Atari, Archaeology, and Authenticity

As Andrew Reinhard is giving a talk on punk archaeology and Atari, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be writing up our experiences in Alamogordo in 2014 (despite having far more pressing things to deal with). Last week, I suggested that our article could focus on issues of authenticity in the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Here’s a rough outline:

Introduction. This is where I need to do the most work in setting up this article and introducing the three ways of engaging and authenticating the Atari excavation. The first section relies on a conventional archaeological discourse. The second section considers the role of the excavations as a transmedia encounter that weaves together the game, the work of excavation, and the documentary film being produced. The third section of the paper will consider the documentary, Atari: Game Over, and reflect on the unpacking 1980s Atari experience – both as game players and through the perspectives of the film director, Zak Penn, and the designer of E.T. Howard Scott Warshaw – as a kind of excavation of childhood (in a Freudian sense). The conclusion will reflect on the Ebay auction of the games from the Alamogordo landfill and  

1. Describing the Dig. As this article comes a bit more into focus, I can envision the first part of the article presenting a modern archaeological narrative that contributes to creating authenticity in the discipline of archaeology. The nice thing about this, is that I basically already have a draft done. You can check it out here (pdf).

2. Atari, Archaeology, and the Media. I think the most interesting thing about the Atari excavation is watching the film crew – who funded and organized the dig – deal with the contingencies of an active archaeological excavation while at the same time promoting their work as a media event (in the broadest possible sense of excavating media, producing excavation for the media, and mediating the experience of visitors to the dig). I’ve started drafting some of this section here (pdf).

3. Atari, Adulthood, and Archaeology. One of the most remarkably things in Zak Penn’s documentary is that he took the work of archaeology quite literally. Not only was his film about digging up E.T. cartridges in New Mexico, but it was also about excavating the 1980s as an experience both for the user of these games and for the folks involved in their production. In many ways, Penn excavated his childhood and the extended childhood of Howard Scott Warshaw who designed the E.T. game. The fall of Atari and the failure of the E.T. game was more than just an economic or financial outcome of mismanagement or changing tastes, but it trapped the experience of the film, the game, and the making of the game in a dreamlike place that excavation revealed. I have parts of this section worked out here and you can watch the documentary here.

Conclusion: Auctioning and Authenticating Atari. The conclusion will look at the auction of the Atari games on Ebay and consider how the prices and packaging of these games legitimated the various authenticating narratives. This would bring in some of the Ebay data that Andrew Reinhard acquired for us and consider the ethical issues surrounding selling games authenticated, in part, through archaeological methods.

When I look at what I have already, it is pretty clear that I have the first draft of the article almost done. I just need to revise everything into a more coherent argument and narrative, and, of course, add a bit of a literature review, some historiography, and a bit of an edge. 

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