1983’s WarGames Provides a Prescient Look at AI

WarGames is a 1983, PG-rated film that inadvertently offered a prescient take on today's emerging concerns about artificial intelligence (AI). AI is on many minds today (is that redundant?), and how it might alter our future entertainment is perhaps the smallest of concerns. But it's certainly one of the most important issues behind the writers' strike currently affecting TV shows, streamed content, and theatrical films.

Many late night TV hosts, for example, are on hiatus, not only in support of the strike but also perhaps because without their behind-the-scenes writers they aren't all that funny (you didn't think they made up all those jokes on the spot, did you?). TV shows and movies scheduled for upcoming release have been delayed. Even the completed Dune Part 2 has been put off until early 2024.

For many, AI conjures visions of robots monitoring your every move as they walk the earth. But that's only one possibility in a more complicated puzzle, and it's unlikely to be the first step. The writers on strike are concerned about the ability of even present day AI to hammer out scripts far faster than any human can. True, an AI script might need a bit (or a lot) of polishing, but our current human-written entertainment also has plenty of chaff floating around amidst the wheat.

But WarGames had something more apocalyptic in mind than scripts. Teen computer-nerd David Lightman, played by a young, scruffy-haired Matthew Broderick, accidentally breaks into a government computer site. (I almost wrote "website," but there was no public Internet at the time!) He thinks it belongs to a game development company, and all he wants is to be the first to play the game. (Home computer video games in that era were incredibly primitive by today's standards. Pong, anyone?)

Spoilers ahead — assuming you can have spoilers for a 40-year old film. As it turns out, the government has decided to take man out of the loop in its response to a nuclear threat, assigning that responsibility to an emotionless super computer called WOPR (pronounced Wopper, like the sandwich). WOPR is large and immobile, but programmed with responses to every possible scenario (or at least it appears to be). It even has a fail-safe option; unplug WOPR and its battery backup automatically assumes that the Russians (the 1980s Soviet Union) have launched an all-out nuclear strike. WOPR then retaliates accordingly and no human intervention can stop it. David is, however, initially ignorant to all that; he simply wants to play a game. But the game he gets involved in is quite deadly.

David's subsequent efforts only make matters worse. He and his girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) ultimately search for the man who first devised the concept that ultimately led to WOPR. Eventually they find him just before they are discovered by the military and flown to the secret command center at Cheyenne Mountain where WOPR is located. The solution to the puzzle involves two of WOPR's games: tic-tac-toe vs. global thermonuclear war. Tic-tac-toe, it seems, is a game that can be played in a way that makes it impossible to win, so WOPR learns that the only way to win in the global-thermonuclear-war scenario is not to play!

While the film is serious at its core, it has a touch of humor that was unintended when the film was released in 1983. Computer fans (and today that's most of us to one degree or another) will get a chuckle out of the dial-up, phone-line computer modem David uses to break into what he thinks is a game company. In 1983 there was no internet as we know it today, no such thing as e-mail, no Wi-Fi, and no cell phones. The fact that David could achieve the access he did, including changing his school records, paints him as a brilliant kid who shouldn't need to fake his grades!

This is further demonstrated midway through the film when he escapes from government custody during his first visit to Cheyenne Mountain by blending in with a tour group. Let's hope the security at such a facility is better in reality than what is shown in WarGames. (Public group tours at a top-secret government installation? Only in the movies!)

While WarGames, now available on 4K Blu-ray, isn't the first reference disc you'll reach for to wow friends unfamiliar with the wonders of HDR (check out Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse for that!) it has its moments. These include the lights from a helicopter in an otherwise dark night and the bright lights on multiple computer screens in the film's finale. The audio is also impressive in spots, particularly when the humongous steel doors of the Cheyenne complex slam shut. The extras here include a 2K Blu-ray disc, a full-length commentary, a theatrical trailer (remember those from the prehistoric days of DVD and early Blu-ray?), and more.

It's amazing that a 40-year-old film could come so close to the AI that's possible either today or in the near future. And to think that even WarGames was more than a decade closer to today on its release than were the moon landings. The cell phones we carry today are far more sophisticated than even the best computers available then. One can only imagine what computers and AI will bring us in another 20-30 years. We can only hope we'll then look back at 2023 with amusement, and not in nostalgia for an AI-free (or at least harmless AI) 2023.

Billy's picture

I remember seeing this in the theater, and even back then the picture seemed grainy. Whether or not that was the directors intent, or my allergy hampered eyes watering that day. Not sure 4K is something I would upgrade to. Your right about the primitive computer equipment, but back then we all thought it was so cool. I remember in the late 70s seeing an open disc drive, it was like 30 inches across. In the 90s we got a new company system and the central storage had a "a full gigabyte" of storage. The tech that installed it was pretty excited about it, said we would never need any more storage like that. Right now I am holding a cheap flash drive in my hand, it has a fourth of a terabyte on it. if I am alive in 20 years (hope I am, I would be a great loss to the world) and the world political situation allows for consumer tech to flourish, todays tech will look just as useless as the S video cables hanging on my garage wall, or the firewire I ran across in a box the other day. My wife tells me to toss some of this stuff, but I reminded her they will be collectibles and sell for big bucks at our estate sale. Our kids will thank us. (me)

Soundboy's picture

The writers of "WarGames" would go on to write 1992's "Sneakers", a movie on cyber security (or the lack of) that we hear about nowadays on the news.

As for security at important government sites....January 6, anyone?

mhcooper71's picture

I really admire what the author of WarGames has thought through the movie that seems to predict the future. Quick Draw