Wargames: finest geek movie ever

Wired's got a long, loving feature on the cultural significance of War Games, perhaps the greatest geek movie of all time, a film that inspired a generation of hackers and nerds. They interviewed a wide variety of nerds, hackers, and some of the original filmmakers for the piece.

Peter Schwartz, Futurist and creative consultant: I spent 10 years at the Stanford Research Institute, from 1972 to the end of 1981. That's where all this began. Walter and Larry came to SRI with a script idea called The Genius. And it was about a boy and a relationship he had with a great scientist named Falken, who was basically Stephen Hawking.

Lasker: For me, the inspiration for the project was a TV special Peter Ustinov did on several geniuses, including Hawking. I found the predicament Hawking was in fascinating – that he might one day figure out the unified field theory and not be able to tell anyone, because of his progressive ALS. So there was this idea that he'd need a successor. And who would that be? Maybe this kid, a juvenile delinquent whose problem was that nobody realized he was too smart for his environment. That resonated with Walter. So I said, let's actually go talk to people about how a kid could get in trouble and get discovered by a brainy scientist and take it from there.

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  1. This is my only claim to fame in life…from the movie War Games.
    In one of the scenes of the movie at NORAD there is the huge door that leads inside. As the camera pans there is a yellow line on the ground showing where the door opens out to. Well, my dad (years ago) worked as the guard at that door in real life and had them paint that line on the floor. He says groups of people would stand too close and he would have to ask the people to move back. So, thanks to my dad, there is a line on the floor at NORAD. How is that for a geeky story?

    You can read my blog at http://www.cotterhome.com/site/Dad_Blog/Dad_Blog.html

    Choix Du Jour

  2. Ooh! And just in time for 2008’s straight-to-video War Games: The Dead Code.

    I wonder, are Wired and BoingBoing secretly or unwittingly carrying out viral marketing campaigns? Oh, wait. Different B-movie franchise. On second though, maybe not.

    Hmm…

    Jeez, after 2008’s straight-to-video Lost Boys: The Tribe it’s so hard to tell anymore.

  3. I hate War Games. Why, you ask? Because my parents wouldn’t let me have a modem until I got to college because of that damned film.

  4. You are not lying. This movie still rocks. I have a little Yahoo desktop widget that periodically plays wav files of Joshua (AKA WOPPR) saying amusing things.
    Good times!

  5. This is one of my all-time favorites, has been since I was way little. Even the damn soundtrack, the piece of music they play over the credits is my favorite piece of music in the world. I dunno what kinda otaku that makes me, but it’s pretty damn up there.

    Not sure about this sequel jive.

  6. It really bothered me that WOPR was supposedly able to break the launch code one character at a time. No way! As I tried to tell my friends, even a human being like me could easily break a code if that were permitted. “Is the first digit a 1?” “Is the first digit a 2?” And so on. You’d have the first digit in a few seconds. Then move on to the next one. Easy!

    No, I’m not going to say it ruined the movie for me. It was a nice dramatic device to have WOPR grinding out the launch code one digit at a time, and it had its desired effect on most of the movie audience. But I was gnashing my teeth just the same. Bogus!

    Halfway There

  7. You know, it’s canon that after David Lightman averts World War III, the government places him in the same program Prof. Falken was in, and relocates him to a foster family in the Chicago suburbs, under the assumed name Ferris Bueller.

    How do you think he was able to change the number of his absences? Is Ferris Bueller not the archtypical social engineer?

  8. i was blown away to read that they were in talks with john lennon to play the character of falken, but in looking at the the tone and viewpoint of the character, and the actor they eventually used, i can totally see it. that would have been really, really amazing.

  9. @Zeno

    Have you ever seen a statistical-based attack like the infamous WEP key crack? In there, a stream of data is scanned and the most statistical provable hex digits “pop-out” one by one. So it might not be guessing/brute-forcing, but rather finding the content from an encripted source.

    Just in case, I just checked the script. Professon Falken says “Joshua’s trying to find the right codes so he can launch the missiles himself” but then is explained that it’s sending random numbers as codes to the silos. So I’m wrong as far as that goes – but don’t think of it as an totally impossible method.

  10. And if WOPR was as bored as I am at work right now, it also could be using the random codes as a “picklock” method of figuring out the correct digits, for example measuring the time between when the password is entered and the system rejects it, timing how many cycles it took. If you knew the underlying machine code, you could time how far it went into the decription before returning the error, and derive a mathematical proof for numbers that are more likely to work out than others.

  11. Little white boy saves the universe.

    Again
    and
    again
    and
    again.

    Pipenta, you need to watch more monster movies.

    Little yellow boy named Kenny (Crow: “what is this Japanese fascination with the name Kenny?!”) saves the universe, possibly with the help of a giant moth or rocket-powered turtle.

    Again
    and
    again
    and
    again.

    –Charlie

  12. oooh. and It’s also playing at the moolah theatre in st. louis on the weekend after next? they haven’t posted show times yet but I did see it on the moolah midnight brew and view schedule the last time I was there.

  13. It’s not Wargames and it’s not War Games, it’s WarGames. (First use of CamelCaps?)

    Ha! I was just about to make the same pedantic comment!

  14. Awful movie. The only attachment I feel to WarGames come from the awesome Colecovision game and the fact that I look just like Malvin.

    Well…I wish I looked like him… Then I’d spend my days looking at a mirror, getting lost in my own eyes. Sigh

  15. God, this movie used to make my little nerd heart beat faster. I wanted a cute boyfriend who could hack into NORAD, too.

  16. @ Aaron T:

    Yes, but Wargames: The Dead Code, according to IMDB is also known as WarGames 2: The Dead Code.

    Explain that, FancyPants.

    Or maybe you’d prefer Mr. FancyTheComputerWoreTennisShoes! OK, sorry.

  17. Sheesh, why is it that every ’80s pop culture artifact I thought was stupid trash is now revered as “classic” and “influential”? Is it because the people doing the revering were just little kids at the time and couldn’t tell shit from shinola?

    I saw WarGames back then (circa age 20, having been a personal computer hacker since age 13) and found it embarrassingly lame. It has no verisimilitude at all; the details of the PC technology were completely wrong. It’s obvious that no one in charge of the film cared about accuracy, or had even used a computer.

    Moreover, the big moral lesson is both heavy-handed and obvious. “The only way to win is not to play.” That’s really deep, duuude. It’s like someone whose understanding of computers was based on watching old Star Trek episodes, then went and read the first chapter of some book on game theory and had a revelation…

    Why not praise “Real Genius” instead? Yes, another crappy ’80s geek movie, but this one had a few things going for it, like a fairly accurate (if parodic) depiction of life at a genuine geek university [Caltech], a hot young Val Kilmer, and his totally hot hyperactive she-geek neighbor Jordan.

    I actually can’t think of any *good* ’80s geek movies. It seemed to take until about the late ’90s before we got filmmakers who were computer-literate and could depict the subculture realistically.

  18. FACC33, my situation is analogous. This was the movie that convinced me that if I could code I would get the hot girl. At the time, in exactly those terms.

  19. All War Games ever did was annoy me –
    “REAL computers don’t do that!”
    But then I have been using computers since 1972, when I was 12.

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