arch Punks seem to sense that digging for old video games speaks to some glitch in our civilization, but we’re all too blinded by the lights to care.
We do a half-dozen takes of the scene and wrap for the night.
I must have been in the fifth grade when I became conscious of the story that a trove of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial video-game cartridges was buried somewhere around Alamogordo. This was years before my parents let me have video games in the house, and so when I heard the older guys around the comic-book store talk about a buried E.T. game I wasn’t thinking of the Atari 2600’s toast-sized plastic cartridges or the blocky 8-bit rendering of E.T. in what would be commonly called the worst video game of all time. I had Spielberg’s film in mind, the story of young Elliot coaxing something alien and magical into his life with little more than curiosity and a trail of candy. And then all of his buddies with him, tearing ass on their BMX bikes in order to save that magical creature from all the government poking and prodding and corporate exploitation that inevitably accompanies The Man. In short, I was convinced that buried somewhere beneath our town was a portal that could transport me and my friends into the world of E.T., where we would ride our flying bikes across the face of the moon and wrest some magic from the vapid, corrupt grip of the adult world.
In the three decades since the reported burial, the video-game community, fueled by the rise of the Internet, took the story in its own fantastical direction. Reports in the fall of 1983 from both the Alamogordo Daily News and the New York Times suggested that Atari had used Alamogordo as an industrial waste dump after deciding to retool its El Paso manufacturing plant. But the company’s refusal ever to fully respond to the reports, combined with their chosen landfill’s proximity to the Trinity Site (of atom-bomb fame) and Roswell (of UFO fame), led some in the gamer community to concoct conspiracies about a desert graveyard specifically for millions of unsold copies of E.T. — an act of shame when the game proved a flop, or perhaps desperation to clear inventory as the company neared bankruptcy. Others in the gamer community found this tale altogether implausible. And so from the nerd squabbles of Internet discussion threads rose an urban legend that culminated in Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios funding of a film that hinges on digging through my town’s trash.
By 9 A.M. on Saturday, a hundred people are standing single file at the gate to the old dump, waiting to gawk at the Pit. Civilization is about never running out of reasons to stand in lines. And make no mistake, we are in the midst of civilization. Though the legendary burial site is often described as “in the middle of the desert,” the golden arches of the town McDonald’s practically loom over the dirt road to the landfill, and the lineup ends a hundred paces from the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In.
Though I suspect most people in town couldn’t care less about the dig, it has dominated the front page of the Daily News for the past three days: “ATARI GRAVEYARD: IN SEARCH OF ‘E.T’ ” and “ ‘E.T.’: ATARI-DIG CONTRACT IS MODIFIED” and “ ‘E.T.’: OFFICIALS DISCUSS DIG CONCERNS.”
The “concerns” relate to the environmental hazards of digging up what was, from the 1960s through 1989, a fairly unregulated landfill. A vocal faction in the town is convinced that the crew will accidentally unearth hundreds of corpses of mercury-laced hogs. In 1970 Alamogordo made national headlines when the family of Ernest and Lois Huckleby ate one of the many hogs they’d unknowingly fattened with grain doused in pesticides containing methylmercury. The U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly banned the use of mercury in pesticides, but it was too late for the Hucklebys: the incident caused severe lifelong illnesses in the couple’s four children and prompted decades of litigation.
Although hundreds of poisoned hogs and thousands of pounds of tainted grain ended up in our landfill, Joe Lewandowski has promised that the hogs of ’69 aren’t buried near the E.T.s of ’83. No cloud of poison will rise from the Pit. And so the line outside the dump is growing.
Simon Chinn, a two-time Academy Award winner, for the documentaries Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire, is producing the film with the financial backing of Microsoft, which also plans to distribute the film through its Xbox consoles. Some die-hard gamers have driven cross-country to witness the dig, enamored of the possibility that video-game history will comprise much of future cultural history. But most people in line are locals, and seeing all of them lined up to stand around in their old trash seems like an awful joke. The documentary’s director, Zak Penn, is best known for his work on the scripts of comic-book flicks like X-Men: The Last Stand and The Avengers, but he once teamed with Werner Herzog to film a mockumentary about the Loch Ness monster and didn’t bother to let the Scottish locals in on the ruse.
By 10 A.M. a gaggle of reporters has skipped the line. They’re hovering at the orange fence erected around the Pit, many of them wearing shiny new hard hats and safety vests still creased from their packaging. A few TV reporters wear blouses and fancy jewelry and one guy is in a suit. They’ve got big ideas about a glamorous time at the landfill. John Williams’s E.T. score plays through loudspeakers. Gamers fire up Atari 2600s on CRT televisions. The wind rises as if to match the growing spectacle of the scene. The DeLorean rolls up alongside the Pit, ignoring the fact that the Back to the Future movies have little to do with E.T. or Atari. The car’s presence suggests the dig will be a nostalgia frenzy-and-release, blending any bit of Eighties pop culture into a filthy love letter to the decade that might have seen the last of our technological naïveté — back when we reveled in cartoonish possibility more than we steeped in virality.
Atari’s E.T. played a bit part in thwarting that idealism. The game’s crappiness was manifold, but its fatal flaw was a pit into which E.T. would repeatedly fall almost as soon as the game began. Few players could help poor E.T. escape, effectively nullifying any chance for them to enact the innocence-saves-magic narrative that had made the film so successful. So gamers were left pissed at the implication that they were too iniquitous to participate in the wonder — or just pissed that they’d squandered $49.95 (the equivalent of $122.17 today). They returned the cartridges in droves, and Atari lost $100 million on the game. Even slashing prices to $1 didn’t help them sell.
When the game’s designer, Howard Scott Warsaw, arrives at the dump, his failure is all the media wants to ask him about. He’s got a decent excuse: by the time Atari secured the rights to make an E.T. game in the fall of 1982, he had only six weeks to design it in time for Christmas. But I hear him tell reporters over and over that he doesn’t mind people calling E.T. the worst video game ever made because, look, it’s in the spotlight again after all these years and that must count for something. He says this while gazing out over the Pit, whose name is a running joke about the glitch in his game. I wonder if he’d really refuse a chance to saddle up the DeLorean and travel back in time to fix the code.
When I find the Arch Punks, they’re all nervous energy ready to blow. They’ve been here almost since sunrise, eager to start excavating, but they’ve been told to wait for the public to stream in and the cameras to start rolling.
Punk archaeology seems to be a DIY methodology, meant to be non-elite and seat-of-the-pants. In some ways it’s a rebellion against academia, an attempt to keep archaeology relevant and sexy in the twenty-first century, as the nature of our ruins is increasingly complicated by capitalism and globalism and technology’s acceleration of the cycle from commodity to waste. But I don’t completely understand the point.1 E.T. and the other reportedly buried games aren’t rare or valuable, and it’s hard to fathom what the Punks will learn by seeing them excavated. But they take the work seriously, and they’re agitated by the film crew’s constrictive agenda.
1 This is equally true of other archaeologists, as evidenced by founding punk Bill Caraher’s hour-long interview with a baffled and frankly stubborn Dr. Joseph Shuldenrein on the radio show Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality and 21st Century Archaeology.
Andrew Reinhard is the Arch Punks’ organizer and mouthpiece. By day he’s the director of publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. By night he writes lo-fi anthems about punk archaeology that sound decidedly more alt-rock than punk and have names like “Untenured” and “Miskantonic University Excavations at Inssmouth.” Though Reinhard himself is not punk in any sense that I’ve used the word, he has single-handedly bullied the filmmakers into letting his team participate in the dig, after a months-long social-media campaign that brazenly questioned the crew’s ability to establish a methodology for the excavation and the ensuing data collection. Until Reinhard chimed in, the plan seems to have been just to have a treasure hunt and not think too much about it. “These guys,” Zak Penn later tells me, “are the only thing lending legitimacy to the whole fiasco.”
Richard Rothaus is the funny bone of the Arch Punks, a reformed academic archaeologist now in the private sector who says things like, “To expand on what you losers are saying . . . ,” in such a jolly manner that no one would ever mistake his words for an insult. Bret Weber is a historian at the University of North Dakota who acts as a gofer for the Arch Punks, though he’s also a social worker, and his temperament tends to level out the group when things get contentious.
Raiford Guins is the Punks’ motor. He’s a video-game historian at Stony Brook University who has been researching and writing about this Atari dump for years. He’s got video-game history tattooed all over his body and never sits still. He came to Alamogordo once and tracked down a local named Ricky Jones who claims to have busted into the dump as a teen and loaded up a U-Haul full of Atari games — not just E.T. but Asteroid and Centipede and Missile Command and a dozen others. Then young Ricky drove west and sold his treasure in Californian flea markets for a handsome profit.
The soul of the Arch Punks is Bill Caraher, a University of North Dakota archaeologist who first championed the application of a punk ethos to his field. His expertise is in Mediterranean archaeology, but he laces his monologues about that and pretty much everything else with so many references to 1970s punk rock that it’s easy to tell where his heart lies. In Caraher I recognize a real distrust of The Man — in his eyes and shaggy beard, and in the way he uses that phrase, “The Man,” when he gets worked up about the dire consequences of late capitalism.
As I loiter with the Arch Punks, the public finally starts filing in, several hundred people snaking toward the Pit. Zak Penn is fitted with a microphone and climbs onto the ramp of an equipment truck, where he announces the primary rule for the day: Don’t go past the orange fence. This rule is in the official 106-page Waste Excavation Plan submitted to the state of New Mexico, but by the end of the day it will be broken, big-time, along with any sense that there had been a plan at all.
Penn says, “Joe, let’s go, start it up.” The crowd cheers as he jumps down from the equipment truck and Lewandowski climbs into the excavator. A gaggle of media surrounds Penn and his crew, filming them as they film. Then a large portion of the crowd whips out their phones and films the cameras filming the cameras filming Lewandowski, who finally gets the monster roaring.
As the teeth of the excavator’s bucket dig in, the Arch Punks snug their hardhats and Velcro their safety vests and assume their positions inside the fence along the edge of the Pit, holding shovels or cameras or the Microsoft Surface tablets they’ve been asked to carry as a kind of native advertisement in the documentary. They look undeniably cinematic. I give in and snap a picture.
The Arch Punks feel to me like a kind of proxy. They’re doing what I’ve always wanted to do, what any kid dreams of doing. They get to play around in the dirt and the trash. They even get taken seriously for doing it. Probably the biggest reason I’m enamored of them is that they have the chance to save this dig from being just an entertainment stunt for Xbox. And I, for one, would prefer it if my hometown weren’t sullied by a gaming operation for the second time in thirty years.
The one dig of any consequence that I conducted during my youth in Alamogordo was when, at the age of nine, I attempted to build a swimming hole in my backyard. About three feet into my excavation, I began finding things. I grew up in a house built on the outskirts of town by my grandfather in the 1950s, and I’d heard him mention that while digging the foundation he’d discovered arrowheads and pottery. So I brought one of my discoveries into the house and examined it thoroughly for days. It was oblong, five or six inches in length, and obviously deteriorated. The handle of a war hatchet maybe, or a whittled icon of an Apache god. Clearly something significant. I began to rehearse how I would present my findings when the talk-show hosts came knocking. When I finally showed the artifact to my grandfather, he asked to see exactly where in the yard I’d dug it up. I took him to my shallow swimming hole, which by then I had filled and splashed around in a few times. He looked around, got his bearings, and said, “This is the exact spot where I used to bury all the dog shit.”
I kept that fossilized turd around for a while, out of sheer stubbornness and a lingering sense of greed, like maybe one day it would turn into something of value and I’d have more than just an absurd story to tell.
At 11 A.M. the Arch Punks are elbow-deep in trash. The excavator lifts out a bucketful and sets it aside and they go at it, Caraher and Reinhard with shovels, jolly old Rothaus with a tiny trowel, and Guins snapping pictures. Despite the best efforts of a water truck, 40 mph gusts are kicking up facefuls of landfill. A layer of dirt cakes a family of three sitting in lawn chairs along the orange fence. A food truck has rolled into the dump to serve E.T.-themed sliders, and people try to slip the little burgers into their mouths without parting their lips in order to keep the refuse from rushing in. Penn climbs up on the equipment truck to announce that nothing has been found. Everyone is getting antsy. A guy in hockey jersey says, “Fuck this,”and throws a tumbleweed into the Pit. The crowd thins. For a time the only entertainment is a little drone in the air, fighting madly against the wind to get an aerial view of our misery.
Only a few dozen bystanders remain when, an hour later, a flurry of activity in the Pit culminates with Penn holding up an intact E.T. cartridge. The moment is altogether anticlimactic, maybe because the crowd is half media at this point and maybe because, just after the discovery, I’m standing a hundred yards away with Lewandowski. There are no cameras around us. We do not high-five. Lewandowski has been working on this project longer than anyone. He was there as a garbage contractor when the games were dumped, and in the past three years has put in more hours than anybody working to locate the games and sort out the Waste Excavation Plan. Everyone agrees that he’s the only reason any of this was possible.
Lewandowski’s son, Will, has driven to the Pit in his animal-control truck. He stands by me, just across the fence from his dad, as we watch Penn model the game cartridge for the cameras.
“You can see where the publicity is,” Joe says.
“It will go viral,” Will replies.
“I don’t care. I just wanted to see if I could do it. It was a guess, really.”
“You knew you would find it.”
“Yeah. I knew I would.”
And then Will reaches over the fence and embraces his father. No cameras record this embrace. I feel like a jerk staring at them hugging, but it’s the first sincere moment of an otherwise bogus day.
The Arch Punks begin filling a succession of five-gallon buckets with all the games they’re finding. E.T., Asteroid, Centipede, Missile Command, and many other titles, the exact ones Ricky Jones reportedly found three decades ago. Guins hops by and says, “Very high, my man. Very high right now.” Reinhard says they’re finding thousands of games, remarkably well-preserved. Enough data for decades of Ph.D. dissertations, he says.
Some friends of the crew are escorted past the fence into the Pit. They fine-tune backgrounds for selfies by placing dirty E.T. cartridges carefully in different spots on the trash. The heap of garbage spread out in front of the Pit is now mostly Atari games and equipment. No fewer than ten cameras, professional and amateur, are trained on the trash at any given moment. Here in Alamogordo lies perhaps the most photographed pile of trash in human history, but you will learn nothing about our town or its people by looking at those pictures.
After 4 P.M. the winds hit 60 mph. The water truck has quit, and the sky is dense with dirt and refuse. It’s not quite a cloud of poison from hog corpses or face-melting specters from the Lost Ark, but it’s more than enough to completely obscure the sun. The crew takes shelter, and the few people who have stuck around tear down the orange fence and bum-rush the piles of junk. I can’t yet bring myself to join the fray. Instead I wander, making a list of things I spot around the Pit that are not video games, stuff the Arch Punks have deemed “nonsensitive cultural material”:
cassette tape for a Fisher Price tape recorder
I ♥ MY KIDS bumper sticker
bottle of charcoal starter
so many beer cans
bottle of conditioner (extra body)
empty package of birth-control pills
so many unmatched socks
bottle of foot powder
one baby shoe, so worn
The day after the dig the Arch Punks spend hours cataloguing more than 1,300 video games recovered from the 750,000 estimated to be in the landfill.2 After meticulously laying out and studying and photographing the games, they’re told to sweep them all into garbage bags, still wet and now exposed to air and likely to rot until city officials decide what to do with them.
2 Everyone agrees that the dig barely scratched the surface of the game graveyard. The EPA tells me the obvious: they recommend that video-game manufacturers explore reuse and recycling options before sending large deposits of game cartridges to landfills. Presumably this recommendation extends to game companies excavating large deposits of cartridges in landfills, but in Alamogordo there was no talk of Microsoft paying to dig up (or recycle) any more cartridges than necessary to confirm that Atari’s improper dumping had occurred. Fixing others’ mistakes is often less lucrative than exploiting them.
When we meet the next day for breakfast at the Waffle Shoppe just east of the landfill, the Arch Punks tell me that important archaeological findings should not be stored in garbage bags. Caraher compares it with the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy expresses his concern about the fate of the Lost Ark, which he has gone through hell to recover, and a government official replies, “We have top men working on it right now.” And Indy asks, “Who?”
“Top. Men,” says The Man.
Over breakfast the Arch Punks are cheery. The dig has gone viral, with variations on “FOUND: E.T. GRAVEYARD” in headlines and Twitter feeds around the world. But they debate the extent to which their scholarly work was helped or hindered by the film crew. “Symbiosis,” Reinhard says. “Mutual parasitism,” Rothaus says. Caraher leans close to me and says, “I think the real deal is we were able to work around them.”
They express frustration at not getting all of the coordinates of the exploratory auger holes that were drilled in order to locate the games. They also mention that the day before the public dig, the augers actually pulled up a load of Atari cartridges as the Arch Punks looked on. The filmmakers’ reactions suggested that they wished the Punks hadn’t seen the real moment of discovery.
“It was pretty tense right up until we found the cartridges,” one of the documentary’s producers later tells NewYorker.com, neatly eliding mention of that first moment the tension dissipated. Joe Lewandowski and Ricky Jones had known the games were there, and the producers had presumably confirmed the burial with James Heller, a former Atari employee the crew paraded around the Pit after the games were unearthed. Heller was responsible for disposing of the returned and unsold Atari merchandise in 1983. “There is no mystery whatsoever,” Heller said. “People made it a mystery.” The manufacturing of the second, high-profile moment of discovery suggests that the dig’s real accomplishment is not so much the confirmation of an absurd story as it is a contribution to that story’s absurdity.
As I sit with the Arch Punks shoveling eggs into my mouth, Caraher starts getting worked up. At first he’s just on his high horse about trailblazing a punk methodology for archaeology that accounts for how late capitalism is irrevocably shaping our landscape, and about how our precapitalist, preglobal, preindustrial contexts for archaeology cannot succeed in this new landscape. “We saw in the landfill,” Caraher says, “a transition from the domestic world, your domestic world, to shit that had been injected by the industrial world. By a corporation named Atari. Traditional archaeology might suggest that Alamogordo manufactured Atari games or maybe just really loved them. That’s wrong.”
At some point he pauses to take a phone call. Then he asks for help deleting a tweet. The film crew is unhappy that he has shared a photo of the Arch Punks as they catalogued the games. Caraher claims he doesn’t care about the takedown request, but it clearly violates the punk ethos and fuels a rant that is far too long to fully recount here but was forceful enough to prompt Reinhard to shush him and entertaining enough to prompt Rothaus to get out his phone and film it and profane enough to get Weber to nod apologies at the other patrons. The short version of Caraher’s big Waffle Shoppe diatribe is that what has occurred in the dump is standard practice in the developing world. It’s scavenging. But in Alamogordo it wasn’t done for survival and was therefore unbelievably vain. The size and power of the online nerd community and the entertainment industry have enabled the film crew and the Arch Punks to be celebrated for doing this debased thing that our culture would otherwise condemn them for.
And the sheer speed at which this industrial waste has become celebrated as artifact, he says, as the unauthorized tweet disappears, is evidence that the world has come completely fucking unhinged.
The New Yorker’s online coverage of the dig ends this way: “Perhaps it’s appropriate that Microsoft is the one to be excavating in Alamogordo, like a young man visiting his grandfather’s grave.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but the more accurate one is crass: the grandfather is gone, and the young man doesn’t yet realize that what he has unearthed is shit. A few hundred of the games recovered from the landfill have been set aside for museums, including some that will be displayed among our greatest national treasures at the Smithsonian Institution. I imagine them in a climate-controlled glass case, beneath a warm light that softens the warped plastic edges of the cartridges and makes the Atari logo glow.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”