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WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars

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WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars
It was the year Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire"; the year the United Nations implored the Russians to withdraw from Afghanistan; the year ABC aired The Day After, a TV movie about the wake of a nuclear attack on the US. In the midst of all this came WarGames, a fizzy little thriller about looming Armageddon. It's a deceptively simple story: High schooler David Lightman (played by 21-year-old Matthew Broderick) is a digitally proficient goofball who wants to play an unreleased computer game — and impress a pretty girl (Ally Sheedy). So he does something most Americans didn't have a word for back then: He starts hacking. Little does he know, the "computer company" he's infiltrated is actually a military installation running a missile-command supercomputer called the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), and the game — Global Thermonuclear War — is real. Naturally, only David can stop it from setting off World War III.
Over the years, WarGames has written itself into the cult lore of Silicon Valley. Google hosted a 25th-anniversary screening in May, where keyboard jockeys cheered Broderick's DOS acrobatics. (Imagine Rocky Horror, but picture the audience in Hawaiian shirts and mandals.) "Many of us grew up with this movie," Google cofounder Sergey Brin told the packed house. "It was a key movie of a generation, especially for those of us who got into computing."
The original WarGames theatrical trailer.
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WarGames: The Dead Code attempts a reboot.
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How did WarGames become the geek-geist classic that legitimized hacker culture, minted the nerd hero — and maybe even changed American defense policy? Related question: Shall we play a game?
In 1979, Walter Parkes, the future head of DreamWorks Pictures, was a young screenwriter with the outlines of an idea he'd developed with Lawrence Lasker, a script reader at Orion Pictures. Called The Genius,it was a character film about a dying scientist and the only person in the world who understands him — a rebellious kid who's too smart for his own good. The idea of featuring computers and computer networks would come later.
Walter Parkes, Screenwriter: WarGames is looked upon as technologically prescient, but we actually started off with a concept that had nothing to do with technology.
Lawrence Lasker, Screenwriter: We were complete newbies. In 1979, we didn't even know that home computers could hook up to other computers.
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.
Parkes: Before our conversation, the Falken character was just a way to access the adult side of the movie. It wasn't even much about computers yet.
Schwartz made the connection between youth, computers, gaming, and the military — and The Genius began its long morph into WarGames.
Schwartz: There was a new subculture of extremely bright kids developing into what would become known as hackers. SRI was in Palo Alto, and all the computer nerds were around: Xerox PARC, Apple just starting — it was all happening right there. SRI was node number two of the Internet. We talked about the fact that the kinds of computer games that were being played were blow-up-the-world games. Space war games. Military simulations. Things like Global Thermonuclear War. SRI was one of the main players in this. SRI was, in fact, running computerized war games for the military.
Screenshot: Courtesy MGM


In the summer of 1980, Parkes and Lasker went looking for inspiration for their war room set. They found it when they pestered their way onto a tour of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's central nerve center — 2,000 feet under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. From here, American and Canadian military officials could detect an incoming Soviet nuke from hundreds of miles away.
Lasker: As we're walking back to the bus that's going to take us to the hotel, James Hartinger [then commander in chief of Norad] walks up between me and Walter and plants a hand on the back of our necks: "I understand you boys are writing a movie about me!" he says. "Let's go to the bar." Walter says: "Well, we have to get on the bus to go back to our hotel." And Hartinger replies: "Are you insane? I've got 50,000 men under my command. You think I can't get you back to your hotel? Plus, I can't drink off the base. So c'mon." He was all for the message in our script. We kind of simplified it to "machines are taking over." He said, "God damn, you're right! I sleep well at night knowing I'm in charge." So we based General Beringer, played by Barry Corbin, on the real commander at Cheyenne Mountain.
Parkes: We came up with a number of different military-themed plotlines prior to the final story. In one version, this kid was connected via computer to someone known as Uncle Ollie, or OLI. Later on, it's revealed that OLI stands for Omnipresent Laser Interceptor, a space-based defensive laser, and it's got this intelligent program running it. This was another version of what the WOPR became. We could never make it work, but I remember doing quite a lot of research into space- and Earth-based laser systems. It turned out to be too speculative, not as specific as what we decided on.
David Scott Lewis, Solar-tech entrepreneur and model for David Lightman: Hacking was easy back then. There were few if any security measures. It was mostly hackers versus auditing types. The Computer Security Institute comes to mind. I would read all of their materials and could easily find ways around their countermeasures. The part in the movie showing David Lightman perusing the library to find Falken's backdoor password, "Joshua," is clearly a reference to many of my antics.
Lasker: David Lewis wasn't exactly the inspiration. But he was a model. You could call him up in the middle of the night and ask, "Can you get a computer to play games with itself?" And he'd say, "Yes! Number of players: zero."
Screenshot: Courtesy MGM


Parkes: There was a guy named "Captain Crunch," John Draper. He was the famous phone phreak, one of the first telephone hackers. He was called Captain Crunch because he used a toy whistle given away in the cereal to activate a telephone trunk line, enabling him to make unlimited free calls.
John "Captain Crunch" Draper, Early hacker and reformed phone phreak: I talked to them about how phone phreaks did it: The use of a dialer scanner program came from me repeatedly dialing up numbers until I found a computer modem. It's called wardialing now because David Lightman used it in the movie to make contact with the Norad computer. I called it scanning.
Kevin "The Condor" Mitnick, Early hacker who served five years in prison for computer-related crimes: Scanning was a common hacking technique. But it seemed like something from a James Bond movie.
In early '82 , the script grew so ambitious that the filmmakers needed to build the Hollywood version of Norad's Crystal Palace command center. Universal Pictures began to balk at the prospect of shooting a tech-heavy movie its executives didn't fully understand. The project stalled and ended up at United Artists, where director Martin Brest was hired. He began making changes in the script, starting with the key character, Falken.
Lasker: I still wish we'd been able to stick with the original dying-astrophysicist character. It was Marty Brest who didn't like the idea of a man in a wheelchair in a war room, because it was too much like Dr. Strangelove.
Parkes We always pictured John Lennon, because he was kind of a spiritual cousin to Stephen Hawking.
Lasker: We had communicated with Hawking — not directly. And through David Geffen, we'd communicated with John Lennon, and he was interested in the role. I was writing the first scene where we meet Hawking — Falken — in the movie. He was an astrophysicist in our second draft. I was staring at the cover of the November '80 issue of Esquire, with Lennon on the cover, and describing his face, when a friend of mine — a bit of a jerk — called and said, "You're gonna have to find a new Falken."
They had to find a new director, too; UA wasn't happy with the footage Brest had produced. The studio fired him and called in John Badham, the acclaimed director of Saturday Night Fever.
Geek Goddess

Those eyes. That laugh. Those khakis. For a legion of young WarGames fans, 20-year-old Ally Sheedy was a lust object second only to the Imsai 8080. A quarter century later, Wired caught up with hacker culture's first crush. — Scott Brown

Wired: So it wasn't a love for microprocessors that drew you to this role.
Sheedy: I couldn't make heads or tails of the script. It was easy for me to do the part where she's asking questions.
Wired: What about now?
Sheedy: To be honest, I haven't seen the movie since it came out. It's probably kind of quaint.
Wired: Nowadays, cybercrime might outrank nuclear warfare as a source of collective anxiety. I sometimes feel really at sea with technology. I love email.
Sheedy: All this communicating has created a world where no one's accountable. And I have a 14-year-old daughter, so I worry.
Wired: Wow. You have a 14-year-old daughter. That just set off a wave of cognitive dissonance among the hackers who'd like to hit on you ... Do hackers hit on you?
Sheedy: No, I don't hear so much from hackers. No. No, no, no. I don't. Thankfully. No.
Wired: Just one no would've been fine.


John Badham, Director Leonard Goldberg, the producer, shows me some footage they'd shot — it was a scene with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy going into his bedroom, early in the movie, and he shows her how he can change her grades on his computer. She freaks out and leaves. And I'm looking at this and thinking, "What's wrong here?" Driving home that night, I realized what it was. I stopped the car, found a phone booth, and called Leonard. "I know what the problem is!" I said. "They're not having any fun!" These kids were treating this as if they're involved in some dark and evil terrorist conspiracy. If I could change somebody's grades on the computer, I'd be peeing in my pants with excitement to show it to some girl. And the girl would be excited about it! I wasn't taking the point of view that there was something wrong with this guy.
Parkes: There was such a myth that we were all subject to, that personal computing would lead to a generation of disconnected loners who stayed in their rooms. But it actually led to social networking of a kind we've never seen before. The David Lightman character we first wrote was an edgier character than the one that Matthew portrayed. The final version was edgy enough but in a slightly more playful way.
Schwartz: The first thing on his mind was impressing the girl: "I'm changing your biology grade!" He was more about that than the art of hacking. The two computer nerds he goes to visit, Malvin and Jim (played by Eddie Deezen and Maury Chaykin), are much more in the mold of the conventional hacker.
Eddie Deezen, Actor [New Yorker film critic] Pauline Kael said that I was the first computer nerd of film, and since then nobody has ever challenged me.
To ensure accuracy, Badham invited a small army of computer whizzes on set.
Badham: You could get all the hacker geekiness you wanted just by standing on the set. We were dealing with things like when Matthew sits at the computer, we've got an actor who can't even type. I'd say, "No, I just really want him to type in 'David' and have him get on." They said, "No! You can't do that! You have to go through all these elaborate sequences!" I said, "No, we're not doing that. Audiences will have left the theater by the time he logs into the computer one time."
Draper: I was taken down to the set as a technical assistant. I don't really believe that there were any technical glitches — the fact that you can find a game company by scanning for phone numbers was real. That military computer, the WOPR, on the other hand, was a stupid, crazy thing. That was crazy. That was silly.
Made for $12 million, the movie was released on June 6, 1983. It was a hit, nabbing $80 million at the box office (the fifth-highest total of the year) and three Oscar nominations (for original screenplay, sound, and cinematography). Film critic Roger Ebert described it as "an amazingly entertaining thriller" and "one of the best films so far this year." When the WOPR spoke the movie's penultimate line ("A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"), audiences, unnerved by years of US-Soviet nuclear brinkmanship, spontaneously applauded. And Ronald Reagan did not find the WOPR crazy or silly when he saw the movie at a special Camp David screening during its opening weekend.
Lasker: I arranged that screening. Reagan was a family friend. My parents were in the movie business, and I grew up in Brentwood. We had Saturday night parties, and much the same people came. The Reagans — you could set your watch by them. At 7 o'clock, there they would be — ding-dong!
Days after the screening, wrote Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, Reagan held a closed-door briefing with some moderate members of Congress, wherein he sidetracked discussion of the MX ballistic missile program by bringing upWarGames. Had any of them seen the film? he asked, then launched into an animated account of the plot. "Don't tell the ending," cautioned one of the lawmakers.
Parkes: I remember the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock was at three minutes to midnight. The timing of it all was really interesting.
William Lord, Commander, Air Force Cyberspace Command: It was a great movie! A few years later, I was an executive officer with the Air Force Space Command stationed at Norad near Cheyenne Mountain. And I'm wondering, "Gee, where can we get such cool-looking displays?" It was a good forcing function. It required us to all of a sudden say, "If it really can look like this, why doesn't it?"
Poster art: Courtesy MGM


WarGames had its most indelible influence on hacker culture, not defense policy. The Cold War was ending, but the cyberwar was just getting started. The year after the movie's release saw the debut of 2600 magazine — a hacker zine named after the 2600-Hz tone Draper used to phreak phones. In 1993, the first hacker convention opened its doors. It was (and is) called Defcon, an affectionate nod to the movie that helped popularize the term. But WarGames' legacy isn't all smileys and Sunday wardrives. This was Silicon Valley's Jaws, doing for the digital demimonde what Spielberg's thriller had done for sharks: It introduced the world to the peril posed by hackers.
Mitnick: That movie had a significant effect on my treatment by the federal government. I was held in solitary confinement for nearly a year because a prosecutor told a judge that if I got near a phone, I could dial up Norad and launch a nuclear missile. I never hacked into Norad. And when the prosecutor said that, I laughed — in open court. I thought, "This guy just burned all his credibility." But the court believed it. I think the movie convinced people that this stuff was real. They tried to make me into a fictional character.
Parkes: Between John's instinct and Matthew's interpretation, Lightman ended up being a more accessible, real kid. We didn't know it at the time — we went into this researching hackers — but we probably drew a picture of a gamer. I mean, look at the line "I wanna play those games."
Lewis: In those days, there were no blackhats or whitehats. I didn't do anything too serious. Just wanted to see what I could get away with. Just like in the movie.
Parkes: If there's something naive about the movie, it's that we didn't anticipate the power of hackers. For the handful of people who ended up doing things like unleashing viruses, well, most of those guys got arrested and then worked for the computer security business. So I guess it's all worked out.
Mitnick: It was a cool script, and Lightman becomes the hero. He was just doing it for fun. Today people aren't doing it for the fun. I was an old-school hacker, doing it for intellectual curiosity. It was more innocent. Trying to find a cool game to play and accidentally stumbling across a game that was for real.
Contributing editor Scott Brown (scott_brown@wired.com) wrote about the new Batman movie in issue 16.07. Additional reporting by David Downs.


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