By David Konow
September 15, 2008
"Shall We Play a Game?"
In the late spring of 1983, a little-know movie hit the big screen and
introduced audiences to a new world of technology filled with things
that audiences had never heard of before: Hackers. Artificial
intelligence. Supercomputers. Firewalls. Backdoor passwords. War
dialing. Defcon. And of course, an interesting simulation called Global
When "WarGames" arrived during the height of the Cold War, it combined
cutting edge computer technology with a modern military thriller. The
concept was simple enough: a bright high school student accidentally
accesses a military supercomputer supercomputer called WOPR (War
Operation Plan Response) and begins playing what he thinks is a game.
Except it's not, and soon he discovers that the "game" he's playing may
very well trigger World War III with the Soviet Union. Directed by John
Badham ("Saturday Night Fever," "Blue Thunder") and starring Matthew
Broderick as the iconic high school computer whiz David Lightman,
"WarGames" became a sleeper hit and took American audiences, largely
unfamiliar with computers and high-tech, by storm. Consider how
Broderick's character had an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer that he connected
to a modem via an acoustic coupler. "WarGames" was a blockbuster film
about computers before the phenomenon of the personal computer, arriving
before Apple's famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial for the Macintosh.
Few movies have been as influential as "WarGames." The popular hacker
conference Defcon was named after the movie's "DEFCON" system at NORAD
(North American Aerospace Defense Command). The terms "war dialing" and
"war driving" are derived from "WarGames," specifically Lightman
programming his computer to dial every number in Sunnyvale, Calif., in
order to find what he thinks is a new computer game company (it's
actually NORAD's computer system WOPR). The hacker magazine "2600" was
launched the following year after the movie's release and was named in
honor of the 2600-Hz tone used by famous hacker and phone phreaking
pioneer John "Captain Crunch" Draper, who served as a technical advisor
for "WarGames." In fact, screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes
spoke with a number of hackers and security experts and would later
write "Sneakers," another high-tech thriller released in 1992.
In addition to being a box office smash, grossing approximately $80
million in the summer of 1983, "WarGames" became instantly relevant like
no other film at that time. "Wired" magazine referred to the movie as
"Silicon Valley's 'Jaws'" in that it frightened the masses about the
dangers of hackers and AI-controlled weapons. In fact, the movie
immediately caught the attention of former President Ronald Reagan;
reportedly, "WarGames" spooked some legislators in Washington, D.C., who
began to wonder if something like the movie's plot could really happen.
And in fact, later that year the infamous hacker group known as "the
414s" broke into several computer systems, including a U.S. Department
of Defense computer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (you know,
where they perform top secret nuclear weapon research). The incidents
led to Congress passing several anti-hacking laws.
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