The Game of War: WarGames

Home computers, video arcades, and the fear of total annihilation via nuclear war punctuated American culture in the 1980s.  As a cultural artifact, the movie WarGames, released in 1983 and directed by John Badham, reflects such characteristics as it explores the dichotomy between human and machine, the videogame world and “real” world.

In WarGames, David Lightman, a too-cool-for-school teenager “really into” computers, stumbles upon a top-secret government computing system while searching for unreleased video games by the developer Protovision.  After attempting to request logon help, the prompt “help games” grants David and Jennifer (and the viewer) a formal definition of the type of games that the mysterious computer system plays:


Just two kids being kids and (unintentionally) hacking into a government server.

(Side note: such a definition does not apply broadly to games outside the film universe, as this configuration applies to programs falling under the strategy/action genre, like other fighting simulators, exploding missiles, and the desire to win at (hopefully) minimal cost.)

The next command inputted by David brings up a list of such “games” which he may play with and alongside the distant machine:

  • Falken’s Maze
  • Black Jack
  • Gin Rummy
  • Hearts
  • Bridge
  • Checkers
  • Chess
  • Poker
  • Fighter Combat
  • Guerrilla Engagement
  • Desert Warfare
  • Air-To-Ground Actions
  • Theaterwide Tactical Warfare
  • Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare
  • dramatic space – I wonder which game will catch David’s interest?
  • Global Thermonuclear War

This is a surprising list, one which shifts rapidly from seemingly-harmless, classic, casual strategy games to full-scale action games with names that hint at a more serious purpose.  An in-universe explanation for the inclusion of the “seemingly-harmless” games points at games which teach basic strategy – games necessary for the learning computer system to conduct its “serious” simulations. David, driven by his unrelenting “bored high-schooler” attitude, does not seem terribly concerned about the conducts massive scale research in order to communicate with the faraway, mysterious computer and begin a game of Global Thermonuclear War.  In his research, we further see the importance of the inclusion of both “kinds” of games as research into Falken and poker brings up the article Poker and Armageddon: The Role of Bluffing in a Nuclear Standoff, by Stephen Falken with John McKittrick.

In a very basic sense, the technological apparatus required for “Joshua” (the WOPR computer referred to by Falken’s password, with Falken’s son’s name as its nickname), David, and, ultimately, the entire in-universe world of WarGames to “play” the title fightis Joshua it/himself via the various computer access points which characters interact with and within.  However, the scope of the “game” encompasses the entire film in interactive relationships, including posturing both by machines and humans.

A human and his mechanical colleague.

Machines used in gameplay look very much like their 1980s counterparts in the viewer’s gaze.  David’s home computer grotto includes a dial-up system of connection between his computer and others around the country, including his high school and NORAD, a speaker translating text on the screen into a voice, a keyboard to input passwords and commands, and giant floppy disks holding data.  On the other side of the “wargame” exists government machines and systems.  Scenes lush with arrays of computer banks, flashing lights, computer screens, mechanical beeping, screens with massively-pixelated maps and numerical data, and the monolithic WOPR (Joshua) itself – the machine created to play all available wargames based on the state of the world and had fought WWIII time and time again as a serious game – portray authority and importance.  A particularly compelling section of the military apparatus is the missile silo bunker which the viewer sees in direct comparison with the mysterious data on screens.  Characterized by threatening rows of 1980s specification buttons, key turns, heavy-duty bolting doors, and shots of missiles preparing to fire, this environment provides a platform of evaluation as it sobers the viewer to the reality behind Joshua’s positioning and commitment to win the “game” via all necessary means.


This environment displays the liminal conceptual space between machine and human as the debate over human reaction, reason, and response to a crisis permeates the storyline.  A refusal to “turn your key, sir” directly results in the removal of the human element of missile launching, visually enforced by the dramatic removal of bolted-in chairs from the facility.  This later causes problems as Joshua, linked to the missile silos, attempts to launch missiles after the human apparatus tries to cancel the program.  

The Great Escape: NORAD Infirmary Edition

Human interaction and conflict also drive the plot and, therefore, the game, substantially.  The general argues with the scientist, McKittrick, as to the need for human involvement in launching attacks during a crisis.  Their highly-political banter and conflict continue throughout the film, visually and aurally representing (human) brawn versus (computer) brains.  When the government traces the dialing of David’s computer to the WOPR, agents arrest him for espionage and bring him in for questioning.  Posturing ensues between the truthful David and the skeptical McKittrick, their body language and eye contact directly communicating the power struggle between a citizen accused of espionage and the government within which that citizen resides and participates.  In the end, David must resort to spy-like stealth (a la MacGyver survival game) in order to escape NORAD and hop a plane to Goose Island, Oregon in order to convince Dr. Falken to help stop Joshua.

A popular song, also from 1983, that has a similar flavor to WarGames

The original audience of this film existed in an environment of young people excited about the massively-blossoming creation of videogames and older individuals who saw technology as potentially threatening and damaging to both the individual mind and society as a whole.  With the dawn of new technology and creation of new media brought both promise and paranoia in the face of the Cold War and in the debate about human will, reason, and decision-making capability versus the certainty, perceived reliability, and emotionless enactment of orders via machines, particularly within the realm of life-or-death situations.  

David playing Galaga, aka “Games are Serious”

Videogames set the mood, environment, and drive the storyline of this film.  The beginning of the movie shows David at an arcade playing Galaga, a popular fighting arcade game, which is interrupted by the requirement to go to science class.  The desire to play videogames drives the plot as David (unintentionally) hacks his way into the government strategic military apparatus.  In this way, videogames are shown as both fun manifestations of the art of combat yet harmful as the fate of the entire world rested upon stopping a computer engaged in a “game” that could have led to extinction.

Such a cute face…it’s not like he’s going to (unintentionally) destroy the world or anything, baka.

The technology within WarGamesis realistic to a certain extent, but the aforementioned hope of continued progress and paranoia over nuclear war inflated the status of such technology and its capabilities.  The WOPR machine stands as a 2001Space Odyssey-esque monument, with camera panning around the device displaying futuristic, minimalist design.  Additionally, in justifying the continued effort to retaliate against seemingly-invisible bombers, intelligence agents claimed that the alleged aircraft was invisible due to cloaking technology and tracking it would essentially be “chasing shadows.”  Such a tale indicates the possible presence of futuristic technology, yet also may point again to fearing the horrors one cannot see and cannot retaliate against.

Character tropes in this film include the generic annoying nerdy guy (Malvin), the bubblegum love interest (Jennifer), the tough general (General Jack Beringer), the clueless parents (David’s parents), and the edgy secret nerd (David, when he says, exasperated, “I wish I was like everybody else in the world” after he realizes how he’s going to die without ever learning to swim).  The main trope showing the difference between a real world and a game world was the fact that such a boundary didn’t truly exist.  It took the entire movie for all of the government and military people in NORAD to fully realize that the “attacks” were simulations initiated by Joshua, and, after that, the rush to stop its final attempt to launch the computer-controlled missiles was incredibly “real” and involved real-life consequences.  Being human was a problem when the men did not finish the test, but the mechanical relays were a problem once everyone realized that the Soviet launches were not “real.”  Not realizing the boundary between the “real” and the “game”, along with the tricky condition of computers not following the commands humans and humans following commands of a computer made this film murky with entanglements and misunderstandings.

Quotes to ponder:

What is the primary goal? To win the game. (David, Joshua)

Is this a game or is it real?  What’s the difference? (David, Joshua)

The famous quote.

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