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Persuasive Games: Video Game Pranks

March 18, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

In one of the many memorable moments of Ricky Gervais's BBC television series The Office, troublemaker Tim encases Gareth's stapler in Jell-O. Gareth is annoyed, and the viewer is amused, because both comprehend the act immediately: it is a prank.

Pranks are a type of dark humor that trace a razor's edge between amusement and injury. The risks inherent to pranks contribute to our enjoyment of them.

This includes the risk of getting caught in the act, or the risk that the object of the prank might become hurt or insulted. And yet, this risk also gives pranks their social power. Because he risks blame, the prankster affirms his relationship to the victim.

The same is true when the victim chooses to laugh the prank off rather than to mope. If that victim chooses to retaliate later, the result is not spite but a playful type of social bonding.

Developer Pranks

One obvious connection between pranks and video games are tricks developers play on their employers or publishers. The easter egg is one example. An easter egg, of course, is a hidden message in media of all kinds, from movies to games. In software, ester eggs are usually triggered obscure sequences of commands, such as the hidden flight simulator in Microsoft Excel 97.

Software easter eggs arose partly in response to the cold anonymity of the computer, and the first video game easter egg had precisely this problem in mind. In the late 1970s, Atari engineers created titles for the Atari VCS singlehandedly, from concept to completion.

Despite their undeniable role as authors of these games, the company did not publish credits on the box, cartridge, or manual. When Warren Robinett completed the classic graphical adventure Adventure in 1978, he included a hidden room with graphics that read, "Created by Warren Robinett."

The process of discovering the hidden message was complex and unintuitive, although not difficult enough that it couldn't be done.

Atari learned of the prank when a 15 year-old player wrote the company a letter about it. It was never removed from the game, and Atari even used the gag to their own benefit, spinning it as a "secret message" in the first issue of fan magazine Atari Age.

Soon enough, higher-ups embraced the easter egg as a way of deepening players' relationships with their titles. Howard Scott Warshaw's inclusion of his initials in 1982's Yars' Revenge was fully endorsed by management.

A more controversial prank can be found in SimCopter, a 1996 Maxis title that lets players fly helicopter missions around the cities they create in SimCity 2000. Developer Jacques Servin secretly added speedo-clad male bimbos (Servin called them "himbos") who would meander the city and passionately kiss on certain calendar dates. Servin cited unfavorable working conditions as an inspiration for the prank, and he was subsequently fired.

This was just the start of pranking for Servin, who has since made a practice of public interventions as a member of the subversive activist collectives The Yes Men and RTMark.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Tony Dormanesh
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Although unreleased, Penn & Teller's game, Smoke and Mirrors would've been a great example of a prank video game. It was basically a collection of prank games. One game on there was a 2 player shooting game that 1 person would always win, and secret button combinations would let you switch who wins (in case your friend makes you switch controllers).

Another game included was the 'infamous' Desert Bus mini-game, which was basically a prank on anyone who played it. You drive a bus (that constantly veers a little to one side) from Tuscon to Vegas. The bus goes at a constant speed and takes 8 hours to get to Vegas. When you get there, you get 1 point and turn around having to do the entire drive again. Hilarious.

Ian Bogost
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Yup, that's another great example. I've talked about Desert Bus in a previous column, but it's a clear match for this type of game too.

Frederico Brinca
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As a video game prankster, I thought I could shed some light on the subject from the other side of the mirror.

Creating pranks with the hope of making people think a little about video games while being entertained, we always wonder if one aspect is not hiding the other. The prank and the game mechanism it plays on go hand in hand, and the more accepted, the more conventional the mechanism is, the more direct and efficient the comical effect of the prank is. The problem is that some conventions seem to be imprinted so deeply in our gamer's mind, so natural, so invisible that, even with a prank to underline them, people seem to hardly go a step further and question them. Currently we let our 'sabotages' speak for themselves and we keep our confidence in the pranks' ability to convey a message, but we are considering adding notes to share and discuss what we are trying to do, should this confidence waver.

Michael McHale
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Who can forget the "insanity" moments in Eternal Darkness? That is a great example of a game pulling pranks on the player.

Joe Stites
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Good natured pranks are a way to inject some humor and variety into a game.

I once had an NPC that would teleport players to good dungeons, but his text warned them that he was "just learning" and he had a randomized chance of shooting a player all over the map. (He was an ongoing theme in the MMO, not the brightest wizard around).

Another time we introduced a magic ring that changed attributes--not always good. Strangely, players would enjoy the prank if it was done in the proper spirit (never too harsh and with an inkling of what was to come--those are the best!).

Glenn McMath
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Having just played Eternal Darkness, that's the first thing I thought of when I read this article. Another similar example is the Psycho Mantis fight in Metal Gear Solid.

As for the future of pranks in games, I'd like to see them target people who pirate games. Perhaps if any members of a team have any downtime they could add a prank to a version which they could then proliferate via torrents and P2P networks (sort of like those fake versions of mp3s that record companies put out for a while). If cleverly done, those versions could work as a demo of the game and maybe encourage people to buy the real version.