Archaeogaming and punk archeology in discard studies

Archaeogaming or punk archeology has recently hit the headlines with the search for the “worlds worst video game” in a New Mexico landfill. The story goes: back in 1983, Atari allegedly buried millions of unsold game copies of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. A move to recover the games was at least somewhat successful– the details are scarce, as a documentary called Dumping the Alien that recorded the events will be released later this year, after which details will be released. One of the most well-known archaeogamers, Andrew Reinhard, wrote a blog post about his role in the dig:

As the news media has already reported worldwide, the games were found including loads of E.T. cartridges, many still in their boxes along with instructions, catalogues, and inserts almost perfectly preserved under the desert floor. We were not responsible for pinpointing the location of where to dig. That was provided by a local solid waste management expert familiar with the site, and by the scavengers, now in their 30s and 40s, who recollected with pride their adventures in looting the landfill. We were also not responsible for the major digging which was done by heavy machinery by city contractors, experts at their jobs. We worked with them so that we could have access to various levels of trash, otherwise unsafe for human diggers, and they were happy to comply. Prior to the game level being reached, we photographed and noted the trench and trash from different levels. Following techniques pioneered by Rathje’s Garbology Project, we took random samples with our buckets, and followed evidence for assigning dates as we went down. When the Atari level was reached, we changed our methods and workflow to deal with the extreme volume of material while coping with the worst sandstorm of the year and fading afternoon hours.


Image from Andrew Reinhard’s “Exhuming Atari, or Punk Archaeology Levels Up.”

According to Reinhard “Archaeogaming is as much about exploring and conducting archaeology within gaming environments (virtual space) as it is about understanding the history of video games in the real world (meat space).” Video games distill and operationalize social norms, values and ethics by restricting social action to a narrow range of choices. Following Philip Agre, we might call these “grammars of action,” where “what matters in each case is not the sequence of ‘inputs’ to ‘outputs’ from a given machine, but rather the ways in which human activities have been structured” (1994: 746). When games standardize and organize the world so only certain moves can be made, making possibilities finite, hierarchical, ordered, and set in advance, we learn the range of interactions deemed appropriate around waste and wasting, ruins and ruination. Archeology practices inside a game world can become cultural critique.

For instance, Reinhard writes about what archaeogaming looks like in the new Elderscrolls game in terms of the logic (and ethics) of recovering and destroying things in a black and white game world:”One letter looted from a corpse led me directly to archaeology in [the game]: ‘A reward is hereby offered for all Dwarven relics delivered in good working order. Monies paid depend on condition, rarity, and usefulness of said relic. Pieces of relics are also accepted, depending on condition. –Rulorn’

This note was found with a gear of Dwarven manufacture. I took both from the body and set off to find Rulorn, no doubt a shady dealer in Dwarven antiquities. I already had a sinking feeling that the archaeology in [the game] would mirror that of other games: relics equate to money, and stealing relics makes for good quests. But this is a virtual world, and I am looting from a fictitious race. And because this is an MMO, the relic I just looted returns to its findspot for the next player to discover. And steal. And so on. The ethics of this kind of iterative looting has me quite confused and a bit conflicted on what it is I’m doing with these artifacts.”

While discard studies tends to focus on how social and economic values are reflected in what is thrown away and how things are thrown away, we rarely look how discards are retrieved. Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (1979) proposes that for a human-made object to go from something everyday and transient to something of great, durable value it must first become rubbish. He looks at antiques, real estate, and dated kitsch to make the argument that something cannot move from the worthless to the valued without first transitioning to waste whose cultural or social value is zero.

Richard Thompson's Rubbish Theory.

Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory.

While counter examples may exist, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Dwarven relics certainly follow this cycle, transition from their rubbish to “durable” forms through archeological methods–practices of targeting digging–and museum display or documentary filmmaking.

As a materialist method, archeology is often overlooked in discard studies though one of the founders of garbology is William Rathje, an archeologist who dug up local landfills as part of the Tucson Garbage Project. His work lead to a number of insights about contemporary domestic practices of wasting and culminated in Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage (2001), a foundational text in discard studies. Despite the status of Rathje and his projects, questions about his method tend towards the technical rather than the critical. How does archeology fit into Thompson’s Rubbish Theory? How does a method of targeted uncovering affect the materials under study? How might the method influence the content? The value of the object? It’s status as waste or not-waste?

The unique benefit of archeogaming to these questions is that it expands the method from dirt to other media, from “meat space” to online space. But it could go even further. In an interview with Anthropology News, Andrew Reinhard characterized punk archeology, which includes archaeogaming. One of the several foundations of punk archeology is that it “focuses on history at the margins that other archaeologists either ignore or take little notice of. The archaeology of the recent past or of things considered modern (e.g. Atari games) are examples of archaeology more easily adopted by the Punk Archaeology aesthetic.” What are the frontiers in discard studies that would benefit from  punk archeology? What else and where else can we uncover?


Further Reading:

Critical Excavation: Writing on the E.T. Burial » Paul Benzon

Exhuming Atari, or Punk Archaeology Levels Up »Andrew Reinhard

‘Atari video game burial’ on Wikipedia

Film crew finds Atari ET games in New Mexico archaeological dig’, 26 April 2014, The Guardian

Archaeogaming blog by Andrew Reinhard



2 thoughts on “Archaeogaming and punk archeology in discard studies

Comments are closed.