There’s one man out there who’s done more for Easter eggs than the Bunny itself. But don’t worry if you were unaware of his influence. Apparently, he was, too.
Odds are you haven’t heard his name, but Steve Wright has had a sweeping impact on pop culture that’s lasted for nearly four decades. Back in 1980, during his days at Atari, he coined the term “Easter egg” for messages and jokes that creators intentionally hide in various forms of entertainment media.
Today, those types of eggs are ubiquitous. You can find them in TV shows, movies, music, video games and just about anywhere else they can be hidden. If you can’t spot them yourself, you can just read the countless Easter egg analyses or watch YouTubers like Mr. Sunday Movies, who are busy picking apart footage to reveal the tributes everyone else missed.
Even Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, is devoted almost entirely to the fanatic culture surrounding Easter eggs.
I’ve been writing about Easter eggs at HuffPost for years now, but Wright, like my mom, apparently hasn’t been reading my work. In an interview last month, he revealed to HuffPost that, until recently, he had no idea Easter eggs had become such a pop culture phenomenon. His epiphany only came after the release of “Black Panther.”
“I just happened to trip over an article that was talking about the Easter eggs in the ‘Black Panther’ movie,” the Denver-based Wright said over Skype, adding, “So I go, ’Oh, wow. There are Easter eggs in movies. Now, that’s great.’”
Uh, what? That’s all you have to say?
When I professed my love of Easter eggs ― describing in detail how I’ve been searching for and writing about them for years ― he simply said, “How about that. What fun.”
Perhaps part of the reason Wright is so alarmingly chill about the whole Easter egg thing is because, well, he’s had a storied career otherwise.
While working at Atari, Wright taught himself how to program in order to become a game designer. During our interview, he explained that he was the person who first suggested that his company bring in actual musicians to provide the soundtracks for games ― and actual artists to do the art. He rose up through the Atari ranks, managing various game developments and special projects. Later, he ended up producing visual effects for movies, literally writing the handbook on it.
In Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” a movie that centers on protagonist Wade Watts’ (Tye Sheridan) mission to find Easter eggs, you get a CliffsNotes version of the real-life story of their origin.
The film notes that a game designer named Warren Robinett, tired of programmers not getting credit for their work, hid his name in a secret chamber tucked inside a 1979 Atari video game, “Adventure.” After completing a specific sequence of moves, an “Adventure” player would stumble upon his name, in a message stating, “Created By Warren Robinett.” This is known as the first Easter egg.
What the movie doesn’t explain is that the first Easter egg arrived during a big moment in video game history. In the late 1970s, Atari was in the midst of switching from a seasonal business to a year-round production company, Wright told me. It was hiring and expanding, and programmers were becoming industry celebrities.
“It was a transition in the early days,” Wright said. “The programmers were programmers. They wrote games. Atari sold games. But then in [the late ’70s], when I joined, we were no longer programmers. We were ‘game designers.’ OK, rock and roll. Interviews with Time magazine, and I did a lot of television appearances for Atari.”
Robinett, the man who planted the first Easter egg, said in a 2017 interview with Forbes that the employee culture at Atari was crap. In addition to claiming that upper management generally mistreated game designers, he said that while the game he designed sold more than one million copies, he was only making $20,000 a year ― and not receiving any credit for his work.
“I was not clever enough to think of a way to get a piece of those profits, but I did think of a way to get public recognition,” Robinett told Forbes, “which was to hide my name in the game in the secret room in a place that’s really hard to get to. That’s what I did.”
“I didn’t call it an Easter egg,” Robinett added, “but that name was bestowed on it by someone else.”
That someone else was Wright.
The official coinage happened after a kid found Robinett’s signature and wrote an effusive letter to Atari explaining how much he enjoyed it.
Atari was not amused. Wright was manager of the company’s home video game department at the time, and he said the “bigwigs” freaked out about the discovery, calling an emergency meeting about it.
Wright, eternally relaxed, suggested everyone slow down and recognize the value in Robinett’s hidden treasure. According to him, he immediately compared the discovery to finding an Easter egg.
“I said, ’Didn’t you read the letter? The kid loved it. In fact, not only should I not punish Warren Robinett, but we should make it policy that every video game has an Easter egg in it.’”
Robinett had already left Atari at this point, so there was no reprimanding to be done anyway. But Wright did convince the rest of the management staff that the egg was a virtue, and hiding more of them became a company-wide mandate.
“We didn’t at the time appreciate what a landmark event it was,” Wright said. But he said he “wrote a memo to all concerned [that] going forward it is the policy that we will bury Easter eggs in the video games for the kids to find.”
There were other messages hidden in games before 1979. In fact, a recently unearthed egg in the arcade game “Starship 1″ predates “Adventure” by about two years. But before Robinett and Wright, no one was calling them Easter eggs.
Robinett told Forbes he believes the term’s popularity also spread because hiding the egg served as a “subversive political maneuver.”
Looking back on the Easter eggs, Wright told us, “It’s just one of those serendipitous moments. I’m pleased that something I said took off and became fun for everybody, but I don’t get a royalty every time somebody says that.”
Wright joked about having “Father of Easter egg” on his business card, but he’s relatively blasé about the whole thing, despite of our efforts to convince him otherwise.
“I’m delighted that it became a thing, but I don’t have fans swarming around me or anything like that, so it’s sort of an abstract concept,” he said. “People dug it and ran with the ball, and they put it into movies, too. That’s cool, especially since I’m in the movie industry. It sort of followed me.”
Sadly, the Easter egg pioneer wasn’t invited to the “Ready Player One” premiere. But for the record, he was “not interested” in going either way. As far as being part of the inspiration for the movie, he’s unfazed by that, too.
“That’s nice. It makes me feel good, but, again, that was the reason they put me in charge of game development, because I’m a fun dude.”
The Easter Bunny’s got nothing on the Father of Easter egg.