If you’re reading this, you probably have some interest in geek culture. Or you just clicked the wrong link on Google. Either way, welcome. Recently, there has recently been a great resurgence of publicity surrounding the now-infamous “Atari Burial” of 1983. But before I begin, I should probably give a brief nerd history lesson.
A BRIEF NERD HISTORY LESSON: In the early 1980s, video games had officially become a thing, and they generally looked something like this:
Atari was big business. Its giant library of games dominated the entertainment market, capturing the imaginations of young people everywhere. It seemed like the beginning of an exciting new age of gaming, and fierce competition between the Atari 2600, the Intellivision, and the ColecoVision made sure that companies continued producing great games. Then came the crash.
By 1983, many third-party companies had jumped on the video game bandwagon. Realizing there was money to made, they created their own consoles, often imitations of the big three with poorly-designed games, faulty hardware, etc. Consumers grew tired of buying sub-par merchandise, and the market became saturated. Retailers were struggling to sell video games, and it seemed the industry was on the way out.
In a last-ditch effort to save its struggling brand, Atari planned to cash in on the 1982 summer blockbuster, “E.T.,” by making a video game tie-in. In a rush to get the game into stores in time for the Christmas season, Atari gave programmers minimal time to create a quality product. And it suffered from massive suckage. Fans felt that playing the game was slightly worse than swallowing glass, and Atari was left with millions of unsold and returned copies.
Realizing that warehouse space was too valuable to let millions of these electronic turds sit and collect dust, Atari decided to let them literally sit and collect dust in the Alamogordo, New Mexico desert. Atari dumped most of its remaining stock in the desert landfill and covered it over with concrete. This was supposed to be the end of this tragic story. What Atari couldn’t possibly have anticipated was the internet.
For some 25 years, there was little discussion about the Atari Burial. Your average gamer didn’t even know it had ever happened. Then, with the advent of the internet, people began talking about it again, and interest in it was reborn, a la the Star Wars Holiday Special (look it up). Various gaming webseries reviewed it, and the Angry Video Game Nerd has made it the subject of his upcoming feature film (which, by the way, looks AMAZING). Now, a Canadian film company called Fuel Industries has just made an agreement with the city of Alamogordo to excavate the landfill to rediscover the treasures (and the trash) that lie within.
This begs the question: Why all the hype around what is often considered the worst game ever made? Why are so many people, after so many years, so very excited about the prospect of digging through a landfill in Middle of Nowhere, NM to find something that no one wanted in the first place? Why did this cult phenomenon suddenly achieve newfound fame concurrent with the coming of the internet? Why are filmmakers willing to spend mad money on the very real chance of finding absolutely nothing?
I would argue that this renewed interest in the ugly roots of video game history comes from an innate desire to understand where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as gamers. Video games are a large part of who we are as a global culture. In the same way that we can learn about a past culture by studying, say, their written manuscripts, we can learn about the history of a past pop culture by studying its “manuscripts.” I am a child of the 90s. Thus, I was not around during what might be called the Golden Age of video games. Having grown up on later consoles, I find it interesting to look back on how gaming got to be where it is today. (Not to mention, it’s fun to watch reviewers make fun of it.) Furthermore, there is a sense of pride in having loved and followed something for its whole existence. Whether it is a filmmaker, a band, a superhero, or the macro video game industry as a whole, nerds take pride in their long-standing passions.
I believe I speak for the majority of gamers in saying that we have a deep nostalgia for the history of electronic entertainment. Why is it that everyone knows the music from Mario 1? Why is it that people still, to this day, play and talk about games that came out over 20 years ago? Yes, I was not alive in 1983. You probably weren’t either. Still, learning about the history of something makes me appreciate it more. The train wreck that was Atari’s “E. T.” can be seen as an outward representation of an inner desire to connect with a foreign past.
Or it might just be that it’s funny to watch the Angry Video Game Nerd take a dump on it.