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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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