Atari’s E.T., and a Geek History Lesson

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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:

"Berzerk" on Atari 2600

“Berzerk” on Atari 2600.

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.

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A typical reaction to Atari’s “E.T.”

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?

Use your imagination.

Use your imagination.

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.

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A Geek’s Guide to Collecting

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Everybody should collect something. Collecting is fun, exciting, and rewarding. A friend of mine recently suggested I make a guide to collecting, for use as a reference to new collectors and a refresher to veteran collectors. The following is that guide, a simple set of rules and suggestions to consider when beginning or continuing to collect.

1) Know Why.

First and foremost, why are you collecting this specific item? Are you collecting rare books because you are an avid reader, or because they may have high market value in the future? Either of these reasons are valid. Do you collect Beatles’ memorabilia because you’re a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast, or because you met John Lennon once? Again, either reason is valid. It’s just important to understand why you’re interested in something, so as to give yourself a baseline. In my case, I have loved Spider-Man for years. His comics have always been my favorite, and the 90s TV show is, to this day, my favorite animated series. With that in mind…

2) Narrow is Often Better.

I like Spider-Man. Specifically him, specifically his comics and toys from the 90s and beyond. It is much easier to collect in this narrow realm, than to collect, say, Marvel Comics in general. That would encompass Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, etc., and would include some 50+ years of comics history. This is a tall order, needless to say. Moreover, if you’re collecting Marvel, are you including toys? Original artwork? Animation cells from their TV shows? Fast food promotional items? Try to find a smallish niche to collect, at least when you’re first starting. You can always expand beyond this, but quality is better than quantity in most cases, especially on a budget.

3) Know Your Market.

I can’t stress this enough. I truly believe that every collection has someone, somewhere, who would be willing to pony up some cash for items, despite how obscure they may seem. I watch a lot of Antiques Roadshow, and I remember one episode where the appraisers went to this guy’s estate, because his collection was too big to bring to them. What did he collect? Tractor seats. I couldn’t believe someone collected tractor seats, but I was even more surprised to learn that many people did, and there was actually a market for them. A similar feature on the Roadshow had someone who had collected corn things their entire life. Corn Flakes, corn toys (they exist), corn this, corn that. I must say, the collection was phenomenal. The fact that the collection was appraised for a large sum of money suggests that some (insert adjective here) person would drop some cash on this corny bonanza of a collection. Just about any item you could want to collect has a market. You just may not know it yet.

4) Keep Up With Current Prices.

I’ll get this out of the way right now: collecting costs money. The good news, though, is that you can collect at any level of intensity that you want. A collection of 4 or 5 shot glasses picked up from a road trip in 1987 is just as valid as a 10,000 piece stamp collection, valued at a million bucks. What’s right for you is right for you. That being said, it is a good idea to go on sites like eBay, Amazon, and even craigslist, just to get a sense of what certain items are selling for. So-called “market value” is determined by nothing more than what someone is willing to pay for an item. Baseball cards (*sigh,*  yes, I collect those, too) are nothing more than pieces of color-printed cardstock. Why, then, does a Honus Wagner T-206 sell for seven digits? Because it has a market value that is off the proverbial chain. Yes, it has to do with condition, scarcity and availability, age, and a hundred other factors, but, at the end of the day, if no one wants to buy something, it’s market value is $0. Keeping up-to-date with market values will also help you not over-pay for a collectible when you see it for sale, and, by extension, help you know when you’re getting a good deal. On that note…

5) Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em.

A huge part of collecting is knowing when to buy, when to not buy, when to sell, and when to not sell. Some of this comes down to luck, but most of it goes along with #4. In my home state of Arizona, there is a chain of entertainment exchange stores called Bookmans, that is essentially the buy-sell-trade Disneyland of nerdy impulse purchasing. It’s wonderful. Every so often, I strike gold at Bookmans, but I need to be careful! For every one time I strike gold, there are a dozen times I leave with nothing, either because nothing caught my eye, or everything was too pricy. As a collector, I know well the thrill of walking into Goodwill and seeing that (fill in the blank item) that has eluded you for all these years, priced at a mere $5. This is a time when you need to drop some cash, knowing that you may not be this lucky twice. But be wary! Stores also knows how to grossly over-charge for products. Bookmans currently has a used copy of the popular board game “7 Wonders,” which I have seen sell new for about $35, including shipping, priced at $40. Good luck, Bookmans. Someone would have to be a sucker to buy that. Don’t let the thrill of seeing that one missing piece of your collection cause you to over-pay. Sleep on it, do your research, ask if the vendor can put it on hold for a day or two, and think before you buy.

6) Create a Network.

A lot of my friends collect a lot of things. I have a rough idea of what they want, and they know that anything with Spider-Man’s face on it is a good guess for me. This way, you can have extra sets of eyes looking out for collection pieces for you. I was at a secondhand store not too long ago, and I saw a huge case of Warhammer 40K (a nerdy tabletop game, for you n00bs) for a very decent price. I personally don’t play Warhammer, but my friend John is an avid fan. When I saw it, I called him up to let him know about the find, and ask if he wanted me to pick it up for him. I can think of many times someone else has found something of interest to me, and done the same. A system like this creates a great “I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back” relationship, beneficial for all involved. Get to know store employees, too. My local comic shop knows I’m “the Spider-Man guy.” When they get something in that they think I might want, they often contact me before putting it on the shelves, as a “thank you” for being a loyal customer.

7) Bank on People’s Stupidity.

Collecting only has to be as expensive as you make it. Perhaps you found a sweet deal on a brand new, poorly-labelled “ipdo touch” on eBay. The $16.43 you spent on it might go a long way. You might turn around and sell it, properly spelled, for $100. Nicely done. Go buy yourself that Magic: The Gathering card you’ve been lusting after.

8) Enjoy What You’re Collecting.

More than anything else, this rule is the most important. If you really have fun with and enjoy what you’re collecting, it’s all worth it. The whole idea of “buy low, sell high” isn’t as important as your own enjoyment, unless you’re in it strictly for the money. I love organizing boxes of comic books into numerical order, and admiring my finished work. I love seeing a specific action figure and remember how and where I got it. I love finding old video games at Savers that I haven’t played in years, and popping them in my console for a nostalgia-fueled blast from the past. Some might see collecting as a waste of time and money. I see it as a recreational, conversation-starting, lifelong hobby.

If you don’t already collect something (or 10 somethings), start now. Think critically about what you want to collect, and why you want to collect it. Then, get out there and do it!