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

Entertainment | August 20, 2020

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

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).  

Learning How To Hack

Matthew Broderick. Source: (Eighties Kids).

In order to redesign the film, Lasker and Parkes did their research, interviewing real-life hackers such as John “Captain Crunch” Draper, who discovered that he could use a cereal box whistle to score free phone calls, and David Lewis, an individual who spent much of his time navigating around the extant computer security measures. Of course, computer security was quite primitive then, and, therefore, it was not difficult to get around, as the main character discovers.   

Starting A War

Source: (YouTube)

The two main characters, David Lightman and Jennifer Mack, were played by Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. They are teenagers who are in danger of failing their classes, and David has figured out how to hack into the school computer to change their grades. David, using a land-line modem, begins dialing random numbers in Sunnyvale, California, to find the number of a computer gaming company. He finds the gaming company's server, but in addition to poker and chess there are games with more ominous titles -- notably, "Global Thermonuclear War." He doesn't know it, but he's stumbled upon the war simulation software of WOPR (War Operation Plan Response). Eventually, David figures out that the password is Joshua, the name of the deceased son of the WOPR creator. Once he hacks into the system, the computer asks him “Shall we play a game?” a seemingly innocuous invitation to play one of the games listed. Chess, Poker, Global Thermonuclear War -- which would you choose?

As Easy As Pushing A Button

Source: IMDB

David does not realize that the WOPR does not distinguish between games and reality, and that his seemingly innocent request starts the “game” of Global Thermonuclear War, which U.S. military computers at NORAD report as a real attack by the Soviet Union. Believing the U.S. is facing annihilation, the U.S. missile control apparatus prepares to launch a real counterattack.

Tic Tac Toe Saves The Day

Source: (War Games Wiki-Fandom)

When David finds out what is about to happen, he joins Jennifer, and the two track down Dr. Falken, a character supposedly based on Stephen Hawking (to the point that Falken was originally supposed to have a motorized wheelchair), and try to convince him to return to society to stop the end of the world. They foil the computer, not by changing the directive, or by turning off the power, but with tic tac toe, a game that is virtually unwinnable. As the computer says in one of the final lines of the film: "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"  

Some Didn't Believe It Was Plausible

Source: (IMDb)

Lasker and Parkes had a difficult time finding a studio to produce it because executives thought it was science fiction. However, around that time, a news story emerged about how the U.S. falsely believed it was under attack by the Soviet Union; a very realistic simulation tape had been left in the computer by a technician and had accidentally been broadcast to the warning centers.   

Coming Close To Nuclear War, Really

Source: (IMDb)

This was not the first time that the world came frighteningly close to nuclear war, either due to human error, computer issues, or oddly enough, a group of swans. In fact there have been at least 22 close calls, and, in 1958, a plane accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb in South Carolina; luckily it lacked its core, but even without it, it caused damage to nearby buildings and created a crater. In 1980, a close call similar to the one in WarGames occurred, when the undersecretary of defense under President Jimmy Carter received a call informing him that the computers found 200 Soviet missiles were headed towards the U.S. However, this was a computer error. They later discovered that the computer error was caused by a faulty chip that cost a dollar to replace.  

Real Fear Becomes Real Policy

Reagan, one of the movie's fans. Source: (Wikipedia)

Ronald Reagan was a fan of the film, which he viewed at Camp David during opening weekend. Reagan stopped a meeting regarding nuclear negotiations with the Soviets so he could summarize the film and question the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the plausibility of it. Reagan, understanding that this could be a legitimate scenario, then signed a national security directive, “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Informations Security,” a year later.

The movie lives on in other ways. The world’s largest computer hacking conference is called DEF CON, a reference to the film. In War Games, DEFCON refers to the "Defense Readiness Condition" threat alert level used in the film. "DEFCON 1," which indicates a state of war, has entered the vernacular as a phrase meaning a state of emergency.

Tags: 1980s Movies | Ally Sheedy | Matthew Broderick | Nuclear War | Ronald Reagan | The Cold War | WarGames

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!