Created by Warren Robinett

Curator's Note

In 1978, Warren Robinett programmed the Atari game "Adventure," and in protest of Atari's policy of excluding programmer's names, Robinett inserted a message that has come to be known as video gaming's first "Easter Egg." While there are earlier examples of this practice, Robinett's remains one of the most iconic, both for its visibility and for its motivation. In considering a politics of media archaeology, Easter Eggs strike me as a relevant piece of the video game software puzzle, especially when their message reveals something of the culture and labor conditions under which it was produced.

To consider an Easter Egg as political rhetoric, one must also consider how it reaches its audience. The video I have embedded here first demonstrates winning the game by retrieving the chalice and then shows how to access the Easter Egg. (For both play-throughs, I have already slain the three dragons and neutralized the bat.) Juxtaposing these two events hopefully demonstrates how closely the message is involved in the playable space of the game. Furthermore, the means for accessing it place it structurally just beyond the chalice, and the message even pulses with the same rotating colors as the chalice, suggesting that the signature is the real treasure which the player seeks.

One can find several examples of Easter Eggs with political implications such as the "Boy Bimbos" in SimCopter (1996), but there is yet another class of messages of media archaeological interest. Most well-known Easter Eggs hide content inside the fictive space of the game, but programmers also leave messages in game code, messages that may only be accessible with a hex editor. Some of these are apparently inside jokes (Exidy's Crackshot (1983) taunts "HELLO, BENY! IS THE TRUCK HERE YET?"), and Donkey Kong includes an implied job offer. But most of this class of Easter Egg is decidedly territorial. Defender (1980) warns, "YOU TOUCHA MY PROGRAM - I BREAKA YOU FACE!" and "KEEPA YOU HANS OFFA MY PROAGRAMA" [sic], and Shark Attack (1980) declares "If You are reading this, May the bird of paradise shit on your head."

Taken together, Easter Eggs of both sorts provide traces of individual personality within the impersonal domains of software programming. The character and ubiquity of these hidden messages, particularly in the early 1980s, make visible the otherwise invisible labor of cultural production for this vital period in media history.


Hey Robert. Do you know how knowledge of easter eggs circulated historically? It seems now that you can read just about anything about hidden elements of a game online. I guess there were magazines that circulated that kind of knowledge, something like Nintendo Power or whatnot. But did most of it happen mouth-to-mouth? Or at conventions? Thanks, Michael

In Adventure's case, a kid discovered it and wrote in to Electronic Games, who eventually published the instructions for finding it. So there was definitely some knowledge within mass media. Other eggs, like the arcade game ones I quote here, are only going to turn up if you're analyzing the game data -- debugging an emulator, for instance -- so they may take much longer to uncover. The Channel F Easter Eggs, for example, weren't discovered until 2004. For that one, Bradley Reid-Selth claimed he put his initials in Video Whizball because he heard programmers at Atari were doing that kind of thing, so it seems that this practice was common knowledge among the programmer community of the 1970s.

The temporal gaps suggested by these early easter eggs are fascinating to me. On one hand, there's the common placement of the content inside the game, and on the other there's the coterie discourse of the 1970s programmer community -- the inside jokes, the job offers, etc. But I wonder if there couldn't be something more like a historical long game at work in this latter group -- is it possible that these programmers imagined a future where a wider population of players might have the tools and knowledge to uncover these eggs? Perhaps attributing that kind of foresight to them is a bit too much anachronistic wishful thinking, but the possibility suggests a really rich instance of media archaeology -- secreted content buried within data to be discovered and read by future generations...

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