I’ve had a terrible time putting words on the page this fall and summer, so I decided to invest the next month or so in finishing an article that has been lingering around my hard drive for the past few years. In April 2014, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I made our way down to Alamogordo, New Mexico to contribute to the excavation of a dump of Atari games at the local landfill there. The games included numerous examples of the (in)famous E.T. game and our presence there gave us a chance to work a bit with the well-known Hollywood director and screenwriter Zak Penn.
Our work in Alamogordo allowed us to collect a good bit of empirical data about the excavation of the landfill and the Atari games, but it also encouraged me to think a good bit about how archaeological work, objects, and popular perceptions shape the kinds of narratives possible in our discipline. So instead of a rather boring article that presented the results of our work there, I decided to put together three different narratives grounded in three different forms of analysis designed to demonstrate the complexities of archaeological story telling.
Since I already have a draft of the basic description of the Atari excavation, this week I decided to work on a study of the Atari excavations from the perspective of media archaeology (and archaeology of media).
Here’s what I have so far:
The excavation of the Atari dump at Alamogordo confirmed the presence of the Atari games long-thought to have been dumped there. This excavation also located the games within a particular context that extended stratigraphically starting with their immediate context, and then digging down into the nature of the game play, particular of the E.T. Game, and their place within the history of video gaming. The goal of this section is not to explore all the possibilities of these games as either media objects in an archaeological context or as objects of media archaeology, but to colocate the narrative structured by the games themselves within a broader archaeological narrative.
The recovery of the E.T. Games, along with a range of other titles and Atari paraphernalia in the Alamogordo landfill confirmed shadowy story from 1983 that the Atari Corporation transported thousands of returned, remaindered, and unsold games from their El Paso distribution center for burial in a small town landfill (Guins 2014). The rational for this was perhaps no more sinister than a cost saving move by a cash strapped company that found the dumping rates cheaper for corporate waste in a small, desert city. Whatever the reason, by dumping the games amid a post-consumer, late 20th-century domestic assemblage ironically returned these games to their intended, but largely unrealized place alongside the objects of everyday life in the mid-1980s American home. Movie posters, video and audio tape, magazines and newspapers, represented both common objects in the Alamogordo and staples of late-20th-century American media consumption. In fact, that dates on newspapers and media provided chronological markers for the various levels present in the dump. The presence of the Atari games alongside other contemporary media objects simultaneously displaced and restored the games to a discarded version of their intended domestic context.
The dumping of these games in a rather remote, small-town landfill demonstrated that the relative banality of domestic discard in the 1980s had allowed for these games to be hidden in plain sight. For archaeologists, however, the work of the archaeologist William Rathje and his team at the Tuscon Garbage Project (Rathje 1992) had begun to reveal the patterns of domestic consumption in post-consumer waste through their systematic study of both curbside trash and landfills. This work has had a formative influence on more recent efforts to study the social context of late modern discard (Ferrell 2006; Lucas 2002) and production of landfills (Reno 2009) as well as historical roots in the earliest era of archaeological practice (Schmidt 2001). In other words, archaeologists have both a contemporary investment and historical commitments to unpacking the complexity of domestic discard through the study of middens, discard practices, and even modern dumps. By revealing Atari dump amidst domestic discard through documenting the excavation of the landfill, as opposed to only the assemblage of Atari games, we located contemporary media within disciplinary practice as well.
The disciplinary practice of revealing the complexities of domestic discard and documenting patterns hidden in plain sight has intriguing parallels to certain features present in the E.T. video game. In the video game itself, the player had to bring E.T. home while avoiding a number of perils including difficult to escape pits. Like many Atari games of this era, the E.T. game also contained an “Easter egg.” Easter eggs are hidden features in the game that only a complex set of typically obscure moves reveal. The earliest such feature revealed the name of game designer in the game Adventure (Monfort and Bogost 2009). The game designer for the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw, included an Easter egg that transformed the plucky E.T. first into “Yar,” the title character, in the game Yar’s Revenge, then into Indiana Jones from the movie-themed, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atari game. Warshaw designed E.T., Yar’s Revenge, and Raiders, making the Easter egg a kind of personal signature. It also formed a narrative parallel to the search for the burial of E.T. games in the New Mexico dessert as the games served as a kind of Easter egg under the detritus of contemporary life at the Alamogordo landfill.
The interplay of the expected and the hidden that make video game Easter eggs so appealing to early Atari gamers likewise reflected the genre bending character of the E.T. video game (and its contemporary release of Raiders of the Lost Arc). The 1982 E.T. film involved the efforts of a suburban kid, Eliot, to keep hidden the affection extra-terrestrial until he is able to find his way home. Set in the American suburbs, the film in punctuated by the adorable E.T. being hidden in plain sight, like the assemblage of video games. In fact, the history of the film itself contains a kind of Easter egg in a deleted scene that featured Harrison Ford as Eliot’s principal. While this scene never appeared in the film itself, it was sufficient well know to garner comment from director Steven Spielberg who had a history of having Harrison Ford and other favorite actors make cameo appearances in his movies.
To return to media archaeology and archaeology of the media, the intended domestic context for Atari games belied their unexpected appearance in the post-consumer discards in the Alamogordo landfill. At the same time, the appearance of this deposit echoed the presence of Easter eggs in Atari game play and in the E.T. game, in particular, where the author of the game made his presence known through a series of secret moves. Like Eliot in the film, one goal of the excavation and the game play was to return the Atari cartridges and the extraterrestrial to their familiar domestic contexts, home, while simultaneously revealing a hidden meaning. For an observer familiar with the games, the film, and with popular depictions of archaeology, such as that presented in the contemporary film (and game designed by Howard Scott Warshaw) Raiders of the Lost Ark the interplay between hidden and known, domestic and displaced, was a familiar theme.