The game was thought to be an urban legend — but was found in a landfill earlier this year and has now joined the American museum

One of the ET Atari cartridges found buried in a rubbish heap earlier this year has made its way to the video game collection of the Smithsonian Museum in the US, where its curators hope that it can stand as a symbol of the video games crash in the 1980s and perhaps of the failures of human endeavour more generally.

The existence of the games, buried in a landfill in New Mexico, had long been thought to be a gaming urban legend. But they were unearthed in April.

The game began in 1982, when Atari is thought to have spent more than $21 million on licensing fees to make a game off the back of the success of Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

But the game, pushed out to make that year’s Christmas rush, was quickly said to be the worst game ever and sales plummeted, and the resulting $500 million loss by Atari the following year played a part in a crash across the US video games industry the following year.

Atari then tried to bury the games, and forget the flop, as the story passed into gaming legend. But the cartridges were discovered again last year, and now one has made its way to the Smithsonian.

As well as the weird and unlikely story behind the game, it was also chosen to represent “the dark days of the 1980s when the US video game industry crashed”, said Drew Robarge, a curator at the National Museum of American History, in a blog post announcing the arrival of the cartridge. That was previously unrepresented in the collection, which includes objects from the history of the video game industry including a prototype for the first video game console to a Pong arcade cabinet.

“The cartridge is one of the defining artifacts of the crash and of the era,” said Robarge. He said that the object was a warning about the challenges of making video games, as well as serving as closure for many stories.

“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.

“All of these possible interpretations make for a rich and complicated object. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure.”