A different program
They’re hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered, tiny footprints left by witty software developers. Digital Easter eggs are bits of code, invisible to all except their creators and the superfans who search for them.
Invented in the 1970s, these binary signatures provided credit to unheralded and underpaid video game designers, a clever but powerless bunch. Prohibited from putting their names on game cartridges or in credit sequences (which were attributed to the company as a whole), these programmers found a nerdy way to sneak their signatures onto their work anyway—by hiding them in the games.
Easter eggs are now tucked into movies and television shows, as well as in games where they refer to hidden features, cheat codes, and all manner of modified gameplay. They’re basically a little wink and nod to the eagle-eyed, and they’re meant to be found.
1977: Spitfire, a game on the Fairchild Channel F, an early home video game console, features a hard-to-find Easter egg in the form of designer Michael K. Glass’ digital signature. Due to the console’s design, however, the Easter egg can only be triggered on emulators.
1979: To claim credit for his work at Atari, Warren Robinett, a 25-year-old game designer, sneaks his name into a hidden room in Adventure. His minor act of rebellion is later discovered by a young player, Adam Clayton, who writes to Atari (pdf) expressing admiration.
1980: Atari’s senior management throws a fit when they learn of Robinett’s tampering, but the company’s director of software development, Steve Wright, recognizes the value of Robinett’s contribution.
1981: Film director Steven Spielberg sneaks hieroglyphics that seem to be depicting R2-D2 and C-3PO, Star Wars’ now-legendary droids, into Raiders of the Lost Ark in a nod to his friend George Lucas.
1986: Designer Kazuhisa Hashimoto leaves the Konami code in Gradius. Today, any gamer worth their salt knows the secret combination—up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A—which unlocks power-ups in many games.
1990: Nintendo Power holds a promotional contest, and the winner—Chris Houlihan—has his name featured in a secret room in the company’s next Zelda game.
1997: Amid the blank spreadsheets of Microsoft Excel, developers conceal a flight simulator. When unlocked, users may glide above a purple planet, ultimately encountering a crater that scrolls through the names of Excel’s creators. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, Microsoft Word’s developers bury a pinball simulator in their program.
2018: Fortnite memorializes an epically botched rescue mission by Muselk, an Australian streamer, with an Easter egg.
2022: NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission successfully smashes into an asteroid and changes its orbit as a test for protecting the Earth from potentially dangerous future impacts. To commemorate the occasion, searching for “NASA DART” turns your search results into an animated rendering of the collision that rocks the page.
Rebellion, but make it fun
In the late 1970s, programmers didn’t have the same clout that game designers enjoy today. According to David Crane, then a rising star at Atari, when he and other programmers went to management to ask for more money and recognition, Atari president Ray Kassar told them, “You are no more important to Atari than the person on the assembly line who puts the cartridges in the box.”
It was this environment that gave rise to the minor rebellion that programmers coded into Easter eggs. These digital marks were virtually undetectable to upper management, and soon, they became the software equivalent of graffiti. They were creative, edgy, and yes, unauthorized.
As Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs banned Easter eggs and individual credits in software, claiming, like Atari, that he wanted to prevent other companies from stealing engineering talent. After Jobs died, an Easter egg planted in OS X Mountain Lion 10.8 paid homage to the Macintosh’s release date. Files in mid-download displayed the timestamp January 24, 1984, updating to the current date when the download finished.
Mass consumption has somewhat watered down the revolutionary aspect of Easter eggs, though many eggs are still defined by their good-natured attempt at insurrection. Indeed, they symbolize the claim to one’s creative output. An egg also reflects the tension between individual and corporation. Perhaps they foreshadowed more formalized labor controls like non-compete clauses, wage-fixing blocs, and no-poach agreements, but Easter eggs are the antithesis of respect for authority—they’re a hacker’s middle finger to management.
By the digits
30: Additional lives the Konami code grants a user in the 1986 game Contra, a convenient hack for game testers
41: Alphanumeric summation for J.S. Bach (A=1, B=2); the composer hid numerical references to his name in his compositions
42: Result when you Google, “The answer to life, the universe, and everything,” an allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
200+: Easter eggs in Amazon’s Alexa, ranging from movie references to dad jokes
99+: Commands for Apple’s Siri voice assistant that result in Easter eggs including nerdy jokes to TV show references
$20,000: Annual salary for Atari programmers during the late 1970s, the equivalent of about $155,000 today
(888) 447-5594: Phone number that plays a message congratulating players on finishing the game God of War
Department of jargon
Who invented the term Easter egg?
Steve Wright unwittingly coined the term “Easter egg” around 1980 while working as director of software development for Atari. He compared finding Warren Robinett’s secret room in Adventure to hunting for eggs on Easter Sunday. Wright didn’t realize his contribution to gaming and pop culture lingo until 2018, almost 40 years later.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going to trick these bastards and sneak my name into the game and I’m not going to tell anybody... ’”
—Warren Robinett, creator of Adventure, speaking to Forbes
Easter eggs must be all of the following, except:
A. Undocumented, hidden, and non-obvious
B. Placed by the creators for personal reason
C. Entertaining, not malicious
D. Smaller than 10 MB
Grab your basket and search for the answer at the bottom of this email.
For its 150th anniversary, the Bank of Canada inserted an Easter egg onto their website homepage that can be unlocked using the Konami code.
Take me down this Easter 🐰 hole!
In 2017, video game pioneer Ed Fries—co-founder of Microsoft’s Xbox—uncovered a new contender for the world’s first Easter egg, an arcade game called Starship 1, released in 1977 (two years before Adventure). Starship 1’s creator, Ron Milner, told Fries he quietly embedded a series of inputs that would display, “Hi Ron!”
After a painstaking hunt involving the laborious repair of an old school arcade gaming cabinet, Fries successfully reproduced the Easter egg. A delighted Milner recounted: “I remember feeling like some sort of criminal putting the back door in my program. I knew that if it ever got out I would lose my job which I liked a lot…. That’s why I never bragged about it till now!”
Milner added, “I sometimes wondered if the programmer who did the ATM machines had a special sequence of buttons to push if he needed an extra $20 down the line. Or a Bally programmer setting up the slot machine to recognize a special sequence of coin drops and timed pulls to give him unbeatable odds.”
Should companies create their own Easter eggs?
- Yes! Users love them.
- Only if they’re Cadbury.
- Only individuals can create true Easter eggs, not companies.
Yes, we’re egging you on—let us know!
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In our last poll about the efficient market hypothesis, the majority of you said you’re putting all your cash under a mattress so as never to have to think about it again, which, fair!
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Today’s email was written by Matthew De Silva, updated by Shivank Taksali, and edited by Annaliese Griffin and Susan Howson.
The correct answer to the quiz is D., Smaller than 10 MB.