Digging Up A Mystery

What would New Mexico be without its mysteries? The Roswell UFO crash, the Taos Hum, the Fountain murders, why New Mexico has the worst drivers in the country, the list goes on and on. In a land so steeped in history and radical change, it’s no real surprise that mysteries would seem to take on a life of their own here. Because, let’s face it, New Mexicans love a good mystery.

This weekend southern New Mexico will celebrate the 30th anniversary of yet another apocryphal tale: that of the legendary Atari landfill controversy. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Atari landfill controversy? Pull up a chair, stranger. It’s story time.

Legend has it that on September 22, 1983 anywhere between eight and twenty 18-wheel trucks pulled into Alamogordo, en route from El Paso, loaded with millions of dollars worth of Atari game cartridges. Not to be sold or stored in the self-styled birthplace of the Atomic Age, but to be unceremoniously buried on the outskirts of town.

But it wasn’t just any game cartridge that is purported to be languishing in the underground vault. Legend has it that this particular mother lode consists of thousands of unsold copies of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the video game some say caused the infamous video game industry crash that very nearly brought Atari down.

ETPosterSpeculations as to just exactly why the Spielberg-inspired game was such a disaster have been debated for decades everywhere from Wall Street to the hallowed halls of liberal universities where pop culture business classes are offered. The general consensus seems to be bad business decisions and a ridiculously narrow timeline for the creation of the game, which bypassed market tests so it could be released at Christmas time, while the movie that spawned it was still hot at the cineplexes.

The game was rushed into mass production, massively overhyped and, despite the payment of somewhere in the vicinity of $25 million in licensing rights for the immensely popular film, languished on the shelves. Over half of the five million copies produced never sold and, as the holidays rolled into the new year, thousands were said to have been returned, because the game was deemed “unplayable.”

With the El Paso plant filled to the rafters with unwanted merchandise, Atari is said to have struck a deal with the city commission of Alamogordo and hired a fleet of trucks to dispose of it. The convoy moved the merchandise to the dump site, hired guards to keep spectators at bay and, within hours, the deed was done.

Or was it?

One of the original photos, published in the Alamogordo Daily News in September 1983.
One of the original photos, published in the Alamogordo Daily News in September 1983.

Despite several articles written on the subject at the time, including a famous one published in the New York Times on September 28, 1983, the incident passed into the misty halls of faulty memory. For 30 years this curiosity has prompted speculation, rumors, conspiracy theories and archeological fantasies the likes of which would make Indiana Jones sit up and take notice. Further deepening the mystery, there have been a steady stream of treasure hunters who have mapped, documented, created artwork and even written songs about the legendary occurrence. Today, there are many who dismiss it as an urban legend.

Did it actually happen? And if it did, what exactly was it that was buried on the outskirts of Alamogordo? Was it the infamous E.T. video game, or just a bunch of random parts and defective merchandise that had been taking up space in a warehouse?

And just how many truckloads were there? The New York Times article puts the number at 14. An article in the Alamogordo Daily News, published on September 27, 1983, put the number at eight. Corporate spokesman for the company have said it was closer to 20.

To deepen the mystery even further, several attempts have been made to shed light on the subject, including a three-year long thread beginning in March of 2005 on the website Atari Age, in which a group of enthusiasts debated the existence of the dump site ad nauseum. There was also an attempt by Auburn University students to launch a documentary called “E.T.’s March” in February 2008, but that didn’t get very far. And we can’t overlook the exhaustive 20 page dissertation by Raiford Guins, founding principal editor for the Journal of Visual Culture, called “Concrete and Clay: The Life and Afterlife of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600,” written for the 25th anniversary of the dump, in the Fall of 2008.

Somewhere out there lies a mystery.
Somewhere out there lies a mystery.

Fast forward now to May 2013, when Fuel Entertainment, a Canadian digital studio based in Ottawa, Ontario, announced that they have gained permission from the city of Alamogordo to exhume the reputed remains of the Atari dump and put an end to the speculation for good. In the process, Fuel will shoot a documentary about the dig, thus shedding light on what has come to be known as the most enduring mystery of the gaming industry.

When asked why the company decided to shoot this documentary now, CEO Mike Burns said, “Put simply, we’re huge gaming and pop culture geeks and we’ve been thinking about this for years. The 30th anniversary, let’s say, is part serendipity and part motivation for us to have moved forward in making this a reality.”

Burns insists there is more to this endeavor than a simple dig. He sees parallels in the story between what happened 30 years ago and what’s happening in the world of gaming today. He believes it continues to be a cautionary tale reminding us of the pitfalls of corporate hubris.

“E.T. was one of the first licensed games based on a movie that we’d seen and the marketing push surrounding it was accordingly huge,” he said. “It seemed that Atari could do no wrong at the time. Several decades later, we look upon the story as one of the great debacles of pop culture overhyping. There are just so many great threads to the story. What we find in the earth is only one small part of the story that can be told.”

Though not the first to make the attempt, Fuel does seem to be better funded than past endeavors and has received an onslaught of publicity world-wide. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen, but with the project currently in motion, the spectre of the infamous Al Capone’s vault debacle looms like a conspiracy theory over the documentarian’s heads.

Of course, it doesn’t help that chief among the current naysayers is Marty Goldberg, co-author of the book Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun, who has called the Fuel documentary a “non-issue publicity stunt,” because he claims he and his partner Curt Vendel debunked the myth based on interviews with former Atari employees and internal company documents they used to research the book.

Fuel Entertainment is taking it all in stride. “Obviously the public and the media have proven that there is enough curiosity remaining around this topic,” Burns said. “We don’t know exactly what we’ll find, but the only way to know what’s down there, is to dig.”

Will this latest attempt provide the long-awaited answers? New Mexico mysteries have proven to be tough nuts to crack. Maybe what Fuel Entertainment will find is that, like so many other enigmas that have been woven into the fabric of the New Mexican landscape, it’s a mystery that simply doesn’t want to be solved.

Let’s hope not, because one thing we New Mexican’s like more than a mystery is a happy ending. And who knows, maybe Burns and his crew can help us ferret out the low down, lily livered polecat that snuffed Col. Fountain. Hey, it could happen. Y’just gotta believe…


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