'Shall We Play A Game?' How WarGames Made Us Afraid Of Cold War Computers

By | August 19, 2020

test article image

The 1983 thriller WarGames, starring young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, was not lighthearted teen fare -- in fact, the movie connected several threads of history and culture. Computers, especially home computers like the IBM PC, were becoming commonplace in the early '80s; though their functions were very limited by today's standards, there was a feeling that these could someday be powerful tools that might change our lives. At the same time, the Cold War was still raging, an ever more dangerous game of chicken with the Soviet Union in which both sides had enough nuclear firepower to obliterate all of humanity. WarGames revealed a sinister side of computer automation, showing us a machine that makes life-or-death decisions. Another element of our daily life, hacking and unlawful accessing of digital information, raising the troubling idea that a kid in his bedroom (or, as a contemporary president put it, "a 400-pound guy in his parents' basement") could initiate a global catastrophe. The convergence of real-world technology and the precarious international political balance raised issues that would be with us for the rest of the decade.

The Film Was Not Initially About Dangerous AI

test article image
Inside the war room. Source: (Vimeo)

Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes originally wrote WarGames not as a film about a dangerous AI, but rather about a genius like Stephen Hawking, who had the ability to solve all of the world’s problems, and a teenager who was just trying to find his place in the world. In 1983, the year the film was released, computers were not as ubiquitous as they would become; The New York Times had just purchased their first newsroom computer and computer hacking was still pretty simple. And the Cold War was still a central global concern. After consulting with Peter Schwartz, a futurist at Stanford University, Lasker and Parkes, the writers, reformulated the story to base it around the emergent world of hacking, the home computer, and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command).