Easter Eggs

Unravelling what lies beneath your software

Text by Attilia Fattori Franchini

There are multiple ways in which the physical and the digital world intersect, one taking the characteristics of the other. Sometimes, concepts as different as traditions, scientific ideas, ideologies and systems are adopted to define otherwise unexplainable digital phenomenon. Think of the “digital gold” currency, which proposes an independent economy based on the old ounces of gold, or the “dark net”, which refers to online information that is all but inaccessible.

The idea of “Easter eggs”, applied to media, plays an interesting role in contemporary expression. They are secret elements, hidden bits of coding, placed in software, games and interfaces as a type of in-joke or surprise. In order to be counted as an “Easter egg”, rather than a simple glitch or failure in the system, the development has to be undocumented and unexpected, connected with the programmer’s identity and not disrupt the function of the host program.

The term “Easter egg” was first used in 1979 by the Atari group to describe a secret room in Adventure that contained the name of the games’ designer Warren Robinett.

When queried about the action by James Hague, author of Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers,1 Robinett answered:

“Each 2600 game was designed entirely by one person. But on the package it said basically ‘Adventure, by Atari’. And we were only getting salaries, no cut of the huge profits. It was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting. But to make it happen, I had to hide my signature in the code, in a really obscure place, and not tell anybody. Of course, an adventure game, with multiple rooms, is perfect for secret things, because it’s easy to make extra rooms that are really hard to get into.”

When the secret room containing the signature was discovered by a 15-year-old from Salt Lake City, Atari group defined the hidden surprise as an “Easter egg”, thereby recognising the programmer’s creative authorship.

VIDEO GAMES

Thanks to improved programming tools, video game developers started to include hidden spots and cheat codes to improve games and their features.

Adventurous players began to exploit the software, providing new forms of interaction. Activation methods for cheat codes included entering a code at a password prompt or pressing a combination of controller buttons. Cheats are usually developed with the aim of making the game easier by offering extra features and prizes to its players2. The presence of Easter eggs became cultural currency for players, a topic of information and research.

COMPUTER AND WEB

As Lev Manovich declared in The Language of New Media (2001), the computer’s encoding of existing cultural norms in designs supported the diffusion of programming skills outside video game platforms.

Early examples include hidden additional DVD content, the first generation of Nokia mobile phone ringtones which spelt different words in Morse code3 and Microsoft Office, where many of the programs could be transformed into small games once you performed the correct sequence of actions.

The web contains numerous “Easter eggs”. Google, one of the first to adopt the idea online, has hidden surprises in many of its products4, a good example being the “Easter egg” relating to actor Chuck Norris. Type into Google search “where is chuck norris”, then click on <I’m feeling lucky>, and the response is: Google won’t search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don’t find Chuck Norris, he finds you.

The “Konami code” is a secret cheat code that appeared in many of the company’s early video games. It was created during the programming of Gradius (1986) by its developer to give power-ups to its players. Since then, the code has been transposed from video games to the internet to create a well-known formula of secret access. On the Konami Code website you can find a full list of more than 80 web addresses that respond to the famous sequence of buttons.

The list includes Facebook, Google Reader, jQuery, Netlog and the BBC. Each website responds differently to the code, ranging from small effects, such as colours or music, to full-blown videos and flying unicorns.

The Activate Media website, for example, forwards you to a YouTube clip of the “truffle shuffle” segment from the ’80s adventure-comedy film The Goonies.

Contemporary “Easter eggs” are always ironic and use the web as platform to engage with like-minded people, experiment visually and technologically and propose a subtle interference to corporate-controlled information.

 

VISUAL ART

Some artists during the ’90s and early 2000s – among them Vuk Cosik, the irational.org collective and JODI – began to play with ideas of disturbance and interference to reflect the digital environment’s internal structure.

The JODI collective works with the aesthetics of computer errors, questioning and disturbing the browsing experience with hacks, code tricks, faux code and faux virus, critically investigating the context in which they are agents.

In 2001, another collective, 0100101110101101.org, created a downloadable computer virus called Biennale.py for the 49th Venice Biennale and proposed its format and diffusion as a work of art, highlighting concerns of protection, materiality and form. 

Looking at the idea of “Easter eggs” in a broader sense helps to highlight how its features have evolved. More recently, parallel to the emergence of post-digital art5 and online culture6, secret bits of codes or system hacking have been employed to claim authorship and copyright as well as to investigate our position in a digitally constructed visual environment.

For example, artist Rafaël Rozendaal embeds inventive ASCII drawings or signs his initials, hidden in the source code of the website.

For his project Duels and Dualities (2011), David Blandy created an arcade fighting game using a series of alter egos as characters, each with their own special powers, in a customised 2D fighting arena.

By hacking the game features to create a personalised version, the artist uses the structure and language of a well-known game such as Street Fighter II to explore the idea of battle in contemporary culture and reflect on identity in a digital world.

Post-digital artists often focus their practice on visualising internet vernaculars and software dialects, influencing contemporary semantics through minimal gestures. By editing digital and web forms of representation, and the user’s access to it, these artists create works that stand independently online. Think of The Revolving Internet, for example, a work developed by Constant Dullaart and created as a response to Chris Collins’ Uneven Google, which is Google tilted by 1 degree. Both works exploit the innovative features of Google, opening up new forms of engagement.

As with every creative tool, “Easter eggs” are a way to grant communication new possibilities, representing an escape from official lines of information. Ambassadors of positive messages, they symbolise our need for knowledge. Discovering one is like winning a prize.

More remains to be discovered.

REFERENCES:

1. Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers was released as a commercial product in March 1997. The book was originally formatted using html and sold via mail order, shipped on a floppy disc by Dadgum Games for $20.

2. As in the Tomb Raider’s Easter eggs, in which Lara Croft was supposed to lose her clothes after a certain key combination.

3. The “Ascending” tone spelled out, “CONNECTING PEOPLE”, Nokia’s branding slogan.

4. There is a full list of Google Easter eggs at bit.ly/X3UYiz

5. Post-digital art, as defined by Mel Alexander in The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age (2011), is constituted by “artworks that address the humanisation of digital technologies through interplay between digital, biological, cultural, and spiritual systems, between cyberspace and real space, between embodied media and mixed reality in social and physical communication, between high tech and high touch experiences, between visual, haptic, auditory, and kinaesthetic media experiences, between virtual and augmented reality, between roots and globalisation, between auto-ethnography and community narrative, and between web-enabled peer-produced wikiart and artworks created with alternative media through participation, interaction, and collaboration in which the role of the artist is redefined.”

6. Digital Folklore Reader (2009

 

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