Get Outta Town: Video game history slowly decomposes beneath the New Mexican desert

by Nick Gonzales

A seemingly vacant lot on the west side of Alamogordo, New Mexico, is the site of a mass extraterrestrial burial. Steven Spielberg’s E.T., to be specific, in the form of thousands of Atari 2600 video games. The site symbolizes a dark time in video game history and for many years was considered an urban legend.

Heading into 1982, the video game industry was riding high — Atari Inc. in particular. Its purchase by Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976 led Atari to grow to a net worth of $2 billion. By 1983, Atari’s high ride started to go south.

Atari’s moneymakers tended to fall into two categories: ports — or, in other words, conversions — of popular arcade games, such as Space Invaders, and tie-ins with successful films, such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As such, the company expected its 1982 port of the arcade game Pac-Man to be wildly popular, and in turn manufactured 12 million cartridges, despite having only sold 10 million consoles to play them with. Atari hoped the success of its ported Pac-Man would create consumer demand for an additional 2 million game consoles. Unfortunately, the game sucked. Atari’s port of Pac-Man barely resembled the arcade version and lacked everything charming about the original. Initially, the game was a commercial success and sold 7 million copies, but ultimately the company was stuck with 5 million unsold cartridges along with the ones buyers while demanding refunds.

At the same time, Atari bought rights to license a game based on Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” for an estimated $20-25 million. The company had difficulty with licensing issues, though, leaving the game’s programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, with just weeks to complete the port before holiday sales. The objective of the E.T. game was to allow E.T. to “phone home” and revolved around collecting three pieces of a telephone that were scattered randomly throughout several holes that players searched while evading FBI agents and scientists. The game was incredibly monotonous and is often cited as one of the worst video games ever made. Of the 5 million E.T. game cartridges manufactured, only 1.5 million were sold.

Atari quickly amassed a huge inventory of game cartridges it couldn’t sell. When the entire video game market crashed in 1983 after market saturation and the declining interest in game consoles grew in lieu of personal computers, the company decided to dump all of its unsold inventory. Literally.

Atari downsized in 1983, firing 1,700 members of its staff and moving its manufacturing overseas, and its El Paso, Texas plant and warehouses were emptied and closed. According to an old New York Times story, in September of 1983, the company drove 14 truckloads of game cartridges and video game equipment 90 miles north to Alamogordo, New Mexico’s then-new city landfill.

“Guards kept reporters and spectators away from the area yesterday as workers poured concrete over the dumped merchandise,” the Times reported. The concrete was added to keep kids from looting the dump site, but somehow they got in anyway.

Over time, the story of the massive burial grew until the urban legend described the burial as containing all 3.5 million unsold E.T. cartridges.

It also became a cautionary tale warning about hubris and poor business practices. As time passed and sand covered the site, some began to doubt that the burial had ever happened.

Over three decades later, a Canadian entertainment company got permission to excavate the burial site while filming a documentary, “Atari: Game Over.” On April 26, 2014, excavation began with an event that was open to the public and was attended by the E.T. game programmer, Warshaw; “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline; Armando Ortega, an Alamogordo city official who was one of the kids who looted the dump in the ’80s; and a team of archaeologists.

Of an estimated 700,000 game cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert, 1,300 were recovered by the excavation. Some were given to Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History for display and the city sold off many of the others. One E.T. cartridge was donated to the Smithsonian Institution because it represents “the ongoing challenge of making a good film to video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle.”

Alamogordo has since moved its municipal landfill to another location, but the old landfill with the rest of the Atari stash is still located on the south side of First Street, just west of White Sands Boulevard. The city of Alamogordo was, at one point, considering making the old site a tourist attraction, but it is unclear what happened to those plans.

Nick Gonzales


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