Relics or rubbish?

In these posts, I have discussed how games can give a bad view of archaeology, how archaeological research has been used within games, and how games have the potential to educate about archaeology. However, there is also an archaeology and a history of gaming, as an industry.

At the beginning of 1982, the video game industry was doing well. It was still a relatively new industry, and was flush from a successful Christmas season, typically the time of year that sales are highest. However, there was a trend of games made extremely quickly and of poor quality, resulting in an oversaturated market, and consumers that quickly tired of this. The industry crashed in 1985, and nearly resulted in the end of the industry entirely. One of these games, indeed the one that was most notorious, and widely regarded as one of the main causes of the crash, was the Atari version of Steven Spielburg’s 1982 film, E.T. This game was created single-handedly, over a period of 6 weeks (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 86). To put this in perspective, the best-selling game of 2016, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, (Tassi, 2017)- while not having a favourable reception from fans, or a great reputation as a series- was in development for three years, with an entire company working on it (McWhertor, 2014). Atari, the game’s publisher, confident that the game would sell without issue, produced millions of the cartridges before the end of the year.

The game was difficult, punishing, and did not sell, resulting in huge losses for Atari. This spelled the end for the company’s golden age. In the second quarter of 1983, $10 million worth of Atari games and systems were sat in warehouses, unable to be sold (Bisson, 1984). This had a knock-on effect to the entire gaming industry, and between 1983 and 1986, US game sales dropped from $3,200 million to $100 million (Donovan, 2010, pg. 108). Rather than let these unsold or returned games take up space and gather dust, Atari decided to transport around 20 truckloads of stock from a warehouse in El Paso to a landfill in Alamogordo (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 86). This fact simply existed as an urban legend for many years, but many were convinced it did happen. In 2014, permission was given by the city of Alamogordo for the city landfill site to be excavated. The exact site had been pinpointed by Joe Lewandowski, the site-manager from the 1980s, using advanced techniques (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 88) for someone untrained in archaeology (specifically photogrammetry- using the context of old photographs to find the spot). Over the course of the three-day dig in April 2014, the games were found and excavated with an audience of ‘a few hundred’ people (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 88) who arrived at the site, in the hopes of seeing part of their childhood pulled from the ground. In addition to the E.T. games that were buried exactly where it had been hypothesised, there were 1300 cartridges of 40 different titles, games playable on multiple Atari consoles, which were also among the finds (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 89-90).

Other than relishing in childhood memories, the main reaction to the Atari dig was: Why does this matter? Is this even archaeology? Naturally, I would argue it is. It may not be ancient or decayed, but gaming itself is a new industry, and the near death of Atari and the subsequent industry crash are an important part of the history of gaming. This history is important, as games and other technologies are becoming a bigger part of, and more important to our daily lives, and understanding the past has so much potential to aid our futures. A 1980s landfill can be just as interesting as a Roman midden, and is probably far more relatable for much of the general public. Archaeology and history do not have to be ancient, far off things, but can be relatable and much more recent, as hopefully demonstrated by this blog.

This dig is just one way that the archaeological process can be used in the history of gaming. Many of the techniques that archaeogamers use to analyse games are ‘no different than what archaeologists do each day in the real world.’ (Reinhard, 2016, pg. 22).  These could be the use of GPS recording, which traditional archaeologists use to pin point the exact site of significant finds on site, but archaeogamers can only use within the relative confines of the game itself. Some games do use GPS co-ordinates on the in-game map to link to real world spaces, but may have little real use or connection actual archaeology.  Some more useful comparisons are:

  • Field walking and walking simulators. Walking simulators are games that do not incorporate action or score-keeping, but instead mostly involve the acquisition of objects or experiences to build up a story (González-Tennant, 2016, pg. 23). Field walking is a preliminary technique that can be used to find artefacts before an excavation takes place, often used to build up evidence that the area is of archaeological significance. This was used with some success on the Atari dig, with the discovery of an Atari 2600 joystick, giving more basis to the claim that it was the site of the burial (Penn, 2014, 47:19).

    tools of minecraft morgan
    ‘Real Tools of Minecraft’ (Morgan, 2015)
  • Morgan’s use of the ‘real tools of Minecraft’ (Morgan, 2015). Here, she used the tools used in the game Minecraft to engage children, by comparing in-game images to some of the tools are used by archaeologists. Morgan reported that most were impressed by the flint, not having connected the Minecraft tool for creating fire, to the real-life rock.
  • Comparing stratigraphy to patch updates. Stratigraphy is the process by which archaeologists keep track of and compare contexts on a site. It allows us to create Harris matrixes, showing how the different layers interact through time. Patches are updates to games after release, that usually fix bugs, add new features, or balance existing ones. Reinhard (2017a) argues that these are easily comparable, and goes on to create his own stratigraphy and Harris matrix for the game No Man’s Sky (2017b, 2017c, 2017d). No Man’s Sky needed a lot of updates when first released, and so made an excellent example for this process (2017b). A traditional Harris Matrix will demonstrate the temporal relationships between layers of stratigraphy, but Reinhard’s matrix goes further and shows each individual change within the layers (See Figure 1). Even if this particular experiment does not have much importance outside the study of No Man’s Sky, it does show that stratigraphy and patch notes have similarities in the way they are laid down over time, and so are important for archaeogamers to study.
  • Finally, even the process of excavation can be paralleled with games. A large part of huge online multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft is grinding, a term for doing small, repetitive actions that eventually add up to unlocking or crafting something of high value. This can be compared to excavation, in the slow procedure of peeling back layers of context, building up an idea of the history of the site, and how it was used. This can be no more tangible than a virtual mount or weapon, but infinitely more informative and useful to researchers.
reinhard nms matrix 2017c
The Harris Matrix of No Man’s Sky (Reinhard, 2017c)

With the whole world becoming more and more digital, it is important that archaeology keeps track, in both methods and subject matter. For methodology, the most obvious way of doing this is with the digital reconstructions discussed in a previous post, but it is also key to keep a history of gaming, and to find and preserve these items, whether you think them relics or rubbish. Those who have basements filled with gaming memorabilia may be seen as incredibly niche now, but one day we may be grateful for these carefully preserved collections. Museums are already beginning to see the historical importance of gaming- the Smithsonian bought one of the E.T. cartridges (Reinhard, 2015, pg. 92)- and it’s time that the rest of us caught up.

Bisson, G. 1984. Atari: From Starting Block to Auction Block. Infoworld. 6.32, pg. 52.

Donovan, T. 2010. Replay: The History of Video Games. Lewes: Yellow Ant.

González-Tennant, E. 2016. Archaeological Walking Simulators. The SAA Archaeological Record. 16,5, p. 23-28.

McWhertor, M. 2014. Call of Duty moving to 3-year, 3-studio dev cycle, Sledgehammer on 2014 game. Polygon. Online. Available at: (Accessed on 24/04/2017)

Penn, Z. 2014. Atari: Game Over. Fuel Entertainment. [Video] Online. Available at: (Accessed on: 24/04/2017)

Reinhard, A. 2015. Excavating Atari: Where the Media was the Archaeology. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. 2,1, pg. 86-93.

Reinhard, A. 2016. Toward Archaeological Tools and Methods for Excavating Virtual Spaces. The SAA Archaeological Record. 16,5, pg. 19-22.

Reinhard, A. 2017a. The (Harris) Matrix, Part I: Visualizing Software Stratigraphy. Archaeogaming. Online. Available at: (Accessed on: 26/04/2017)

Reinhard, A. 2017b. The (Harris) Matrix, Part II: Making the Software Stratigraphy Leap. Archaeogaming. Online. Available at: (Accessed on: 26/04/2017)

Reinhard, A. 2017c. The (Harris) Matrix, Part III: Enter the Matrix. Archaeogaming. Online. Available at: (Accessed on: 26/04/2017)

Reinhard, A. 2017d. The (Harris) Matrix, Part IV: So What? Archaeogaming. Online. Available at: (Accessed on: 26/04/2017)

Tassi, P. 2017.

Words: 1331


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