BISMARCK, N.D. — A University of North Dakota researcher who took part in a famous dig for discarded video games at a New Mexico landfill has donated one of the cartridges to the school to preserve a slice of late-20th century history.
Bill Caraher, an associate professor of history, bought the Atari 2600 Centipede game from the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, for $60 via eBay.
"While I'd usually condone purchasing archaeological artifacts of any kind, these artifacts are somewhat different because they represent our very recent past," Caraher said. "When I saw that the Smithsonian had received a game and several other major cultural institutions as well, I had to acquire one for UND to commemorate the university's participation in this unusual excavation."
The Centipede game was among hundreds recovered at the Alamogordo landfill in April 2014. A team of documentary filmmakers funded by Microsoft investigated a decades-old rumor that Atari had secretly dumped "E.T." game cartridges. The game had the reputation of being the worst ever and is generally recognized as contributing to the demise of Atari, the biggest video game company of the early 1980s.
Caraher and Bret Weber, an assistant professor of social work at UND, took part in the dig.
"It was like nothing I've ever encountered," Caraher said.
Caraher jumped at the chance to buy one of the unearthed games, choosing the Centipede game because of the price. When the "E.T" games first became available they were going for up to $1,500, he said.
One of the "E.T" games late last year was added to the video game history collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Caraher said the game he donated to UND will include material with "the full context of what went on," possibly making it more valuable historically. UND's Working Group in Digital and New Media also plans to host a showing of the documentary "Atari: Game Over" in the spring and bring in people who participated in the dig for a discussion on archaeology, the media and video games as artifacts.
UND's Department of Special Collections is best known for housing material associated with national figures such as former North Dakota politicians William Langer and Byron Dorgan, and documents related to the history of the Red River Valley, North Dakota and the university. The department also accepts documents related to faculty research.
The Atari game "is definitely the first artifact from a landfill in our collection, and also the first video game," said Curt Hanson, director of UND Special Collections.
Caraher and Hanson said they grew up playing Atari.
"To see my childhood treated as an archaeological artifact and preserved in our collection, as well as places like the Smithsonian, is really exciting," Hanson said.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake