Atari Archaeology


During my years in the newspaper industry, an embarrassing typo or omission in the paper would sometimes lead coworkers to invoke an old adage: “Doctors bury their mistakes. Newspapers print theirs.” I was reminded of that saying after reading in the news about the confirmation of the oft-repeated rumor that thousands of unsold “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” Atari video game cartridges had been dumped in a desert landfill. A documentary film crew has apparently unearthed several hundred of the cartridges. The E.T. game was widely considered one of the worst of all time and its failure is blamed for helping to kill Atari and seriously damaging the video game industry until Nintendo came along and rescued it a few years later. With that reputation, it’s no wonder someone was eager to literally bury that mistake.

This story begs two questions:

  1. If the cartridges had remained buried for hundreds or even thousands of years and were unearthed by a future civilization, would the future archaeologists infer, based on the sheer number of units, that the E.T. game was highly popular and culturally important to 20th Century Americans? That seems likely, and makes one wonder if the artifacts we have collected from the ancient world are really just so much unwanted merchandise that Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, et. al. merchants weren’t able to unload on the consumers of their time.
  2. Is there a similar landfill out there containing all of the unused AOL Free Trial CDs from the 1990s? If so, the landfill would of course need to be many times larger than the entire state of New Mexico to hold them all.

The next big landfill discovery?

As a final personal aside, it should be noted that I owned an Atari 2600 back in the day and spent untold hours playing it. I never tried the E.T. game, but if it really was worse than other Atari games that were out at the time (e.g., Video Checkers, Tic Tac Toe, any number of ridiculously simplistic sports games) then the game designers deserved to have been buried along with the cartridges.

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