A Chat with Atari: Game Over Executive Producer Jonathan Chinn

After a long, windy, dusty day in one of Alamogordo, New Mexico’s many landfills, gamers everywhere learned that there is, in fact, truth to the rumors that Atari had buried countless “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” cartridges deep in the desert back in the 1980s. Not just that, but the team of excavators working from sunrise ‘til sunset uncovered torn chunks of joysticks and — more intriguingly — other Atari 2600 cartridges, like “Ms. Pac-Man,” “Asteroids,” and even “Space Invaders.”

Why all this was buried here has yet to be fully uncovered — the full story on that will be in the forthcoming Xbox Originals documentary, “Atari: Game Over” (working title), coming later this year.  “Atari” is the first installment in a six film documentary series, “Signal to Noise,” (working title) by two-time Academy Award winning producer Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire”) and Emmy winning producer Jonathan Chinn (FX’s “30 Days” and PBS’s “American High”), through their multi-platform media company, Lightbox. The series will expose little known stories of how modern technology has radically altered the way we interact with our world. 

To help tide you over until the big film premier, we sat down with documentary series executive producer, Jonathan Chinn, to get his take on the significance of the excavation’s findings and find out what made the dig possible.

Xbox Wire: How did all this come about – the documentary, and the logistics of arranging the dig?

Jonathan Chinn:
As soon as we signed on to make the film, we had to get in touch with the city of Alamogordo and the state of New Mexico, and specifically [local garbage contractor] Joe Lewandowski — who is the guy who led us to this particular spot in this rather large landfill. I’d say it’s taken about six or seven months from the time we signed on, to get to this point.

Xbox Wire: Just milling around and talking to people today, it sounds like Joe Lewandowski had records from journalists, of the actual dumping happening?

Jonathan Chinn:
Yeah, Joe is an interesting guy. He had various records and newspaper articles and Polaroids that his wife had taken, and sort of did a whole “CSI” thing on them to pinpoint exactly where the Atari stuff was.

Xbox Wire: Let’s talk about what you found today. What did you find to be the most interesting thing about this?

Jonathan Chinn:
I think the amount of people that came definitely surpassed my expectations. I wasn’t expecting quite that many people. I thought there would be a handful of interested people. So, that’s great. In terms of what we found, I would say it really did surpass our expectations. Some of the games are in really good condition.

Xbox Wire: And there’s a variety of games. Nobody was expecting that, right?

Jonathan Chinn:
Exactly. There’s a full variety of games. Obviously we found a lot of “E.T.” cartridges, which is great. That’s kinda what we came to find. But the bigger mystery is the true extent of what Atari dumped, and more importantly why. In terms of answering that question, I feel like we now have a lot of evidence that we can piece together in addition to all the interviews with all the people we’ve done that were involved in the story.

Xbox Wire: What happens next with what you dug up?

Jonathan Chinn:
There is a crack team of archaeologists who are actually taking this very seriously. They’re cataloging it and they’re helping paint a picture of exactly what happened back in 1983, because there are interestingly no official records of the dump. One of the interesting things about this story is that if that dump had happened five or six years later it would have been really easy to locate them The whole process of dumping stuff in landfills has since been computerized and is better and organized, so I think that did a lot to fuel the urban legend about this story – there just wasn’t any proof about this either way until today. In terms of the actual merchandise itself, the games and everything, that’s the property of the city of Alamogordo. They’ll have to figure out what they want to do with it. There has been talk about some of the stuff we pulled out of the ground actually going to museums.  Who knows, maybe they’ll melt them down – I heard there is actually a tiny piece of gold in each and every one of the cartridges.

Xbox Wire: We talked to the mayor of Alamogordo, and she said this is very valuable for gaming and nostalgia — but she wanted to remind people that there’s more to this city than just a dump.

Jonathan Chinn:
[Laughs.] Yes, yes, I can appreciate that. And I hope Alamogordo gets something out of this too. When your town is known for detonating the first atomic bomb and being a place where Atari dumped their unwanted merchandise, I can appreciate the desire for the mayor to put Alamogordo on the map for something that has real cultural significance. Maybe Alamogordo will become the next Roswell, and people will come form all over the world to see the site of the Atari burial and excavation.  

Xbox Wire: What’s a big takeaway for you from the dig?  

Jonathan Chinn:
I’m the producer of the film, but I’m not a massive gamer. I’ve become much more interested in gaming since starting to make this film, and I have gotten to know a lot of people in the gaming community and I feel quite connected to that community now. And it’s fascinating to me that something that happened 30 years ago still has relevance to both those who lived through it but also a new generation of gamers.

There were kids, 14 or 15 years old here today, and for them, this is actually history. I lived through it, so for me, it’s nostalgic. But for those kids, it’s history. The games that Atari and Howard [Scott Warshaw, designer of “E.T.”] made — they’ll clearly live forever. In a thousand years from now, maybe they’ll be digging up Xbox One games. But for now, this is Atari’s story and the interesting thing is that if you look at all the other gaming platforms… none of them have a story like this associated with them. It’s a story that people care about that has lived on and has captured the imagination. There’s obviously something very special about Atari, and there’s something very special about this “E.T.” game and about that time in history that people clearly care about and connect to, regardless of their age. It’s just one of those stories that has enduring meaning, and a story people seem to find their own meaning in I think today proves that Atari and even ET – supposedly the worst video game of all time – will live on forever. They may outlive the current games and platforms just because they have this amazing story.

Xbox Wire: You can’t bury that story. Literally!

Jonathan Chinn:
Clearly. Well, that’s the thing. The moral of the story is you can’t ever bury your mistakes; you need to face them head on. And also, yesterday’s mistakes can be tomorrow’s successes. Here we are in 2014 in the desert; there are 300 people that came out. And about 20 cameras, all focused on digging up a game that, 30 years ago, didn’t sell. Well, to me, it speaks to the sort of transience of art in a certain way.

The “E.T.” video game didn’t have a lot of time to get developed, and maybe the timing was wrong, but the fact of the matter is that despite it being labeled the worst video game of time — which it may or may not be — it’s outlived so many other games that have been forgotten over the years. The fact is that we’re making a movie about the “E.T.” game. We’re not making a move about “Centipede,” “Defender,” or “Galaga,” or any other game that was more “successful.” I guess success is in the eye of the beholder. Today, everybody on the planet is talking about the “E.T.” video game. So, I would say that’s a success, regardless of how many units it sold 30 years ago. I think it’s a testament to what Atari did and what that name means to people.

Xbox Wire: You mentioned you’re not much of a gamer. So what interested you, initially, about this story?

Jonathan Chinn:
We try and make films that transcend their subject matter, in the way that “Searching for Sugar Man” is not really a film about music, and in the same way that “Man on Wire” isn’t really a film about a stunt. These are films that transcend their subject matter, to get to the heart of the human experience.

When Xbox Entertainment Studios pitched Fuel Entertainment’s idea to us, we were a little bit skeptical.
It felt like a small, very niche story that only gamers might be interested in. But as we dug into it and started to speak to people, I think we realized that the story actually had a lot more to say about the world we live in, and how the digital revolution and the digital age has changed [us]. Our sense was that these couple years between 1982 and 1984 were absolute watershed moments in the video game industry.  

Xbox Wire: Make or break, right?

Jonathan Chinn:
There was a crash. All this stuff got dumped. Everybody was saying video games were a fad, and that they were done. And then look what happened just a few years later with Nintendo and stuff like that. None of that would have happened without Atari.

Xbox Wire: Yep, they were the first.

Jonathan Chinn:
I think there are a lot of comparisons to be made between Atari and Apple. The biggest comparison is that Steve Jobs worked at Atari, but I think the corporate mentality, the vision, and the pure desire is to make something intuitive for consumers where you could bring entertainment into the home — which obviously Apple is an innovator in. I think Atari was right there. It’s a little bit of a tragedy, what happened to Atari. They should be around today. They could have been Apple, without a doubt. They had the right idea, they had the right talent there, they had the money, and I think our film will do something to explain why they didn’t wind up being as successful as Apple, and why they ended up dumping a bunch of their products in a landfill.

I mean, imagine if we were digging for iMacs. Steve Jobs would never have let that happen. There’s something that happened in the corporate structure at Atari at the time that knocked them off the tracks. People following it were obviously skeptical of that decision, and I think that’s where this urban legend came about: “That’s weird. Why would they dump all their merchandise there? What does that say about their belief in their own product?” That’s what the film is trying to get to the bottom of.

We’re uncovering stuff metaphorically, while at the same time, actually uncovering stuff in a landfill. I hope the film is as successful as the dig. The dig was a big success.

Xbox Wire: Did today change your mind about anything? About gaming or life in general?

Jonathan Chinn:
I think what it changed my mind about is… well technology is always moving forward, right? Things are always getting better. Cameras are getting better. Games are getting more realistic. But when it comes down to it, it’s something more than the technology that captures people’s imaginations. Not being an avid gamer myself, I just assumed games were getting better and better as time went on. Having tapped into a community of people who are interested in gaming history since the beginning of the industry — I thought it was a little bit of a fad, or a little bit of an obsession. “Why are they still interested in ‘E.T.’? Why are they still interested in ‘Pong?’ Games are so much better now, right?”

I guess it’s raised a question in my mind: Are games better? I mean, the graphics are better. But it’s no guarantee, right? It’s like film, in a certain way. There are classic films that are still classic — and games are no different. For me, this experience has elevated gaming in my mind as an art form, whereas I was a little snobbish about it before. It’s like: “Well, there’s films and there’s art… and then there’s video games.” I think I’ve come to realize that video games are a real art form too and will go down in history as such. The fact that stories like this still capture the imagination is a testament to that.