This last month has been pretty fun.
While these things rattled around in my brain, I got to pondering the life history of the Atari games. As the final tally on the money raised by auctioning the excavated Atari games has made the news over the past couple weeks, I wondered how these games fit into the metaphor of object biography. Object biography imagines that objects, like people, have life histories. They are born, they live fruitful, agentative, and complex lives, and then, like all life, they die.
Archaeologists then exhume these objects and they begin second lives in museums, collections, or storerooms. Some classes of objects, say, prestige goods accustomed to elite consumption continue to live on as important objects, displayed in museums or in private collections. Of course, many more objects don’t quite return to life entirely. More mundane objects do not re-integrate with our practical needs and are doomed to linger on in a kind of limbo between being alive and meaningful and occupying carefully curated discard as part of the storage crisis in archaeology.
The Atari games generally fit into the latter category. In life, they might confer some momentary prestige – like a recognizable bottle of an expensive wine calls out the importance of the more temporary product within – but generally the game itself was a short-lived commodity. More than that, the game itself was hardly an artifact at all; it was lines of code embedded on a chip.
Did the game die when it was discarded? This would seem to fit a narrative that saw the Alamogordo landfill as a graveyard.
These exhumed games, however, had an extraordinary afterlife. Like many archaeological artifacts, did not stay dead. They returned to life as zombie games (at best) or relics (at worst). The final scene of Shaun of the Dead comes to mind here, where Nick Frost’s zombie character Ed continues a life not too unlike his life before his zombification, chained up in a backyard shed playing video games.
It may be that the better metaphor for the excavated Atari games is as relics. Their place in urban legend, in gaming history, and, now, in an internet fueled media frenzy, bestows supernatural powers on these objects. They might no longer function as games, but continue to possess power as fragments of a particular past. In fact, one might even think of the narrative involving their discovery as the modern equivalent of an inventio story. In Medieval literature, inventio tales tell of the miraculous discovery of lost relics and affirm the sacred power of these objects. These tales often become fused to the objects themselves and history of these objects becomes inseparable from the narrative of their discovery.
Whether zombie or relic, the game itself – the cartridge, the silicon, the paper label – are all similar enough to serve their purpose as representatives of an experience (playing the game), an era (the glory days of Atari), or an event (the excavation of the games).
Of course, reflections on the death (and rebirth) of the Atari game does push us to ask questions about the original birth of the Atari game. (Here’s I’ll channel my inner Andrew Reinhard): Was the game born when the coder, the famous Howard Scott Warshaw, created the code that made particular pixels respond to our commands on the screen. Was the game born when this code was imprinted on a silicon chip, or this chip was embedded in a plastic case, labeled with a graphic label, or placed in a box? Was it born when the game arrived at the point-of-sale, entered circulation, or was plugged into an Atari console?
But the life of an Atari game is more complex. Before these discarded games “died,” they were cloned digitally. (In fact, we could argue that these games originated as clones of the code that Warshaw composed and the plastic cases and graphic art that Atari designed.) The life of these games bifurcated, however, as the code itself lived on to appear in java-based emulations on the interwebs or in other forms ported to newer technology. This is not to suggest that the code was immutable and that every instance of the code was identical to the one before. Every time a piece of code is run, it runs a bit differently (mostly on a level that’s imperceptible to the end user), and as code outlives the hardware on which it was designed to run, it picks up artifacts of efforts to keep it alive.
The plastic, silicon, and paper bits of the games may appear to have a more linear trajectory. Unlike vintage video game cabinets (which our collaborator Raiford Guins explored in the life-history equivalent of retirement and nursing homes) which get restored and refinished and enjoyed as long as outdated parts can be found to keep them going, plastic game cases, paper labels, and chipped and battered silicon rarely see such care. Conservation is possible on these games, but for those excavated from the Alamogordo dump, the dirt, cracks, and torn paper forms a history of their posthumous burial. Preservation of these objects as Atari relics or zombies requires attending to evidence for their discard, decay, and exhumation. So like the cloned code that lives on in new, different circumstances, the exhumed games carry forward the history of their afterlife in very physical ways.
The history of a complex, manufactured, object like an Atari game – no matter what its history – reveals the limitations of the notion of life history for an object. Pinpointing the moment of birth and death are impossible when objects have the meandering, reduplicated, and intermittent existences like those of these Atari games. Many archaeological artifacts die, are born again, and are cloned over the course of their history.
Of course, most archaeological objects live this kind of diffuse existence. They exist simultaneously as physical artifacts and as database objects, as illustrations, and photographs. These objects – clones, copies or whatever – go on to live complex “lives” as they appear in print, online, and linger on hard drives, web servers, and tapes. Without their relationship to excavated objects they can lose value quickly and without the proper tools to view, collate, and preserve them, they can all but vanish. Excavated artifacts can likewise vanish into the darkness of private collections, the abyss of the pottery dump, or the tray of “context pottery.” Mundane commodities like Atari games can vanish into landfills and only a infected few become zombie games and return to haunt the world of the living.