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Digital Easter eggs: A developer's secret message to you

If you search for "Lionel Richie" on Google, the website will respond with the text, "Hello, is it me you're looking for?"

I found the original Easter Bunny, and his name is Warren Robinett. No, he's not the big, white, thumpity, furry kind. Robinett, a video game designer, is credited with creating one of the first digital Easter eggs. In the digital world, an Easter egg is a hidden message snuck into a computer program, video game, or website where it shouldn’t be.


PLAY ALONG: Find our digital Easter egg! Here's your challenge: Do some Internet sleuthing to figure out the city and state where Marketplace Tech host David Brancaccio was born. Then search for it on Marketplace.org and see what you find.


In 1979, Robinett secretly put his name in a room of the video game Adventure, which he developed for Atari. At the time, Atari had an anonymity policy where they didn't publicly credit their video game designers.

"Atari had the power to keep my name off the box," says Robinett, "but I had the power to put my name on the screen."

By the time a 15-year-old gamer in Salt Lake City discovered it and wrote in to tell Atari, thousands of copies had already shipped.

But bosses at Atari were amused and decided to leave Robinett's secret signature in the game. They thought, "it's kind of like searching for Easter eggs on Easter morning," says Robinett.

And so the term was born. You can find tech Easter eggs all over now. Say you type the word "tilt" into Google Search -- instead of just showing results for tilt, your computer window literally tilts.

"It's something that's clever and delightful and playful," says Jon Wiley, lead designer for Google Search, "and also is kind of an in joke between the creator and the people who are using the software." Wiley says they've been around since the company got started, and he doesn't even know where to find them all.

Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Searchengineland.com, can give a couple of hints. He says try Googling "do a barrel roll", or the word "askew", or:

"If you do a search for Lionel Richie, you get a little box that comes up for him, at the top of the box it says, 'Hello is it me you're looking for?"

Sullivan says these Easter eggs aren't just for fun. And Linda Bustos, director of e-commerce research at Elastic Path Software, agrees.

"When someone finds one, they are pretty proud of themselves," she says, "and sharing it through networks is how people start talking about that piece of content."

According to Bustos, fans become bigger fans, customers get more loyal, and companies strengthen their brand. And in the tech world, branding can be worth a whole lot more than chocolate. It can mean gold.

 

About the author

Katie Long is a contributing digital producer for Marketplace Morning Report and Marketplace Tech.

If you search for "Lionel Richie" on Google, the website will respond with the text, "Hello, is it me you're looking for?"

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