It is 1983. The United States and Soviet Union are rattling their nuclear sabers nonstop. Economics being what they are has created a generation of latchkey kids in the U.S. who are quickly growing up way faster than the adults around them can cope with. And affordable computers are starting to make their way into homes across the country, laying the groundwork for a new subculture where technical savvy and a disdain for the rules are the coin of the realm. All of these come together in WarGames, a classic Cold War thriller of the early 80s that draws so closely from the real world around us that the older the movie gets, the scarier it becomes.
David Lightman is a Seattle teenager who is way too smart for his own good. Devoted entirely to computer games and delving deeply into the proto-hacker culture of the day, he fixes his awful grades by hacking his school’s computer. When news of his skills gets out, his classmate (and crush) Jennifer Mack asks him if he could do so on her behalf. David agrees as only a geek with zero social skill can, but as he looks for new ways to impress Jennifer, he stumbles into what appears to be the digital backroom of a computer wargame company. On a lark he chooses one of the options before him—Global Thermonuclear War—and plays a round as the Soviets. Little does he know that he has really accessed WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a new supercomputer that manages the U.S. nuclear arsenal. WOPR has just gone online to automate nuclear weapons deployment, since humans can’t be trusted to hit the launch button when the time comes. But David doesn’t know that WOPR’s various simulation programs aren’t mere computer games, but self-learning routines to better enable WOPR to retaliate against nuclear attack. David’s make-believe nuclear strike prompts WOPR begins to take control of NORAD and starts a nuclear countdown clock that cannot be stopped. David’s a pretty good player of games. But nobody’s so good that they can beat a game that by design cannot be won.
This movie came at an interesting technological junction, before a lot of the digital advances that run our daily lives were even close to mass market access. This was the era of the early 2600 baud underground, and WarGames captures that particular Wild West era with enthusiastic faithfulness, more eager to show off a smarts kid running riot in the system then in trying to reduce cutting-edge telecomputing into terms that your Aunt Mabel can understand. WarGames seems to get that some folks in the audience will never get this tech, so it doesn’t even try to explain. It just hits you with what it can do. And what it can do, in the wrong hands, is pretty frightening.
For a story about preventing accidental nuclear annihilation, WarGames maintains a pretty breezy tone throughout much of its running length as we watch our two teenaged heroes deal with an adult world they have dangerously provoked, but one that is also simply too slow and too clumsy to keep up with its youngsters. WOPR might have been built to fight a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, but for the most part, the deeper conflict here is the young versus the old. The theme surfaces through the struggle to properly implement cutting edge technology, which for decades has been the province of super-enthusiasts and kids with more time on their hands than they know what to do with. But that’s all just a convenient delivery mechanism in this story. Sure, the tech here is weird and bewildering, but hardly more so than the very grown-up mentalities behind it all that have bought into the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The idea that fighting with nuclear weapon is a no-win proposition is a concept that anybody can grasp. And while kids and machines quickly reach the sensible conclusion that a war like this must never be fought, the adults in the room are the ones with their fingers on the triggers. And nobody puts their hands on a nuclear trigger without already having been mesmerized by it.
When this movie game out, the specter of nuclear war had been in the background long enough for people to have gotten used to it. It’s no coincidence that play-until-your-inevitable-doom was a computer game design model that resonated particularly well with an entire generation of kids who never knew a day without the threat of instant destruction. So when we see David’s obsession with computer games of all kinds, sure, it’s part of the Reagan-era arcade culture. But as David contends with WOPR, we see an interest not so much in beating machines but in trying to triumph over that which cannot be escaped, reasoned with, or diverted.
WarGame’s moment of truth comes when David and Professor Falken (WOPR’s creator) distract the supercomputer’s efforts to launch nuclear missiles by playing some tic-tac-toe against itself. As the computer runs through every possible combination of the game, it understands the concept of stalemate, and how it’s the same in a children’s game or in nuclear war. The Finale of WarGames might feel like a Hollywood beat-the-clock scenario, were it not for a curious blurring between art and reality. Just a few months after the movie’s release, the world barely avoided an accidental nuclear exchange when aggressive American psyops, jumpy Soviet commanders and faulty computers pushed the doomsday clock to 11:59:59. Were it not for a single Soviet officer who realized things were not as they seemed, we’d all be scavenging for mushrooms within nuclear ash. That we’d hand the nuclear trigger over to a computer still feels far-fetched. That we’ll reduce ourselves to cinders one day—either by accident or on purpose—does not.