Why the "Worst Game Ever" is Now an American Artifact

Museum of American History receives a copy of E.T. for its collection; Museum director explains why it belongs.

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The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has obtained one of the buried E.T. cartridges excavated from New Mexico landfill earlier this year. It joins a collection that includes other famous American items such as the original sheet music for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was killed at Ford's Theater in 1865, among many other things.

Why would the prestigious American museum want a dirty, old game from 1983 as part of its collection? According to Smithsonian technical director Drew Robarge, the video game crash of 1980s--of which E.T. played a part--is an important component of American technological history.

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"The Smithsonian is no hall of fame--it's our job to share the complicated technological, cultural, and social history of any innovation, including video games," he explained on the Smithsonian blog. "Unearthed from a landfill, the object personifies the video game crash that took place from 1982 to 1985."

Robarge was never sure he'd be able to secure a copy of the game for the museum. But when he learned Microsoft was making a documentary out of the dig, he spoke with the producers, who offered to give him a cartridge if they found one.

"I waited for news of the results of their excavation to the public and, sure enough, myth became reality and they did find plenty of cartridges," he said. "True to their word, we received a cartridge and other objects relating to the excavation."

Robarge went on to say that the excavated E.T. game is not only a defining artifact of the 1980s video game crash, but it's also an item that speaks to the difficulty of making a good game out of a movie. The game is also representative of the decline of Atari, a once-dominant game publisher, and it marks the end of cartridges as the popular physical format. And that's not the end of its relevance, Robarge says.

"The cartridge also serves as closure for many things: the urban legend of the burial, the golden years of Atari, an era where American companies dominated the console scene," he added. "All of these possible interpretations make for a rich and complicated object. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure."

The excavated E.T. copy obtained by The Smithsonian is not yet on display. Robarge didn't say when the museum plans to add the item to one of its exhibits.

Alamogordo, New Mexico, the site of the Atari landfill, sold a number of the excavated E.T. copies on eBay earlier this year, while also retaining some for their own historical society. Others have gone to places as far away as the Museum of Rome.

The Smithsonian is no stranger to video games, as the museum ran an "Art of Video Games" exhibit for six months in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the exhibit throughout its duration.

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