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Gaming’s Area 51: Excavating Atari’s Secret Burial Ground

Thirty years in, one of gaming’s weirdest persisting legends is about to get mythbusted.

The story is one of a fallen gaming great’s secret shame: a landfill containing millions of copies of Atari’s worst-selling, worst-received game ever: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Atari, a multi-billion industry leader in its prime, remains a compelling case study in corporate collapse, and a nostalgic soft spot for gamers the world over, who are dying to see what comes out of the landfill.

For decades gamers have speculated about the site’s whereabouts, long thought to be somewhere near Area 51—a fact that amps up the mystery factor, naturally. Xbox, now producing its own original content, took interest in unearthing the mystery and airing the next chapter in a quasi-fable that loyal gamers have followed for three decades. 

Fuel Entertainment’s Mike Burns, a longtime Atari fan, is partnering with documentary filmmakers Simon and Jonathan Chinn of Lightbox to provide Microsoft a run of five to ten Xbox Live-exclusive original films, starting with the hour-long “Dumping The Alien: Unearthing The Atari Graveyard.” The team will be literally digging up Atari’s so-called “concrete tomb”—pinpointed to Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the coming months. Lightbox’s Jonathan Chinn and Fuel’s Burns swung by SXSW to update the gaming world on their progress.

Bringing The Myth To Light

Atari’s mega-flop, 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, was commissioned as a companion experience to the wild success of the feature film. Atari’s parent company Warner Entertainment misgauged the gaming community in a decision that proved fatal: instead of easy sales, the game was met with near universal derision—a failure that factored into the massive losses the company experienced starting in 1983. “It’s absolutely unplayable,” says Chinn. “It’s the worst game of all time.”

Gaining access to the site required written permission from the city of Alamagordo, a process that took about a year and a half, including sit-down meetings to convince the mayor of the cultural significance of the city’s (second) odd claim to fame. Lots of things about Alamogordo are weird. The first atomic bomb was detonated there, for one.

“If we have to wear hazmat suits in order to excavate it, we will,” says Chinn. “As long as we don’t have a bulldozer hit an atomic bomb that wasn’t detonated—but that would make a theatrical release for sure. I think there’s gonna be a lot of stuff there … it’s not just like a little treasure chest. It’s 10 truckloads of Atari merchandise.”

According to Chinn, even the Smithsonian Institute has expressed interest in taking home a piece of whatever retro gaming history is unearthed. But the excavation team thinks they’ll be so much that, ironically, they’ll probably have to trash the bulk of it all over again.

More Than A Crappy Game

The project—undertaken out of sheer fanboy curiosity before Microsoft was involved—is about more than solving a mystery. The dump site, half urban legend, half corporate failure coverup, symbolizes a half billion dollar misfire that went down in history. “Atari should be Apple,” says Chinn. “What the hell happened at Atari? We wanted to unearth the story of why a company that had everything going for it failed.”

For the gaming community, Atari’s E.T. flop is also an emblem of the disconnect between Warner Communications—which bought Atari in 1976—and the era’s nascent gaming community. The game’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, was given an insanely brief six weeks to create the game, start to finish.

“Some say that considering he had six weeks, it was a masterpiece,” says Chinn. “Atari means something to all of us. The idea that I had video games in my house that I could play whenever I wanted—that’s in a way what the promise of the digital revolution was about.”

When Chinn asked a room of maybe 100 people here at South By Southwest Interactive how many would be interested in making the pilgrimage to New Mexico for the dig in the coming months, roughly 50 raised their hands. The team behind the film invites gamers to show up and take home a literal part of video game history.

But what if they come up empty handed? Chinn remains confident: “I know they’re there. I know they’re somewhere in that landfill. We can’t dig up the whole landfill—it’s hundreds of acres. If it’s not there … well, we’re going to keep digging until we find it.”

Header image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite

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