Making History: The Quest for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

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What is video game history?

The term is bandied about often, but what does it really mean?

Sure, it means that gaming has been around for decades – long enough for people to feel nostalgic for specific games, consoles, and times of their lives. But out in New Mexico’s Alamogordo Landfill, just south of First Street, “video game history” has a much more literal definition: Atari infamously (rumor had it) shipped truckloads filled with unsold cartridges of the Atari 2600’s much-maligned “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” in the early 1980s, and dug a mass grave for them here. They were buried, and became the stuff of legend.

For decades, the myth of Atari and these “E.T.” cartridges was whispered among circles of friends. It was the video game industry’s greatest urban legend.

On April 26, Xbox Entertainment Studios, Lightbox, Fuel Entertainment, fans, curious locals, media, and a team of archaeologists gathered at the alleged burial spot to witness a team of excavators dig for this treasure trove, and be a part of and witness video game history.

Lots of people showed up. But would they find anything?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes.

Precisely what they found is where it gets more interesting. Yes, there were “E.T.” cartridges, but also “Space Invaders,” “Asteroids,” “Centipede,” “Defender,” and “Ms. Pac-Man.” And that’s just for starters.

What does it mean?

That’s what director Zak Penn (“X-Men 2,” “Avengers”) and executive producer and Lightbox co-founder Jonathan Chinn (FX’s “30 Days,” PBS’ “American High”) are trying to find out in the forthcoming original Xbox documentary “Atari: Game Over” (working title), the first in a multi-documentary series about the digital revolution, set to release exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 later this year.  

Penn and Chinn said that local garbage contractor, dig historian, and resident Joe Lewandowski “did a whole ‘CSI’ thing” with Polaroids, various records, and newspaper articles to pinpoint the burial location “a few months ago.” Since then, the three have worked with Alamogordo mayor Susie Galea, the city, and the state of New Mexico to make this excavation possible.

But it amounted to more than chunks of plastic, pieces of joystick, and mysterious torn bits of hardware (no one’s sure what these were – prototypes for Atari’s “Mindlink” device, perhaps?). The day-long event was really about camaraderie and nostalgia among gamers. Like “gaming history,” these are words that are also often thrown about. But here, they are meant simply as a means of bringing people closer together, and connecting with games and ourselves, through the story of “E.T.,” which is often cited as one of the worst games ever released, and now stands as a divisive gaming icon.

At the time, the hate was universal. But now, it also stands for something that connects us. Anything that can attract 300 strangers to come together on a desert landfill on a Saturday has power; that much can’t be denied.

Raul Ruiz, an Alamogordo civic center manager, says that “E.T.” was what made him popular in school. Reminiscing at the dig site, Ruiz recalled being 15 years old, and coming to this very landfill to scavenge for the cartridges. This was before the site was encased in concrete – so anyone could come out here, peck for games, and find them. Ruiz dug up copies of “Yars’ Revenge” (he had it with him, autographed by the creator) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He’d show these games to his classmates, and instantly make new friends.

For Kevin Hurst, an associate of Albuquerque’s game store Gamers Anonymous and an avid Atari collector (he supplied copies of “E.T. ” for dig attendees to try), the Atari – and “Pong” especially – is a time machine that takes him back to growing up and playing games with his dad. Sharing games with others, like his copies of “E.T.” (he has about 20), is his way of giving that feeling to others.

One man, Eric Christensen of Dallas, said that he made the nine-hour drive “just to be a part of the moment, whether they find anything or not.”

People drove from Denver, Colorado; from El Paso, Texas. They flew in from Los Angeles, California and Greenville, Pennsylvania – all to see whether the legend was true. Yes, it’s a little bit silly, when you sit down to think about it. But as Elan Lee, chief design officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios, told Xbox Wire: “Everything about this story is nonsensical.”

Maybe so, but the best things in life – and video games – can’t be fully explained.

We may have gotten closure today in Alamogordo, but we also got closer to one another. And that’s just as important to video game history as what we found down in the dirt.