In case you've never seen it before, WarGames is about David Lightman, a high school student who's an unmotivated slacker in class but a first-rate computer hacker at home. David's real talent is running automated searches for systems that can be dialed into via phone modem, and then cracking their security. While trying to locate a new video game company's system so he can do his own brand of beta-testing, David unknowingly winds up accessing a computer at NORAD and nearly starts World War III from his bedroom.
A quarter-century later, WarGames still holds up extremely well. Practically all of the technology depicted is now horribly dated (look at the size of those floppies that David is using!) but in spite of that, and perhaps even because of it, WarGames has become a curiously good snapshot of both Cold War bunker mentality and the introduction of computers into civilian life. It is also, I believe, one of the more successful morality tales about the fear of nuclear war: WarGames is not a "political" film as many of the time were. And neither does it make anyone out to be "the good guys" and "the bad guys". The genius of WarGames's longevity is that it wisely adheres to its own lesson: that to win the game, sometimes you have to choose not to play the game at all.
I thought that WarGames also merited mentioning (in addition to it being a terrific film) because of the reaction that it engendered upon its release. With its depiction of teens hacking into school systems to change their own grades, and then breaking into military-grade mainframes and coming a hair's-breadth from nuking the whole planet, WarGames initiated unusual paranoia in the mainstream press about the power of computers. I remember one CBS Evening News report at the time that seriously questioned whether parents should allow their children to access the outside world via their personal computers at home. A magazine article suggested that computer modems be "locked up" just like firearms, to keep them out of the reach of teenagers. I even heard one pundit proclaim that there was no need for regular people to be able to log in to a remote system: that if you need to access your bank account, a friendly teller was just a short drive away.
And Bill Gates once declared that the average person would never have a need for more than 640 kilobytes of memory in a personal computer, too.
Such news stories were very fashionable in 1983, and looking back I think the corporate media unwittingly demonstrated the moral of WarGames. It was an unfounded fear but the press played on it, and it wound up embedding itself into the popular conscience. I know of one friend whose parents were so horrified at the prospect of "accidentally" breaking into an unauthorized computer system, that they didn't buy a computer at all until 1998! After their fears were allayed, they eventually got on the Internet and found that it was a fine thing.
Now to be fair, WarGames was not the first movie about computers going awry and driving mankind toward nuclear apocalypse. 1970's Colossus: The Forbin Project might have been the first to explore the theme, and of course there as also The Terminator. Many will convincingly argue that Dr. Strangelove had them all beat.
But WarGames was different: it wasn't only a computer glitch in a far-removed system or a demented military officer which we had to fear could doom all mankind. After WarGames, we were told that Jack D. Ripper could be anybody.
I don't know if the paranoia was completely without merit, though, but only because of one funny incident that happened to me. In the fall of 1994 I was using my first real computer to dial into various bulletin board systems, and there was one that had just started up in Eden. I tried to dial into it but instead of a computer I heard a voice telling me that "This number is not in service". I changed one digit in the prefix, thinking that maybe it was just the wrong number that I had been given. This time the modem did connect to another one, but the terminal window filled with gibberish. I changed the modem protocol, tried it again... and found that I had dialed into the computer system for the Eden branch of NationsBank (now Bank of America)! What was the first thing that popped into mind? Yup: WarGames. I hit the disconnect button so fast that I can still remember my heart pounding against my rib cage.
A few months after WarGames came out CBS began airing Whiz Kids, about a group of teenagers who built their own supercomputers and used it to solve crimes, and by that time the Great Hacking Scare of 1983 was in full swing. CBS execs were quick to emphasize that what the Whiz Kids characters did could not easily be pulled off in real life (which might have backfired: Whiz Kids had great potential but it was canceled after one season). The fear had pretty much diminished by 1987 when ABC's Max Headroom (a groundbreaking show that I've long thought has never been fully appreciated) came out, but it would still rear its head in the years to come, particularly with movies like 1992's Sneakers and Hackers in 1995. And then the success of Independence Day in 1996 finally turned the tables on the mistrust of computers as a tool. Suddenly hacking was not something that we worried would destroy the world: it could even save the world if it had to.
But for a long time, beginning in those strange days of 1983, there was a hesitancy to reach out and harness the computer: just as early man no doubt originally feared the flame. WarGames clearly announced that the digital fire, originally the province of the technology gods, was now a boon to mere mortals. And with it came a choice: we could use it to build, or to burn.
I like to believe that we have generally chosen the former.
EDIT 4:42 p.m. EST: This post has been Slashdotted! That's three times since this past August that this blog has been featured on Slashdot...
We're also getting lots of visitors today via the post about the DHARMA Initiative snacks, presumably from countries that are either about to start watching Lost Season 4 or are already at the season finale. Welcome to everyone who's found their way to this blog, however it is ya got here :-)
And it has been brought to my attention that Bill Gates apparently did NOT make the statement famously attributed to him about 640K of memory. Which is news to me 'cuz I was hearing that ever since taking C++ programming in college years ago. So I happily stand corrected.