Playing vintage video games is part of the job for these Goodwill techs

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Apr. 15—GORHAM, Maine — At Goodwill of Northern New England headquarters, a riot of bleeps, pew-pews and ka-changs shot from an old-fashioned, picture-tube equipped color television set on Tuesday. The fuzzy, eight-inch screen showed two dark blobs, meant to represent military tanks, shooting at each other in a simple maze.

Jimmy Carter was still president when the ancient, 1978 Sears-branded Atari 2600 knockoff video game console came out. Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing" was the top hit that year and Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was showing on silver screens all over the country.

The game, titled "Combat," with its crude graphics and low-fi sounds, is primitive by today's gaming standards. But the two men at the joystick controls give it their best shot, anyway. They must. Playing vintage video games is their job — or part of it, anyway.

"OK, it's fun, but it sounds much more fun that it is," Timothy Richard said. "We're not sitting around, playing the latest and greatest."

Richard works in the GoodTech department at Goodwill. Started in 2014, the program hires and trains technicians to refurbish donated electronics, including computers, printers, smart phones and game consoles. The items are then resold to support the organization's various programs. Part of the refurbishing process is playing the games.

It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Richard swears they never go beyond level one.

"Obviously, we're not here to play video games, we're here to test video games," he said.

Currently, Goodwill has 10 technicians working in the GoodTech program, all of whom work at the central Gorham location.

Richard's workshop resembles a computer and video game museum. It's overflowing with Atari, Sega and Nintendo game consoles and cartridges from the past. Commodore 64 computers are on one shelf, while Apple IIs, Quadras and Performas line another.

Plastic bins hold old game cartridges. There's tiles like "Combat," "Missile Command" and "Space Invaders" for the old Atari systems. GoodTech even has a copy of the infamous and awful "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial " game thought partially responsible for the great video game crash of 1983.

The game was so bad, thousands of copies went to a desert landfill. Their location and exhumation was chronicled in the 2014 documentary film "Atari: Game Over."

One wall is stacked high with Nintendo Wii consoles. Richard said he just sold a batch of 17 to a single customer last week.

There are lots of nearly current models of computers and electronics, too.

All Goodwill stores in Maine accept computer and electronics donations and such items go directly to the GoodTech program where the first step is erasing harddrives and memory cards.

"That means technicians don't start up your old computer and see your cat backdrop," said Goodwill spokesperson Heather Steeves. "We just take the harddrive right out and wipe it."

Once everything is cleaned and working properly, refurbished items are resold at the Augusta, Maine Mall and Rockland Goodwill stores, as well as online. Proceeds go to their Technology Access Program which provides desktop and laptop computers to low and moderate income households for a small fee.

"The household does have to meet an income restriction to get one," Richard said "But we're talking like, for $125 [for a computer]."

Computers also go to people with disabilities. A partnership with Microsoft ensures all PCs go out the door with a fresh version of Windows 10 installed.

Vintage video games and consoles are usually bought online by collectors. For example, GoodTech recently sold an Atari XEGS, 8-bit game system, complete with four games, a joystick and light gun pistol for over $400 on Ebay. The game dates back to 1987 and was also a rudimentary computer with a built-in keyboard.

Normally, Goodwill cannot use broken items and spends thousands of dollars disposing of donated trash every year. But the GoodTech program accepts used electronics in any condition. Even if an item is unfixable, Goodwill has a relationship with Dell Computers, which recycles electronic waste, keeping it out of local landfills.

"Anything that's electronic, we can do something with it," said Mindy Archibald, Goodwill's e-commerce manager.

In 2019, Goodwill's GoodTech program recycled 763,869 pounds of electronic waste and sold 25,000 electronic items online and in stores.

After Richard and his video game opponent Joshua Robinson finished their on-screen skirmish, they packed up the old Sears console. It might be up for sale soon.

"If I was 8 years old, and it was 1982, I'd be psyched," Richard said. "Are you kidding me? Forget about it. Hours of entertainment."