A Short History of Video Game Secrets and Bonus Features

Sometimes obscene and sometimes insane, we’ve come a long way from “Pong.”

March 28, 2018 5:00 am
A young man plays Grand Theft Auto IV on the game's day of release on April 29, 2008 in London, England. (Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
A young man plays Grand Theft Auto IV on the game's day of release on April 29, 2008 in London, England. (Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Dana White is many things: Ultimate Fighting Championship President, absurdly rich fellow (estimates suggest he received $360 million from the 2017 sale of the UFC to WME-IMG) and master of the public feud, including one with his own mother. He is not, however, a fighter. He used to box but not professionally—unless being a “boxercise” instructor makes you a pro—and has never competed in mixed martial arts.

Nevertheless, the 48-year-old is now available as a downloadable character in the EA Sports UFC 3 video game with inexplicably high Fighter Rankings. (Though by no means the highest—if you’re going to present a middle-aged executive as a legit contender, why not go all in on the joke and make him unbeatable?)


In many ways, this makes sense. UFC video games also feature Bruce Lee (who died 20 years before the promotion was founded) and have been known to let you unlock Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. It’s all part of the rich tradition of secrets and bonus features that suddenly shatter the “reality” in which you’ve been playing and remind you it’s all a game. Here’s how we got these surprises and where they’re going.

Getting Started. The development of the video gaming computer owes much to the parlor game Nim, in which two players remove objects from a pile, with the goal of being the one taking the last item. In 1940, the “Nimatron” was displayed at the New York World’s Fair. In 1951, the more advanced “Nimrod” was revealed. Both reportedly impressed those who played them, but neither exactly took over the world. (After all, today most of us have no idea what “Nim” even is.)

In 1958, the physicist William Higinbotham revealed Tennis for Two. While the graphics were understandably basic, it did give users a sense of playing tennis. It’s also quite reminiscent of a future title that would show there was money to be made off these efforts.


Atari Arrives. Atari had a knack for making video game innovations commercially viable. In 1972, Atari’s Pong arrived in arcades. (And yes, this did seem a lot like Tennis for Two only even simpler— at least in that game, your shots could curve.)

Pong’s success led Atari to wager that gamers would want to play it outside of the arcades. In 1975, Atari’s Pong home version was introduced and, like the arcade edition, proved a keeper.

In 1977, they took the next logical step with the Atari Video Computer System (also known as the Atari 2600), which let you swap out games.


And in establishing their dominance over their competitors and even their own employees, Atari paved the way for the initial Easter Egg.

The Personal Touch. The Guardian describes video game Easter Eggs as “the hidden jokes, japes and sneaky references” that have become “a staple of video game design” for players to hunt down, much as children look for Easter eggs. The first one might not have occurred if Atari had treated Warren Robinett with a bit more consideration. At age 26, Robinett created the game Adventure in 1979 for the Atari 2600 console, programming it entirely himself. He is credited as being largely responsible for showing the world of a video game could go beyond a single screen. (His 30 rooms were a massive innovation for gamers still used to Pong.)

Adventure even included a secret room that was difficult to reach, which contained text reading, “CREATED BY WARREN ROBINETT.”

Decades later, Robinett told Wired he felt entitled to the private signature, noting that while “Adventure sold a million units at $25 apiece,” he personally received “a $22K a year salary, no royalties, and they never even forwarded any fan mail to me.” (Nor was he allowed to sign his work officially.)


Robinett remains vital to gaming because he showed:

-Games could indeed be intricate enough to contain secrets. (Seriously, good luck concealing stuff in Pong.)

-If you hide it, devoted fans will eventually track it down.

Codes and Cheating. As video games grew more complicated, testing them became more time-consuming. Needing shortcuts during development, designers started adding cheat codes. Now they could swiftly advance in a game to ensure everything was playable. Cheat codes were often left in the final product both to ensure last-minute glitches could be addressed and to avoid the risk that, in changing the code to remove them, a mistake would be made that damaged the game in some way. (For that matter, in the frenzy to make a deadline, removing cheat codes was pretty low on the priority list.)

Players invariably discovered and shared cheats. (And yes, the Internet has seen extensive debates on the ethical implications of using such codes.) When the company Konami found a cheat was boosting the popularity of their game Gradius (first released in 1985), they chose to embrace it. In fact, they made it usable in other Konami games. More manufacturers embraced the practice, recognizing a cheat could be a selling point.

In 2002, the G4 Network was launched. Focused largely on video games, one of their first shows was called simply Cheat!

Worlds Unlocked. Between cheat codes and Easter Eggs, suddenly video games offered a tremendous amount of stuff to discover. Some of it became increasingly surreal. By 1995, NBA Jam let you unleash the hardwood duo of Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Lest you think there was a political bias, they made Sarah Palin playable in 2010.)


At the same time, video games were offering some increasingly adult options. By “adult,” we mean “icky.” 2004’s The Guy Game was “based around the insanity that is Spring Break” and described by one critic as a “chance to watch dumb women take their tops off.” It’s downright empowering compared to 2006’s RapeLay, a notorious Japanese game that let you do pretty much what the title suggests. (The “justification” is that a teen has falsely accused you, leading you to seek revenge on her and her female relatives.)

While these titles were extreme outliers, video game Easter Eggs, in general, became increasingly naughty and creepy. Beyond this, fans developed the ability to engage in modifying or “modding” versions of video games.

One celebrated game series wound up combining these trends: It explored content that pushed the limits of the socially acceptable and it discovered that fans could take ownership of a title in an unexpected way. The result was a controversy that registered well beyond the normal gaming world.

Hot Coffee. The initial Grand Theft Auto title was released in 1997. 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III was the first to draw wide critical acclaim for its open world design that makes drifting through the game often more fun than actually carrying out missions. As the series continued, it exploded in popularity: Guinness World Records honored 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V for selling 11.21 million units in just 24 hours, generating $815.7 million. It cracked a billion on day three. (To put this figure in perspective, the biggest worldwide opening of a motion picture ever is The Fate of the Furious, which generated $541.9 million over its debut weekend.)


Grand Theft Auto prided itself on pushing boundaries. (Some games in the series allow you to solicit prostitutes then kill them and take back your money.) Even so, the plan to feature multiple fairly graphic sex acts in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was jarring. This would require a shift in the game’s rating from “Mature” to “Adults Only.” (Which would stop most retailers from carrying the game—back in 2004, relying on exclusively online sales was still an unnerving prospect.)

Ultimately, GTA decided they couldn’t risk featuring this content—but there wasn’t time to remove it, either. As Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser noted in an email, “We locked it away because there was no other way to get the game done on time – safely… The impact of yanking something late is too scary.”

Thus it went out in the world, where modders began to explore the codebase and discover animation files named after sexual acts. With the arrival of the computer version, they unlocked two mini-games within the world of GTA that were supposed to have been safely sealed off. (Both involved the male main character becoming intimate with women—neither featured explicit nudity, but they were understandably alarming to parents raised on Pac-Man.)

Soon modders revealed on message boards how to unlock the content (which was dubbed “Hot Coffee” after a euphemism for sex within the game). Word quickly spread through the mainstream media as this “Mature” title was suddenly deemed unacceptable for children. In no time retailers like Wal-Mart were yanking it off their shelves.

Rockstar’s parent company ultimately paid over $20 million to settle a class-action suit.

Today’s Secrets. Quite simply, there aren’t any. Not for long, anyway. Whereas codes and Easter Eggs might have once been limited to hardcore fans who purchased gaming magazines, now the Internet allows everything to be shared instantly with everyone.

Likewise, with gaming consoles connecting online, it’s now possible for companies to use system updates and game patches to close down cheats they don’t want shared. They can also combat cheating by banning users or, more amusingly, attacking them with a cow monster. (At least, that was Witcher 3‘s approach.)

Unsurprisingly, Cheat! went off the air in 2009. (Why wait for a show to give you tips when you can Google them?) G4 itself ceased to exist in 2012. Today, that network is likely best remembered as the launch pad for Olivia Munn, who went on to play the X-Men franchise’s Psylocke (and draw a large amount of attention for a relationship with Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers). Munn has spoken fondly of her time on G4 but says she had no idea how anything like it could exist today, since if anyone expects “gamers and geeks” to pay for content, “they’ll find a way to hack it and download it for free.”


And this ability to hack and alter means games now can go in places even the most daring designers never considered.

Who Controls Content? This is a golden age for those with a taste for gaming absurdity. EA may have been feeling a little nutty when they added the fighter Dana White, but they can’t touch the madness of the modder who brought Ronald McDonald into the Octagon. (And yes, there are serious legal issues being raised by fans’ fondness for taking trademarked characters and plonking them into other trademarked properties.) And Space Invaders seems even simpler.

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