The genre films of 1983 focused largely on two subjects. The first was computers and computer video games. And the second was nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
President Reagan’s adviser, Richard Pipes, in 1982, for instance, noted the “probability of nuclear war is forty percent….and our strategy is winnable nuclear war.”
Meanwhile, on February 5, 1981, future Secretary of the Interior James Watt noted to Congress that there might not be "many future generations...before the Lord returns."
When one couples the pervasive rah-rah attitude about waging winnable nuclear war with the apocalyptic Christianist visions of many Administration officials, including Reagan himself -- as was reported in People Magazine in December 1983 (where he explained that the eighties represented the first time in history that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true...) -- one can understand why many Americans, especially young ones, felt very afraid about the future
If men can't act according to human decency and conscience, what are the chances their machines will?
Why engage in a game in which there is no victor?
WarGames loses some impact in 2023 and even seems dull at spots. It’s a good film, to be certain, but I remember seeing it in 1983 and thinking how terribly plausible it all seemed. Watching it this weekend, I was struck by pleasant feelings of nostalgia, but not consumed with excitement or fear.
Hoping to preview a new exciting game from a company called Protovision, high-school student and computer whiz David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into a computer at NORAD, the W.O.P.R. (War Operations Plan Response).
David engages the machine in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, unaware that the game could have catastrophic real life ramifications.
WarGames opens with a frightening scenario. Two military men in a bunker are given the order to launch nuclear missiles and, in essence, destroy 20 million lives.
One man can’t do it. One man can. But without both men on the same page, the missiles don’t fire.
Upon audit of this event, the Army and Administration officials are very upset.
If the President wants to launch a nuclear attack, he can’t have a 22% failure rate because his soldiers have an outbreak of morality over causing mass murder, can he?
In other words, it is better to double down on the concept of winnable nuclear war than to question if global self-destruction and mass murder are actually rational courses of action.
In this movie, there are big screens, little screens, arcade game screens, home computer screens, and wall-sized screens displaying Missile Command-like graphics, not to mention Tic-Tac-Toe playing boards.
Plainly, the idea here is that man has crossed a threshold into a new world, one where computers are at the center of every facet of life, whether it is playing games, booking airline tickets, or waging war. And yes, this observation is prophetic in terms of 1983's understanding of the future. Today, we do all those things by computer on a regular basis, and many of us spend eight-hours a day, five days a week gazing at monitor screens.
|Screens, screens everywhere...|
Or it could be, perhaps more trenchantly, a way of suggesting a shared world. People like David are seen, literally, inside the confines of the computer screens, via their reflections. Have we built "children" that will one day be our equals?
Contrarily, we could ask: do the computers we stare at all day succeed, instead, in “de-humanizing” us, turning matters of life and death into exercises in statistics, percentages and other equations?
What happens to mankind when life-and-death decisions are reduced to math? In examining that question, WarGames is a cautionary tale about handing over too much authority, and ceding too much humanity, to computers.
|Are we reflections of our creations?|
This solution suggests that machines are not really such bad sorts after all, if they can -- like us -- gain practical experience. Fortunately, W.O.P.R. can play a few thousand simulations of Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War in a few minutes and arrive at the conclusion that there is no winning strategy. He just needs to be taught, and humanity needs to teach him.
In many ways, that idea of being “responsible parents” to our technology is more timely today than the nuclear countdown or thriller aspects of WarGames. The technology is different in 2023, but the problem, perhaps, hasn't really changed.
But what’s impossible to convey if you didn’t live through the eighties is just how pervasive the fear of nuclear war was, circa 1980 – 1983. I remember going to sleep almost every night and worrying about nuclear war.
Where would we go to survive? How would we live? What if it happened when I was away at college, and I couldn't re-connect with my family?
These were not remote, intellectual issues for cerebral or dispassionate debate.
As a thirteen year old, these were the thoughts that I ended each day with as I fell into slumber. These thoughts were never far from consciousness, and certainly many films of the era, from the Mad Max trilogy to Dreamscape (1984), from Night of the Comet (1984) to WarGames tapped into this pervasive apocalypse mentality. I can assure you, when I was thirteen years old this John Badham movie had me on the edge of my seat throughout, and I wondered -- and worried -- if today could be doomsday.