How WarGames Paved the Way for Silicon Valley
By Nick Nadel
With its depiction of a teenage computer whiz (Matthew Broderick) who nearly causes World War III, moviegoers got an early glimpse of hacker subculture.
For anyone who grew up during the 1980s, the Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy thriller WarGames is a potent flashback to the days of video arcades, bulky personal computers, dial-up modems and Cold War paranoia. And through its depiction of a teenage computer whiz (Broderick) who unwittingly accesses a military supercomputer and nearly causes World War III, moviegoers got an early glimpse of hacker subculture.
When WarGames was released in June of 1983, the home computer market was booming. Time Magazine named the personal computer its “Machine of the Year,” while Apple was hard at work on their Macintosh system that would revolutionize the industry in 1984. Meanwhile, teenagers pumped quarters into video game machines like Galaga, the space shooter that David Lightman (Broderick) plays at the beginning of WarGames. David’s bedroom PC and modem set-up (completely foreign to his out-of-touch parents) reflected the youth-friendly tech boom at the time, while the geeky duo who advise David on how to find a computer’s “backdoor” were proto versions of the tech savvy types you’d find today at the Apple Genius Bar. (Malvin, the socially awkward hacker memorably played by Eddie Deezen, would be right at home sharing coding tips with the Silicon Valley gang.)
To achieve this accuracy, screenwriters Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker did their homework on the tech geek world, consulting with Willis Ware, a computer security expert who had worked for the RAND Corporation. Ware offered the scribes tips on the plausibility of David accessing a government computer through “demon dialing,” an early hacking technique that involved calling random modems in order to gain access to a vulnerable network.
With WarGames bringing computer hacking into the mainstream, one viewer in particular took the notion of a random teenager breaking into America’s nuclear defense system very seriously. As revealed in The New York Times, President Ronald Reagan took in a screening of WarGames at Camp David soon after the film’s release. Alarmed by the prospect of a lone computer hacker taking control of military software, Reagan asked his national security advisors if what the film depicted was actually possible. The president’s fears lead to the enactment of the National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security in 1984, the first presidential directive for cybersecurity.
Viewed today, WarGames is a retro blast thanks to John Badham’s tense direction, a smart Oscar-nominated screenplay and strong performances from Broderick, Sheedy, Dabney Coleman and the rest of the cast. While David and Jennifer (Sheedy) using a computer to book bogus plane tickets and change their grades may seem quaint, the film paved the way for everything from The Matrix to Silicon Valley. And in the age of Russian hackers and Siri, an artificial intelligence program that controls nuclear missiles being compromised isn’t all that far-fetched. 35 years later, the WOPR’s famous query to David (“Shall we play a game?”) is even more spine-tingling.