Smithsonian Nabs Atari’s ‘E.T.’ Video Game Rescued from Desert

It had been buried in a landfill by Atari in 1983.


Atari’s E.T. game, rescued from the New Mexican desert to become the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, is a reminder of a long-forgotten, yet important moment in our country’s history: the video game crash of the 1980s.

In a bid to outdo its competitors, Atari picked up the video game license for the E.T. movie, correctly predicting its box-office success. Unfortunately, the game failed to capitalize on the film’s popularity, hindered in part by its truncated development and the resulting poor game play. The game was a bust, and its repercussions were wide-ranging.

The failure of E.T. was one of the contributing factors in the demise of American video game companies (who wouldn’t release another successful console until Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001) and the rise of Japanese ones such as Nintendo, Sega, and Sony. The video game crash of 1982 bankrupted many companies, and the game that triggered it was largely forgotten.

Atari <em>E.T.</em> cartridges that were dug up from the New Mexico landfill where they were buried in 1983. Photo: taylorhatmaker, via Wikimedia Commons.

Atari E.T. cartridges that were dug up from the New Mexico landfill where they were buried in 1983. Photo: taylorhatmaker, via Wikimedia Commons.

The unpopular game re-entered the public consciousness this year, when a cache of E.T. games were unearthed from a landfill in the New Mexico desert, where they had been buried by Atari in 1983 to prevent the surplus of the unpopular game from being scavenged from the trash.

Drew Robarge, a museum specialist at the Smithsonian, got wind of the excavation and contacted the company responsible, which agreed to give the institution one of the long lost games, thus bridging an important gap in the museum’s collection. “The Smithsonian is no hall of fame,” wrote Robarge of the unusual acquisition in the Smithsonian blog. “It’s our job to share the complicated technological, cultural, and social history of any innovation, including video games.”

Meanwhile, in the years since, the line between art and video games has become increasingly blurry; graphics have improved dramatically and contemporary artists such as Cory Arcangel have incorporated video games in their artistic practice. Earlier this year, the LED-illuminated glass-paneled walls of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall, designed by artist Olafur Eliasson, were transformed into the world’s largest game of Pong (see “Geeks Hijack Olafur Eliasson’s Concert Hall for Giant PONG Game“). In London, the British Museum has embraced Minecraft (see “British Museum Will Be Rebuilt in Minecraft“), while the Victoria & Albert Museum has commissioned a game inspired by textile designer and poet William Morris (see “V&A Commissions William Morris-Themed Video Game“).

Just this week, a new video game inspired by an art world headline was released, giving players the chance to punch a Claude Monet painting without real-life consequences—such as the six-year jail sentence just received by Andrew Shannon, who attacked the artist’s Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat (1874) in 2012 (see “Thug Who Punched $10 Million Monet Painting Convicted“). The Punch a Monet game, from creators Tom Galle, Eiji Muroicc, and Dries dePoorter of the Party New York creative lab, awards points based on how much it will cost to repair the damage inflicted on the painting.

Who knows what the future holds for today’s video games? When Atari dumped the cataclysmically unpopular E.T. in a landfill, it could hardly have predicted that the cartridge would one day enter the collection of the Smithsonian. As Robarge put it, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

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