Q&A: The origin of “easter eggs”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're finding Easter eggs all year round…

Q: Hi AWC, why do we have Easter eggs?

A: Well, the practice seems to date back to the 1570s and they were once known as pasch or paschal eggs. It’s a Christian tradition that is said to represent rebirth or perhaps fer–

Q: Ah, no, sorry, not those ones. Although they are delicious.

A: Actually, the original ones were just normal eggs stained different colours – mostly red. The chocolate variety didn’t come along until the 1800s.

Q: Very good to know. But the ‘Easter eggs’ I wanted to know about were the little hidden things that people put into their TV shows, movies or video games.

A: Ahhhh yes, those. Okay, let’s talk about that. Macquarie Dictionary defines this type of Easter egg as either a secret response secretly inserted into a computer program by a developer – for example, typing “Baby Yoda” into Google will make him appear in the bottom right of your screen.

Q: Excellent! 

A: The other part of the definition is: “a reference to a person, event, fictitious character, film or TV program, etc., deliberately placed in a radio or television program, a film, or a computer game, to be discovered by the viewer or listener.”

Q: Yes, that’s it.

A: America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary is more succinct. They describe an Easter egg as “a hidden feature in a commercially released product (such as software or a DVD)”.

Q: Okay, same same. So when did the phrase first start being used?

A: Well, first it’s important to know that programmers were hiding secret little messages in video games for many years before it had a name. It’s just something they like to do. But the origin of “Easter egg” came in 1980 – with an Atari 2600 game named Adventure.

Q: Ultra-original name. Not.

A: Indeed. It was actually one of the first graphical video games of its kind. 

Q: Right, well gosh oh golly gee, the person who programmed that must have been celebrated with a cake in the Atari break room.

A: Actually, no. In fact, it’s highly likely that we wouldn’t be calling them Easter eggs today if it weren’t for a somewhat disgruntled Atari employee named Warren Robinett.

Q: Somewhat disgruntled? Why!

A: Well, as the story goes, back in the early days of computer games, programmers – in this case Robinett – were not listed in the credits of the game. 

Q: Evil! Why not?

A: Often it was to stop other companies from poaching talent.

Q: Like from big ‘game’ hunters! Hahahaaa.

A: Very good. Now Robinett was naturally proud of this new game and unhappy about there being no proverbial cake in the break room.

Q: Far out, that sounds yummy. What does proverbial cake taste like? Is it nutty? Red velvety maybe?

A: Not a real cake.

Q: Ah. Okay. Carry on.

A: So to exact his revenge, he did the nerdiest thing he could think of.

Q: Stuck tape between the lenses of his glasses?

A: No, not that. He hid his programming credit INSIDE the game – “Created by Warren Robinett” written in a secret room, that you could only access if you hovered over a certain grey pixel on the screen.

Q: Pffft. Wow, he sure showed them!

A: We’re sure that his digi-revenge tasted sweet to him.

Q: Like proverbial cake?

A: No.

Q: Errrmmm, actually this all sounds kind of familiar.

A: Ah yes. If you’ve read Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One – or seen Speilberg’s 2018 movie of the same name – Robinett and this whole Easter egg thing features heavily.

Q: No, I meant the cake sounded familiar. Must have been from an episode of The Great British Bake Off. Anyway, so it was Robinett who called it an Easter egg?

A: Nope. Actually, Robinett ended up leaving the company soon after, but then a player FOUND the hidden message and let Atari know. They considered removing it, but it was going to be too costly. And this is where our phrase finally appears.

Q: Ding ding ding! Finally! 

A: Upon seeing the excited response to what was now dubbed the “Gray Dot” (American spelling) – after the grey pixel that unlocked it, a man named Steve Wright had an idea. He was the Director of Software Development at Atari and he thought it might actually be a good idea to hide other messages and even gameplay elements in future games.

Q: I’m guessing it was Steve Wright who named them Easter eggs?

A: Yes it was. At the time, he nonchalantly referred to them as “Easter eggs” – comparing the joy of gamers finding Robinett’s secret room in Adventure as similar to kids discovering hidden Easter eggs on Easter Sunday.

Q: Does this mean if he’d been Jewish, we’d be all looking for ‘chametz’ in TV shows, games and movies instead?

A: Haha, quite possibly. But he wasn’t Jewish, so we’ll pass over that scenario. And we’ve come to the end of our origin story.

Q: Delightful, as always. Heeeey – WE should hide an Easter egg in this conversation for people reading to find!

A: We already have. If you take the first letter of each of your questions, it spells out something.

Q: Are you serious?

A: Deadly serious.

Q: Yeah!! Take that Warren Robinett – our Easter egg is MUCH cooler!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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