‘WarGames’ 30 Years Later, Cyber War Foretold

Joal Ryan
Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in 1983's 'WarGames'
Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in 1983's 'WarGames'

When "WarGames" premiered 30 years ago this summer (June 3, 1983, to be exact) the only "smart" phones were in fancy cars, a lightweight laptop weighed in at a hefty 4 pounds, and Al Gore hadn't yet invented the Internet — at least not the consumer version.

But the Matthew Broderick-Ally Sheedy technology-driven thriller is far from obsolete.

With hackers from China and Iran in the news — and allegedly up in the business of U.S. corporations — the movie, about a cyberbreach that nearly leads to all-out "global thermonuclear war," as Joshua, the game-playing NORAD computer program, puts it, "is as relevant as ever," said noted hacker Pablos Holman after a screening at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Discussing the possibility of cyber-attack on the US government, a scenario that received its first public airing in the film, Holman continued, "We are set up to protect the land but not so much with our computers." Laying out one possible scenario, not all that different from the mayhem unleashed by Matthew Broderick's character in the film, he said, "Hackers can hack into [China’s computer] and launch missiles and you would not question that. We're getting very specific, targeted attacks."

In other ways, in fact, the film is more relevant than ever.


When "WarGames" opened in theaters on June 3, 1983, en route to becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of the season, only a sliver of American households — maybe 3 to 5 percent, according to a New York Times report from back in the day — made use of personal computers.

Broderick's character, the disheveled David, though a familiar archetype today — the high school nerd who spends his days and nights hidden away with his computer — was a rarity; his hobbies, from inflating the biology grade of his comely classmate, played by Sheedy, to "war dialing," the practice of one computer running through a list of phone numbers via a modem until a fellow computer is reached, were exotic novelties. (The term "war dialing" didn't even exist prior to "WarGames"; even hacking itself was explained in the most basic fashion.)

One of the few areas where "WarGames" was behind the curve was in the computer-prop department.


David's bedroom-based IMSAI 8080, a real-world model produced in the mid-1970s, would have been too outdated for a computer whiz, maintains Evan Koblentz, a computer historian at the New Jersey-based InfoAge science center: "By 1983," he says, "[the character] most likely would have had an Apple IIe or Commodore 64."

But that detail — along with Koblentz's critique of the military's WOPR computer (pronounced "Whopper," an acronym for War Operation Plan Response) as "pure science fiction" — is a minor quibble.

"It's a great movie," Koblentz says.

A planned remake/reboot was announced a couple of years ago; director Seth Gordon ("Horrible Bosses") talked to Collider.com about how a new version would have to reflect our "more complicated, nuanced, political world."

And probably also our new hacker world.

"It wouldn't be a lone wolf. It would be a group," Koblentz says. "Today it would take a team of people using a network of many computers. ... Just read the news — scary stuff."

Yes, some things never change.

Watch 'WarGames' Trailer: