These surprises hidden in code first originated in the 1979 Atari video game "Adventure." At the time, games rarely included designer credits, so "Adventure" designer Warren Robinett hid attribution to himself in a secret room.
Since then, tech Easter eggs have evolved and expanded in definition. Designers no longer need them to get credit, but they continue to include them because users love them. There are countless Reddit threads and message boards dedicated to compiling these secret experiences and how to find them. Wendy Castleman, a design researcher with a PhD in cognitive and perceptual psychology, attributes this affinity for Easter eggs to a few factors: "They are hidden, not everyone knows about them, and they can be really playful and fun."
There's an element of exclusivity and eliteness that comes with being the first to discover an Easter egg. Still, even if you aren't number one, there's some thrill in the chase:
"If you don't know about it and stumble across it by chance, you will be delighted because something unexpected was unveiled," Castleman says. "If you do know about it, trying to find it creates a challenge."
Recently, as virtual assistants have become more popular, Easter eggs have gained more mainstream popularity — in part because of the evolving definition of the insider concept.
"We mainly define [Easter eggs] as the answers the Assistant gives to pop culture references," Karina Elise Portuondo, a writing lead on the Google Assistant personality team, told Refinery29. "Though I know that externally, a lot of people think anything fun is an Easter egg, whether it's a full-on game or chit-chatty response."
While the Google Assistant offers both, for an AI trick to earn Easter egg status, it needs to feel like an inside joke. Many of the Assistant's "eggs" are entertainment-focused. In addition to continuously adding references to the classics — Star Wars, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future — writers make sure to stay on top of upcoming releases. The team will prepare for a new season of Game of Thrones, for example, because they know more people will start asking the Assistant about it — and it's a good time to throw in new Easter eggs.
"People are testing us, and the Assistant, to see if we thought of it," Portuondo says. "Is it going to pick up what you're putting down?"
There's no quantitative way to determine how successful an "egg" is, but Portuondo says the team will look for "social chatter" — mentions on message boards or on Twitter — to figure out if people have discovered them and, if so, what they think. While no "eggs" have been removed from the Assistant, they may be tweaked.
That was the case when Trekkies, a particularly active fan community, took offense to one Easter egg. In response to a query about speaking Klingon, the Assistant answered with the Klingon phrase meaning "a little bit." But, according to Trekkies, the translation wasn't spoken correctly. After receiving numerous complaints, the Assitant team decided to right the wrong.
Portuondo isn't surprised that Easter eggs are seeing a renaissance on AI. "People want to connect," she says. "This applies to AI having a personality in general. People treat AI as if it's human and because the interactions are conversational by nature, if you talk to your friend about movie quotes or song lyrics, you're going to do that with the Assistant, too."
If you're up for the hunt, try saying some popular lines from Black Panther and Westworld to the Assistant — recently added Easter eggs are just waiting to be unlocked.