It was thirteen years ago today

Monday, March 3, 2008

Comments: 2   (latest April 17, 2022)

Tagged: args, easter eggs, history

(...give or take a few months...)

So I heard this weekend that a design company called MOO is running an Internet Easter egg hunt, as a promotion for their company. Which is cool. Obviously, it's not a new idea; Easter egg hunts have been floating around the Web for as long as there's been a Web.

(I know, I'm blithely equating the Web with the Internet, even though I was an old Net hand during the Web's birth. But I'm not aware of any egg hunts that ran over Usenet or Gopher or anything like that. Anyhow, "Internet" means the Web to most people -- when it doesn't mean spam -- and "Internet Easter Egg Hunt" turns up more hits than "Web Easter Egg Hunt". Sociology in action!)

Since I am an egotist, I'm going to talk about the Easter Egg Hunt that I worked on. Which has the distinction of being, as far as I know, the first one: it ran in Fall of 1994. Think back...

(...twingly harp music...)

You're a student. (Of our 50 eggs, only five were on .COM sites!) You've heard of Web search engines -- Webcrawler and Lycos are just starting -- but they're not up to the task of finding Easter Egg links scattered everywhere. But you are; you can hunt through the most popular web pages and read them all. For the purposes of a silly contest.

Probably you found most of them by looking at Netscape's catalog of links to the entire Web.

(Yeah, take a look at those URLs. Bianca's Smut Shack! Phil Greenspun! Doctor Fun! People with top-level home directories on their university's servers! Really, the reason I'm blogging this is to bring up all that old stuff.)

If you want to see an actual preserved Easter Egg, look here. Not its original location, mind you. Notice that the author of that page invents the wiki, down in a footnote... I wonder if he ever realized it.

But this is a gaming blog, and the ghosts of Jmacs past, present, and hypothetical are yelling at me to relate all of this to gaming.

Well, it is gaming. It prefigures the Alternate Reality Game, doesn't it? Clues are scattered in real life, or whatever part of the Internet you can imagine is real life. If we'd attached a story fragment to each of our Easter Eggs, we would have beaten out the bee folks by several years.

Although, not exactly. Modern puzzles-for-the-community have been transformed by two things: the hive mind, and the search engine. Which is to say: everybody is pounding on your puzzle together, and they're using Google to pound with. Neither was true in 1994.

We worried about the search engines, mind you. Our contest rules asked people to please not write scripts to web-crawl for Easter Eggs. For the sake of the web servers! Imagine the traffic load! Which brought in the most wonderful bit of email:

That's ridiculous for you to tell people not to write "robot searchers" for the easter egg contest or it might bring the Web to its knees. Your warning is going to serve as a challenge. Obviously technodweebs are going to do just that. You should never have held this ill-timed easter egg hunt, or at least have anticipated how people would look for eggs. If Internet dies, we'll know who to blame.

Well, the Internet didn't die, and nobody wrote such a script as far as we know. But apparently we were the smartest people on the Internet, and the idea of search engines would never have occurred to anybody if we hadn't mentioned it. Good to know!

But enough about the past.

If Google is your hammer, does everything look like a nail? Perhaps not. If you don't know what words you're looking for, Google is helpless. Come up with a set of items which are recognizable only by their phrasing. Paraphrases or misspellings of famous quotes? Bits of poetry in a common meter? Or images, of course; it'll be a few years before Google cracks content out of those. A bunch of photographs of related subjects, or image-rendered text.

(The image search seems to be how MOO's hunt is structured. Although, remember that common link URLs or Javascript snippets are also vulnerable. Avoid them, or anonymize them.)

Or you turn the idea inside out: the eggs are easy to find, but it's hard to figure out how the relate. There's the ARG model. And in fact modern puzzles often treat web-searching as a pacing mechanism. You know the players are going to find your eggs (trivia, whatever) but it'll take them a while to work it out. So you have puzzles on your site, and each one has a solution that points at some phrase, and then the players all Google off to find it. That's fun, and it's egg-hunt-shaped, even if it's not the original model.

What else can folks come up with?

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