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


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.