Lesson of the Day: ‘The Secret History of “Easter Eggs”’

Lesson of the Day: ‘The Secret History of “Easter Eggs”’

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Featured Article: “The Secret History of ‘Easter Eggs’

Easter eggs? No, we’re not talking about those plastic toys filled with candy and hidden in the backyard.

In this lesson, students will learn about the quirky software surprises Google, Tesla, Amazon and others hide in their products. They will consider the roles that audience and purpose play in the creation of these Easter eggs, and use that criteria to design their own.

When you hear “Easter egg,” what do you think of? What thoughts, feelings, memories and other associations come to mind?

The article you are about to read is about a different kind of Easter egg: an undocumented feature in a tech product, set in motion by a sequence of commands that nobody would hit accidentally and intended as a joke, bonus or surprise for viewers.

Take a minute to explore some. Open up Google and search the following terms:

What happens when you search these terms? Why do you think programmers built these features into Google? What effect do they have on you? Why do you think they are called Easter eggs?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. What was the motivation behind the creation of the first known Easter egg? How does that differ from the reasons programmers use them today?

2. Dan Sandler, who works on the Android smartphone software, said that Easter eggs help “establish software as an art form.” What does he mean by that? Do you agree that software can be an art form? Why or why not?

3. Describe two of the Easter eggs mentioned in the article that stood out to you. What were their purposes? Who were they created for?

4. Easter eggs cost time and money to design, build and debug, and tech companies can’t even reveal or advertise them. Plus, they run the risk of getting negative feedback and press. Why do you think companies continue to include them in their products, despite these drawbacks?

5. In your opinion, are Easter eggs worthwhile? Why or why not?

Choose a favorite app, website, video game, movie or any other tech product. Now, imagine you are a programmer, writer or engineer on that team, and design an Easter egg for it. Your Easter egg can be as simple as an extra scene at the end of a movie or as complex as a secret level on a game.

This activity can be purely imaginative: Write about or draw what you would create and how your users would discover it. Or, if you have the time and skills, you can try building an actual digital or physical prototype.

As you create, keep in mind two important aspects of any technological feature: its audience and purpose.

  • Audience: Who is this feature intended for? The public, expert users, employees, creators or someone else?

  • Purpose: What impact do you want it to have? Is it simply to entertain and delight users? Reward them in some way? Give credit or pay tribute to someone? Something else?

These criteria will not only help you figure out what you want your Easter egg to do, but also how your audience will discover it. For example, if your feature is meant to delight users and you want anyone who uses your app to be able to see it, it might look something like Google Maps’ Mario feature. But if it is meant to reward serious users only, you might create a complicated combination of steps to get there, such as for Tesla’s secret features.

Be as creative as you like and, if you’re doing this in a school context, present what you made to your classmates.