On the Nature of Easter Eggs

Ready Player One.
Ready Player One
By  · Published on April 1st, 2018

Ready Player One.

In Ready Player One, revered video game maker and trillionaire James Halliday (Mark Rylance) defines an “Easter egg” as “a hidden object in the game that gives special powers to those who discover it.” While this may be true to video games, in the world of non-interactive media, the term means something else.

In film, TV, and literature, an Easter egg is a when one work specifically references another in some detail or minor feature that is not significant to the plot. It’s not Chekov’s gun. It won’t help solve a mystery. It’s just an intentional reference that people will either get (if they know the work being referenced) or will not get. In terms of understanding and appreciating a narrative, someone who doesn’t catch an Easter egg isn’t at any particular disadvantage. Unless watching with someone who does catch it, a person who misses an Easter egg wouldn’t even realize there’s a reference to miss at all.

Ironically enough, none of the “Easter eggs” used to crack the mystery of Halliday’s three keys in Ready Player One are cinematic Easter eggs because they are fundamental to the plot — so important that the film always has to explain and elaborate these references. This is just about as far from a cinematic Easter egg as a thing can be. In the movie sense, an example of an Easter egg would be in The Last Jedi, when Rose and Finn are arrested in Canto Bight for “parking violation 276/B,” a reference to a specific form that ends up preventing Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) from being able to get his air ducts fixed in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

If you don’t catch the reference, you’re hardly missing out. If you do catch the reference, you don’t win anything. You just crack a smile because you and Rian Johnson are on the same wavelength of cinematic geekery. But that, in itself, is something. There’s a specific “special power” to what we might call the cinematic (or literary) Easter egg, and it’s equivalent to the power of an inside joke.

But first, to illustrate the nature of an inside joke in a cinematic context, let me bring up a personal anecdote.

Nearly a decade ago, a friend of my father’s made a film which received a limited theatrical release. So we took a trip to one of the arthouse theaters playing it. It was a slice-of-life romantic drama kind of movie, and one scene features a minor character by the name of Mr. Wardlow — a reference to my dad.

My dad, who had not been forewarned, burst out laughing. As it was not an especially humorous scene, the rest of the theater turned around to see who the cackling weirdo was.

That’s what an inside joke in a movie context looks like.

What literary and cinematic Easter eggs do, above all else, is make for a language of inside jokes that are theoretically accessible to anybody. No childhood friendship with a future filmmaker required. You can be part of the club, even if (or, to go with what has become the stereotype, especially if) you’re an angst and acne-ridden teenager with questionable social skills. And, once people were able to find each other with ever-increasing ease in the internet age, what was for most the illusion of being in a club really became an actual club.

This is what makes finding Easter eggs more than a hidden picture search. Getting the reference isn’t just getting a reference, it’s being part of the group. It’s why “Parzival” is so set on going on his digital date with “Art3mis” dressed as Buckaroo Bonzai — it’s important to him that she not only get the reference but appreciate it like he does. When she does both understand and enjoy his outfit, he sees it as proof they are on the same wavelength — they belong to the same club.

When you put the theoretical concept of a language of inside jokes theoretically accessible to anyone willing to put in the time and energy required to learn it into practice, a problem emerges: an inside requires an outside. In order for a club to stay a club, there has to be a “not in the club.” If the club gets too big, it ceases to really be a club. It loses intimacy, the sense of place and identity that membership provides.

And this is where we run into issues. In the realm of popular culture, it seems that the geeks have inherited the earth. At the same time, “geek” culture — the worlds and worlds within worlds of movies and video games, comics and novels and TV shows traversing space adventures and fantasy lands — has been the location of increasingly frequent and increasingly hostile battles on just about every fault-line imaginable. These two observations are not unrelated. Contrary to what Ready Player One might suggest, the most prominent of these battles are not between The People and mega-corporations, but conflict within the fans and players themselves. Boys sticking a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the metaphorical treehouse door.

So much of what used to be subculture, counter-culture, is now mainstream. An inside joke is only an inside joke if there’s someone on the outside who doesn’t get it. And if putting the time and energy into learning one of these “languages” becomes sufficiently popular, in order to preserve its status as a sufficiently insular group, the “accessible to anybody” clause has to go.

If too many people want in, the logic is that someone has to keep at least some of them out — so a number of individuals have appointed themselves gatekeepers. They are doing their best, but it’s not really working. The audience for nerd culture is far wider than teenage boys. We’re here, and we’re demanding things — representation, a seat at the table. Changing things. “Ruining” them, to paraphrase countless voices I have encountered both online and in real life.

But the thing is, it’s not really a battle of the sexes either, not fundamentally. The boy/girl fault line is far from the only one at the center of these battles; I just chose it because I thought it would be the example with which most readers would already be familiar. As I’ve said before, it’s an inside vs. outside thing.

When it comes to inside jokes, sharing them weakens their power. Extend the circle wide enough and it dilutes it to the point where you worry it might disappear.

I actually kind of get where the impulse to resist seeing that development take place comes from, even though I generally hate the forms the actions resulting from such impulses take. Because on a more important level, even attempting to gate-keep or qualify or exclude is hugely contrary to what so much of “nerd” culture stems from — being a refuge for people who felt excluded from other groups, a place where outcasts feel included.

Ready Player One turns the concept of a pop-culture Easter egg hunt — of “nerd fandom,” we might call it — into a competition that can either be won or lost. There are plenty of people in real life who treat it this way, too, but in the real world, there is no James Halliday, no contest. At the end of the day, fandom is about appreciating something and celebrating it, and there are infinitely many ways to do that, and they are all valid. It’s only a win/lose situation if we turn it into one. And then we all lose.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.