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Gaming Archaeology: Digging Up E.T.

1 May

Imagine finding thousands upon thousands of copies of a game thought long-lost (well at least since the 80’s).  You may think they’d be worth a fortune, you may wonder who did could fund such a scheme, or you may simply wonder why it would be worth digging or searching for the games in the first place.

Courtesy of NPR and The New Statesman I’ve found out about a pretty interesting project to recover the mythically dumped 1983 E.T. movie tie-in game cartridges from a suspected landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  Although the rumour of the Atari company dumping truck fulls of this wildly unsuccessful tie-in game was long thought to have been an urban legend, the film director Zak Penn and associated archaeologists have managed to find, excavate and recover thousands of the said game from the landfill site in the southern US state, proving that Atari really did dump their sadly unloved game en mass.

Is this really archaeology though?*  In a way it is as it fits the basic concept of recovering the material remains of past populations and cultures.  The video game cartridge itself is now a relic in the modern gaming age, an age where games can be downloaded and played almost anywhere in the world, on a wide range and ever-increasing variety of platforms.

Cartridge and retro gaming still retains a strong and vibrant audience however, and the media attention that this uncovering has gained has gone some way to prove that there is still a deep interest in what was then the emerging gaming market.  It is highly likely that the above game also represents a touch point for a certain gaming generation audience, a period where money flooded into the development for the nascent gaming industry.  Indeed, amongst a selection of my own  friends you only have to mention the 1997 Nintendo 64 James Bond game Goldeneye and you are instantly met with misty looks of nostalgia and fond memories spilling from their mouths (and mine).

My immediate thought on hearing of the uncovering of thousands of copies of the game?  Where are they going to go!  There is a persistent rumour that the games may number in the millions, but this has yet to be seen.  It is likely that there will be a vibrant market for such early video gaming memorabilia, as keen gamers, for instance, have already set up shop at the site to play the copies that are coming straight out of the ground.

Yet the story of the E.T. games, resting in their thousands unloved and out of sight in a dumping ground in New Mexico for many years also reminded me of a challenge currently facing archaeology in the UK.  This is the issue of storage space.  Currently the storage space in museums and commercial units for the produce of archaeological investigations, namely the artefacts, environmental samples and archive documents produced or excavated during a projects lifetime, is already at bursting point in many institutions and organisations throughout the UK.  Thousands, if not millions, of artefacts and environmental samples are waiting to be either recorded, preserved, stored, curated or displayed.  The planning and excavation of archaeological sites is but one facet of archaeology as a whole, but every archaeological excavation (if it is necessary) must budget and plan for the storage and accession of the artefacts uncovered and of reports, plans and documents produced before, during and after the actual act of digging.

It is not an area of simple answers, nor could I suggest one here.  It is an area that I hope to explore in future blog posts as this is a rich area for study, and one intricately linked with the Open Access movement, digital media and the changing face of heritage in the UK.

* Yes!

Update 02/05/14

It seems as if I was too hasty to think that no archaeologists were involved with the project.  Comments on this post, from the ever helpful Doug (of Doug’s Archaeology) and from John of Where The Hell Am I fame, have highlighted the fact that archaeologists have been involved from the off in helping to manage the project, and locate and excavate the E.T. games.  You can read a pretty fantastic interview her with Andrew Reinhard, the lead archaeologist for the project, which discusses the contextualisation of the project.  Team member Bill Caraher also has a blog where he has written about the Atari project, and you can read a fascinating post here discussing the often limited mention of archaeologists in mainstream media.

I often try to let a blog post slowly materialise as I think about an angle and gather sources together to help form a wider view on a particular issue, but I wrote this particular entry pretty fast after reading a few mainstream media articles highlighting the project.  As an archaeological blogger (although arguably leaning towards osteoarchaeology more) I made the relatively fatal but benign error of not digging deeper and actually discovering myself that archaeologists were involved in this fascinating project.  So I thank the commenters on this post for keeping me right and for pointing me in the direction of the archaeologists themselves.