Atari’s Adventure and the First Easter Egg

Easter Eggs are now ubiquitous in digital media like movies, computer software and video games. An Easter Egg is something that is intentionally inserted into a source media as an inside joke, hidden message or image, or otherwise secret feature of a work. One of the earliest documented Easter Eggs was actually a source of developer resistance.

Warren Robinett inserted a secret feature into the 1979 Atari game Adventure. A player had to retrieve an invisible one-pixel grey dot and carry it to another location to unlock a secret room that prominently displayed Robinett’s name as the game creator. Robinett inserted this feature in direct response to Atari management’s decision to stop crediting the contributions of individual programmers and name only the Atari brand. It has been reported that this decision was made by Atari to reduce the individual power of programmers and mitigate poaching from competitors.

Robinett saw his act as one of labour resistance and agency. In the Foreword to Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron’s 2003 Video Game Theory Reader, Robinett described the room as a “meta-level” for players: “the way to truly beat the game and get to the real conclusion”. For himself, he revealed that he now considers the Easter Egg as a kind of “meta-game” with the company’s management. He noted that while they “had the power” to stop his name appearing on the box, he “had the power to put it on the screen”.

Where Robinett’s Easter Egg was born out of protest to managerial dictate, the devaluation of individual worker contributions and the reduction of workers’ reputational power, this resistance has since been co-opted by management. Employers were quick to see the marketing benefit of having Easter Eggs in their games as players value both the act of searching for an egg and the community status of finding one. Indeed, Easter eggs are now a mandated, budgeted and resourced aspect of most games that can be leveraged against developers. The honour of doing the extra work to create the egg is a reward doled out to the most senior team members and the threat of lack of budget or lack of time to include the eggs can be used to motivate the development team.