From landfill to Smithsonian collections: "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" Atari 2600 game

By Drew Robarge
Atari E.T. cartridge in landfill dirt

The video game history collection at the museum has some amazing objects in it that represent big moments in the development of the American video game industry. From Ralph Baer's "Brown Box" prototype for the first video game console, to a Pong arcade cabinet donated by Nolan Bushnell, and numerous other arcade and console games, the collection documents innovations and achievements in video games in the late 20th century. But one big moment was unrepresented: the dark days of the 1980s when the U.S. video game industry crashed. The Smithsonian is no hall of fame—it's our job to share the complicated technological, cultural, and social history of any innovation, including video games. That's why I was excited when we added a copy of the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 game to our collection, thanks to Mike Burns, Daniel Schechter, and Gerhard Runken from Fuel Entertainment. Unearthed from a landfill, the object personifies the video game crash that took place from 1982 to 1985.

The cartridge with the City of Alamogordo serial number verifying it came from the landfill

The cartridge with the City of Alamogordo serial number verifying it came from the landfill

In 1982, Atari was one of the most successful companies in United States history, but was also facing significant challenges. Its highly popular console, Atari VCS (also known as Atari 2600), faced competition from other consoles released by competitors, mainly Intellivision by Mattel and Colecovision by Coleco. In addition, more independent companies were developing games and starting to flood the market with games. Attempting to lure Steven Spielberg to make films for Warner Brothers, Warner Communication, the parent company of Warner Brothers and Atari, negotiated an expensive licensing agreement for Atari to make a video game adaptation of Spielberg's latest movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Trying to get the game in stores by Christmas, the developer of the game, Howard Scott Warshaw, was only given five and half weeks instead of the normal six to nine months to develop the game. The expense of licensing the game meant Atari had to sell four million cartridges to break even. When the game came out, over one million customers bought the games, but Atari did not sell anywhere close to four million. To add insult to injury, stores received returns from customers who found the game frustrating to play. The poor performance of this game meant a massive loss for Atari and was one of the contributing factors to a crash in the video game industry that started in 1982 and would last until 1985.
The crash was a pivotal point in video game history, bankrupting many companies and souring the video game experience for many consumers. Atari, Mattel, and Coleco were no longer household names in video games as they were in the early 1980s. The void left allowed companies from Japan to enter the market such as Nintendo, Sega, and Sony. It wasn't until Microsoft released the Xbox in 2001 that an American company had successfully released a console with a considerable market share, although Atari did try again by releasing the Atari Jaguar in 1993, only to see it flop.

In September of 1983, Atari found itself with a surplus of game cartridges that they needed to remove from its warehouse in El Paso, Texas. They decided to bury the games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to prevent people from scavenging them. To further deter people from digging, it was claimed that concrete was poured over the landfill. This burial was recorded in the local newspaper and people who worked in the landfill knew about it and remembered it. Over time, due to the scant written record and the somewhat coincidental fact that the cartridges of E.T. were buried in New Mexico near Roswell, the event was forgotten and elevated (or devolved) to a status of an urban legend.

Sunny construction site with workers sorting through trash and dirt

Archeologists and workers sorting through the trash uncovered by the dig. Photo courtesy of Fuel Entertainment.
Thinking that it would be forever buried in the desert if it was there, I put it down on my list to collect, but I knew that my chances of getting one were slim to none. If one did turn up for sale or was offered to us, how could I verify that it actually came from the landfill? Even if we could, we could not collect it as it was illegally removed from the landfill. It was to my surprise that one day I read that a company put in a proposal to dig up the landfill they believed containing the cartridges. Afraid that they might dig it up and just bury it all back in, I contacted Fuel Entertainment, the company behind the initiative, who offered to give us a cartridge if they found one. I waited for news of the results of their excavation to the public and, sure enough, myth became reality and they did find plenty of cartridges. True to their word, we received a cartridge and other objects relating to the excavation.

Crumpled E.T. games in the dirt and rocks

Some of the cartridges they found. By taylorhatmaker (Atari E.T. Dig: Alamogordo, New Mexico). CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 

The cartridge is one of the defining artifacts of the crash and of the era. In addition to the crash, the cartridge can tell many stories: the ongoing challenge of making a good film to a video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle. The cartridge also serves as closure for many things: the urban legend of the burial, the golden years of Atari, an era where American companies dominated the console scene. All of these possible interpretations make for a rich and complicated object. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure.
Museum Specialist Drew Robarge has also blogged about the Soviet history of Tetris. Please note that the cartridge is not currently on display in the museum.