Sunday, September 26, 2010

Game Over

The Atari video game burial of 1983 was an infamous event in video gaming history, in which Atari dumped thousands of video game cartridges, allegedly including a large number of copies of its video game adaptation E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, into a New Mexico landfill. It was one of the consequences of the North American video game crash of 1983.

In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico reported in a series of articles, that between 10 and 20 semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city. It was Atari's first dealings with the landfill, which was chosen because no scavenging was allowed and its garbage was crushed and buried nightly. Atari's stated reason for the burial was that it was changing from Atari 2600 to Atari 5200 games, but this was later contradicted by a worker who claimed that this was not the case. Atari official Bruce Enten stated that Atari was mostly sending broken and returned cartridges to the Alamogordo dump and that it was "by-and-large inoperable stuff."

On September 28, 1983, The New York Times reported on the story of Atari's dumping in New Mexico. An Atari representative confirmed the story for the newspaper, stating that the discarded inventory came from Atari's plant in El Paso, Texas, which was being closed and converted to a recycling facility. The Times article did not suggest any of the specific game titles being destroyed, but subsequent reports have generally linked the story of the dumping to the well-known failure of E.T. Additionally, the headline "City to Atari: 'E.T.' trash go home" in one edition of the Alamogordo News implies that the cartridges were E.T. As a result, it is widely speculated that most of Atari's millions of unsold copies of E.T. ultimately wound up in this landfill, crushed and encased in concrete.

Starting on September 29, 1983, a layer of concrete was poured on top of the crushed materials, a rare occurrence in waste disposal. An anonymous workman's stated reason for the concrete was: "There are dead animals down there. We wouldn't want any children to get hurt digging in the dump."
Eventually, the city began to protest the large amount of dumping Atari was doing, a sentiment summed up by one commissioner with, "We don't want to be an industrial waste dump for El Paso."

The local manager ordered the dumping to be ended shortly afterwards. Due to Atari's unpopular dumping, Alamogordo later passed an Emergency Management Act and created the Emergency Management Task Force to limit the future flexibility of the garbage contractor to secure outside business for the landfill for monetary purposes. Alamogordo's then mayor, Henry Pacelli, commented that, "We do not want to see something like this happen again."

The story of the buried cartridges has become a popular urban legend, which in turn has led some people to believe that the story is not true. As recently as October 2004, the E.T. game author Howard Scott Warshaw himself expressed doubts that the destruction of millions of copies of the game ever took place, citing his belief that Atari would have recycled the parts instead in order to save money.

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