Artificial Intelligence History

WarGames Movie – 1983 AD

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Lawrence Lasker (b. 1949), Walter F. Parkes (b. 1951), John Badham (b. 1939)

WarGames was the movie that transformed the computer nerd into a hero. A blockbuster starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, the movie follows high school hacking whiz David Lightman, who almost starts World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union when he breaks into a military supercomputer and challenges it to a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

During an online troll for free video games, David unwittingly breaks into a North American Air Defense (NORAD) system that controls the entire US nuclear arsenal (using a back door left by the original programmer, of course). Believing he has found a way to sneak through the back door of a toy company’s network, he challenges the computer to play a game that can be “won” only by not playing at all. Only after targeting Las Vegas and Seattle with Soviet missiles does David realize the game is real and the computer he is playing against has taken matters into its own hands as it escalates the crisis in an attempt to “win” the game.

The movie left such an impression on President Ronald Reagan that he asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John W. Vessey Jr., if it really was possible to break into sensitive US government computers. After investigating the plausibility of such a scenario, the general came back with his answer: “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.” Not long after that, US lawmakers published the Computers at Risk report, which established the beginning of the US defensive computer security program.

Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, and directed by John Badham, WarGames left an impact on generations of future coders, many of whom went on to work in Silicon Valley—where, in 2008, Google held a 25th-anniversary screening. The movie’s legacy has lived on with computer hackers as well—for example, the name of the famous Las Vegas hackers’ convention DEFCON is an homage to the film.

SEE ALSO SAGE Computer Operational (1958)

Poster from the movie WarGames, written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, and directed by John Badham.

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