In her essay “Is this a game, or is it real?”, Naomi Mandel revisits WarGames, a 1983 film that significantly shaped the popular imagination of computer games and military networked technology at the time. Mandel argues that the film prompts a non-mimetic reading that emphasizes deeper, infrastructural and operational meanings of the screen. Placing it in the context of the history of computer games, Mandel points out that WarGames anticipates the evolution of the medium by playing with distinctions between real world and game, and questioning whether such distinction matters at all.
Computer games, programming, and hacking have been linked since the nascent years of computing.1This linking was established early in the history of computing. In 1968, Donald D. Spenser notes that “most members of the computer programming community are also game players. Computerized game playing may be found to some degree at almost every computer installation” (qtd. In Wolf and Perron, “Introduction,” 1). On computer games and hacking, see Levy 39-61. WarGames, a film about computer games, programming, and hacking, was released in the summer of 1983, at the tail-end of the Golden Age of Video Games when early arcade and home video games were at the height of popularity.2“The years 1982 and 1983 marked the pinnacle of popularity for early arcade and home video games” (Newman, Atari Age, 8). The Golden Age of Video Games is commonly defined as the period from the beginning of the medium to the industry crash of 1983. The film’s viewers in 1983 would have been acquainted with computer games like Space Invaders (1978), a shooter game with a striking soundtrack and bit-mapped graphics, and Zork (1980), an adventure game in which the user navigates a maze via text-based interactions with the program. When the industry resurged in the 1990s, the shooter game Doom and the adventure game Myst (both 1993), offered players enhanced realism and immersive worlds. This evolution of the medium is generally treated as the effect of technological developments (more sophisticated computer graphics, the introduction of CD-ROM technology, and the more advanced consoles of Nintendo and Sega that replaced the Atari 2600) that encouraged the player to look both at and through the screen. But WarGames’ historical position, its cultural impact, and its formative role for the emerging tech culture of the 1980s and 1990s invites us to examine how the film directs its viewer to treat the screens that populate its diegesis. I take, as my starting point, “Is it a game, or is it real?”—a question associated with the film’s premise, marketing, and reception. The question implies that the game world (the world on the screen) and the real world, where human actions have real consequences, can and should be distinguished. Situating WarGames in the context of the progenitors of the computer game medium, I demonstrate that the film articulates a relationship to screen images that is not predicated on distinguishing between the game and the real world but, rather, on establishing a new relationship to screens and to the realities they obscure or convey.
“Is this a game?”
David Lightman, high-schooler, hacker, and avid gamer, has found his way into a military computer system. The system, hosted at North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), is dedicated to generating responses to nuclear war scenarios. David has accessed the system by correctly guessing its password (“Joshua”), and elects to play what he thinks is a game enticingly titled “Global Thermonuclear War.” When the system generates simulations that are mistaken for reality by NORAD officers, propelling the world to the brink of World War III, David asks, “Is this a game, or is it real?”
WarGames is thus predicated upon the dissolution of the distinction between images on the screen and events in the world, and the film’s reception indicates that the prospect of this dissolution touched a nerve. “Is it a game, or is it real?” appeared on the film’s posters and in its trailers and proved an effective marketing device, grossing the film almost $80,000,000 and several Oscar nominations. “Is it a game, or is it real?” also served as an effective hook for journalism about technology, national security, and the PC revolution. Stephanie Schulte, who documents the cultural and legal impact of WarGames in the 1980s, characterizes the film’s reception as a “media panic” (8), as “every major American news media organization questioned government and military officials about whether the film’s fictional plot, or the ‘WarGames Scenario,’ could actually happen” (21).3Schulte’s engaging and thorough analysis also details the now-mythic role WarGames played U.S. legislation of the internet (48-52). The reverberations of the film’s impact extended globally, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and continue to define the culture of credulity and trepidation that surrounds the topic of cybersecurity.4Phrack notes the film’s impact in Sweden and in Brazil (“International Scenes”); the film was viewed in Hungary as early as 1985 (Google). On the continued impact of WarGames on contemporary perceptions of cybersecurity threats, see Koerner. WarGames holds a privileged role in tech culture, having inspired generations of information technologists and computer engineers; Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, described it as “a key movie of a generation, especially for those of us who got into computing” (Google).
Douglas Thomas’s influential reading of WarGames situates the teenaged hacker as the master of the futuristic technology displayed in the film.5Thomas, Hacker Culture (2002), 24-27. Other scholarly attention to WarGames has focused on how the film reflects and articulates cultural anxieties around emerging technology (Blackford), the Cold War (Recchia), and youth culture (Kocurek).6For Thomas, “the message of the film is that Lightman, the hacker, is the most appropriate educator for the technology of the future” (25-26), an argument echoed and expanded by Kocurek, who treats hacker and gamer as synonymous (143) in her argument of how the WarGames, together with TRON (1981) evolved the concept of technomasculinity, according to which “boyhood is essential to success in the digital landscape” (142). For Schulte, the film’s depiction of technology collapses computer with teenaged hacker in a discourse of “teenaged technology”: both tech and teens must be guided by parents, policymakers, and others in power. Blackford (2007) discusses the film’s depiction of technology as an uncontrollable infant. For all, WarGames works as a cautionary tale about technology run amok (in the tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), a parable of mechanization (in the strain of Chaplin’s Modern Times), or a manifestation of Cold War anxiety (a natural successor to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove). All distinguish between human beings and technology, and treat tech as necessarily subordinate to, and limited by, human beings. The relation between human beings and technology is emblematized by the program’s response to David’s question, “is it a game, or is it real?”: “What’s the difference?” asks the program, a query that betrays its inability to distinguish between the two.
For critical studies of the film, this exchange is key. The password David guesses, “Joshua,” is the name of the program designer’s deceased son (the characters will go on to refer to the program itself as “Joshua”). Named after a child, the program, and by extension technology, is infantilized, and must be curbed, guided, or educated by human beings who can control the childish, childlike machines. Unlike the human beings, “Joshua has neither comprehension of, nor stakes in, reality,” writes Paul Edwards; the program is “like a game-playing child” (330). For Esther MacCallum-Stewart, who describes WarGames as a “children’s film,” the message is clear: “games will turn us into an unthinking society that pays little attention to the subtleties of our real-world lives” (565).
But to relegate games to childhood, to childish things that must be put away, misses what games and gaming can tell us about the interpenetration of reality and representation, between life online and IRL (In Real Life). Computer games are not, and never have been, childish play. They are the site wherein human beings relate to and interact with machines, and they hold a unique ontological status that merges human sensorium with machine operation. This interpenetration is key to the symbiotic relationship we have developed with our screens, a relationship that began to form during the period of WarGames’ release, as computers made their ways into lives and homes and an intimate relationship developed between people and their machines (which were often used to play games).7Michael Newman describes the role computer games played in integrating the home computer into the social imaginary: “Gaming familiarized the computer, while the keyboard and the potential to program made it seem more worthwhile to own a device that still might mainly be used for fun" (138-139). In the course of these developments, the attitude and ethos that had formed around computer games in the 1960s and 1970s extended from labs, universities, and industries into the lives and bodies of computer users everywhere. WarGames captured this attitude and ethos, and the film’s box-office success instilled it in the mainstream.8Kocurek argues that WarGames, together with TRON, “did much to establish the archetype of the gamer boy genius and effectively broadcast this identity nationally and internationally to an audience largely composed of children; they thus molded and guided the early participants of the era of computerization […] influencing public perception not only of computer technologies but more importantly of technologists, from teenage gamers to middle-aged tech industry entrepreneurs to potentially threatening hackers” (146-147). As Peter Schwartz, a technology consultant on the film, recalls: “There’s this whole culture out there with these kids who are inventing a new world and creating new capabilities and the thing that binds them together are games. […] there was that culture and that’s the thing that was captured best in WarGames” (Google).
“Shall We Play A Game?”
When David first accesses Joshua, the program asks him, “Shall we play a game?” In the trailer for the film, this question is truncated to “shall we play?”, aligning the computer with pure, unfettered, anarchic paidia—the principle of play or spontaneity that animates the ludus, or rule-governed game. The relation between the realm of play and the real world was articulated by Johann Huizinga whose Homo Ludens (1938) defined play in contrast to “‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life”(8). It was reinforced by Roger Caillois’ work on games in Man, Play, and Games (1961) and echoed in Bernard De Kovan’s 1978 The Well-Played Game, which defines ‘play’ as “the enactment of anything that is not for real” and ‘game’ as “belonging to some special sphere of human activity which clearly lies outside the normal reality of day-to-day living” (xxiv, xxiii). Because WarGames’ computer does not recognize Huizinga’s contrast between play and real life or Callois’ limitation of game to “a restricted, closed, protected universe” (7), “Shall we play” lends technology a sense of menace in its suggestion of computing as an unfettered, chaotic force that refuses to recognize the fundamental distinction between the ruled game and the real world.
But the computer game challenges this distinction. In a computer game, the machine runs a program that translates player actions (pointing and clicking, text commands, gestures) into information; the player then uses this information to engage the game world. This world is a fantasy or fictive space grounded in real material conditions, and it is executed collaboratively, by biological and non-biological entities.9For Keogh, what makes videogames unique is “the complex, material entanglement between the playing body and the audiovisual components that produce the videogame’s virtual world” (10). In this combination of actual and virtual, body and machine, “the player cannot be considered before or distinct from the videogame but instead reflexively as producing the videogame experience that in turn produces the player” (27). This point is central for the medium’s disciplinary formation as the field of game studies distinguished itself from fiction and film (Keogh 10-12), and can be traced to “Computer Game Studies, Year One,” Espen Aarseth’s 2001 foreward to the inaugural issue of the first academic journal dedicated to the medium. There, Aarseth distinguishes games from hypertext or literary fictions because “[g]ames […] can’t be read as texts or listened to as music, they must be played” (“Computer Game,” emphasis mine). James Newman, describing the experience of computer game play, dismissed the representative logic of realism or identification in favour of “a continuous feedback loop where the player must be seen as both implied by, and implicated in, the construction and composition of the experience” (“The Myth”). Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s 2003 concept of digital games as “emergent systems” extends this feedback loop to the culture in which games are made, marketed, and discussed. Jesper Juul’s 2005 Half-Real predicates computer games on an interplay of real rules and fictional worlds; Alexander Galloway’s 2006 Gaming underscores that the machine’s operation, the player’s experience, the network, and the industry are as real as turning on the computer, selecting a character, navigating game levels, and engaging with other players online. In recent years, game theorists have used the medium to reflect on the relationship between ludus and padaia both within the game and beyond it: Thomas Malaby (2007) sets computer games in the context of other games such as football and backgammon to revisit the category of play, and Graham Jensen (2013) pursues the implications of the blurring of the boundary between play and game in computer games to link game actions with IRL social and cultural contexts. Branden Keogh’s 2018 phenomenological analysis affirms the abolition of this extension of the game beyond the screen in his description of the computer game as a “cybernetic assemblage of human body and nonhuman body across actual and virtual worlds” (22).
The point of this admittedly swift and partial survey of computer game studies is this: over the last two decades, the field has established that computer games challenge the representative logic by which one sphere of human activity is the real one, and the other is the protected site of games or play, sites in which aspects of reality are copied, adapted, or distilled, but always distinct from the real world to which the players, the game over, return. But WarGames was released in 1983, when computer gaming was in its infancy, and when the premise that a computer game could trigger WWIII was merely, as Michael Newman puts it, “a hyperbolic expression of commonly held views about the new medium" (181).
“A Nice Game of Chess”
The game David plays with the Joshua program is not just any game; it is “Global Thermonuclear War,” which David insists on despite the program’s suggestion of “a nice game of chess.” Chess, like Global Thermonuclear War, is a wargame, and wargames have been linked to simulation technologies since the 18th century (Peterson 3). With the onset of the digital age, wargames developed for personal computers drew on digital computing power to eliminate turn-based boardgames and enable the computer and the player to interact in real time with onscreen images (Peterson 25-28). While Jon Peterson dismisses WarGames’ plot as an expression of anxieties that “the apparatus of war could and would be reduced to an interface of a game” (26), WarGames was released concurrently with the strategy games Stonkers (1983) and The Ancient Art of War (1984), both cited by Peterson as early examples of games that replaced the board and miniatures with screen simulation and real-time gameplay to produce “a genre of real-time wargames that behaved […] like genuine warfare” (26). Its position within the tradition of wargaming, like its position in the history of computer game studies, situates WarGames on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which the game’s relationship to reality is being fundamentally revised.
The idea of nuclear war as a “game” also reflects the public discussions surrounding President Carter’s PD-59, a modification of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that had dominated approaches to nuclear war prior to 1980.10Though PD-59 was highly classified, leaks of the contents reached The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which published front-page articles about the directive (Burr). The goal of PD-59 was to ensure the U.S. would fight “successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable, or in any event greater than his gains, from having initiated an attack” (Carter). In other words, PD-59 imagined a “winnable” nuclear war. The prospect elicited much consternation in the mainstream press because it seemed to render the “unthinkable” (to borrow Herman Kahn’s influential phrase) thinkable: rather than total annihilation, nuclear war is imaged as a game that, played strategically, can be won; as Newsweek put it, with PD-59, the “United States is preparing to play the global-risk game” (Beck). WarGames seems to reference the debates around PD-59, as one character puts it, “at the war room, they believe you can win a nuclear war, that there can be acceptable losses.”11These lines are spoken by the system’s designer, who in a manner somewhat unique to Cold War films of the time, imagines nuclear war as total holocaust. Scholarship on Cold War cinema sets the film in the context of increased anxiety around nuclear war in the early 1980s but do not note the film’s engagement with PD-59. See Weart, Evans, and Shaw. But if PD-59 rendered the unthinkable thinkable, directing human beings to perform the grisly, heartrending, horrifying work of counting losses, estimating damage, and maximizing harm, WarGames sets this work safely beyond human ken. The premise of WarGames is that human beings are not able to think the unthinkable. The reason, the film tells us, is because reality and its simulation are in a perpetual, and unresolved, tension.
This point is made in the film’s twin opening sequences. The first, a cold open, has two men emerge from a car into a blizzard. They make their way to a rustic farmhouse. In the darkened living room, they gaze into a mirror. Even before a hidden door slides open, revealing the farmhouse to be a decoy for a hidden underground government complex, the viewer has been instructed that her vision may be obscured (the swirling snow) or deceptive (the staged room), and that surfaces may conceal as much as they reveal (the mirror). This multi-layered nature of visual information is underscored as the men traverse some checks and corridors before sealing themselves behind a solid foot of steel that locks firmly behind them. Seated, they perform additional procedures, checking monitors and flipping switches, one of which is faulty and sets off an alarm which they deactivate by tapping the alarm indicator. Suddenly, another alarm sounds, propelling the team into action, each inserting a key and preparing to turn in unison. It is clear at this point that the men are in the process of launching a nuclear missile, but they are unsure whether the procedure they are engaged in is a simulation, reality, or (another) technical malfunction. In the course of this process, the senior member of the team (John Spenser) begins to falter. He abandons the procedure and removes his hand from the key, whispering, “I’m sorry,” as his junior (Michael Madsen) points a gun at him, shouting, “turn the key, sir!”
In the second opening sequence, the opening credits play over a similar series of events, albeit in a different setting. As in the cold open, men emerge from vehicles, make their way past multiple levels of security, though a solid foot of steel that locks firmly behind them, to an underground government complex’s interior corridors and windowless rooms. There, the dialogue reveals that the previous sequence had been part of a widespread phenomenon by which U.S. forces, confronted with a simulated nuclear attack, failed to launch their missiles because, as computer specialist John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman), puts it, “they knew what it meant to turn the key.” McKittrick proposes a radical solution: taking human beings “out of the loop,” automating the launch procedure, and assigning strategic decisions to the War Operation Plan Response computer (WOPR). With WOPR, networked computers input data that inform simulation programs running under a unique control program. The control program is a combination AI (artificial intelligence) and UI (user interface), with a leaning algorithm and a programmed goal state. But the system is presented as a gamer, and nuclear war as a game: “The WOPR spends all its time thinking about World War III. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, it plays an endless series of wargames using all available information on the state of the world. The WOPR has already fought World War III as a game time and time again. It estimates Soviet responses to our responses to their responses and so on. It estimates damage, counts the dead, and it looks for ways to improve the score.”
With its twin opening sequences, that set the WOPR at the nexus of the interpenetration of simulation and reality (established by the first opening) and at the limits of human processing capacity (established by the second), WarGames evokes the paradox of representation that emerged from the mid-century cataclysms of the Holocaust and Hiroshima—cataclysms that, like digital computing, relied on the technological developments of WWII. This paradox is that the true horror of cataclysmic violence is beyond the limits of human comprehension, and can only be approached indirectly, with an eye towards representation’s limits that challenge the viewer to look past the image and intuit or imagine what it declines to portray.12See Mandel (2007) for an overview, analysis, and critique of this paradox. We may see evidence of this paradox in the tabletop wargames industry of the 1960s and 1970s that shied away from nuclear war, relying, instead, on simulations of battles from “the days before war became something that could incinerate all the world’s cities, civilians included, at the whim of some grim button-pusher” (Peterson 19). Atomic bomb cinema, that tended to employ stock footage when imaging nuclear apocalypse and to omit the grisly realities of postnuclear survival, offers additional evidence of the ubiquity of this “Janus-faced technological mythos” (Fasching 17).
The horrors of WWII, and, specifically, of the atomic age, lent a menacing cast to the “giant brains” of the 1950s, a period when “the use of a game to demonstrate the capability of a computer was a deliberate (and established) move to present the machine as ‘friendly’ technology” (Atkinson 189).13Flanagan, who links the origins of computer games to wartime computing (224) notes that “early games had an infrastructural impact on technological production and set out the ways in which the technology itself was imagined” (226). But the inability to perceive at the inhuman speed at which digital computers process information means computer processing, like nuclear holocaust, cannot itself be witnessed directly, and must be imaged creatively or referenced obliquely. J.M. Graetz describes how the novelty of computing drew audiences that were usually disappointed: “Whirring tapes and clattering card readers can hold one’s interest only so long. […] The main frame, which did all the marvellous work, just sat there. There was nothing to see” (60, emphasis mine). Precisely because computers offered “nothing to see,” programs (later to be termed ‘software’) were crafted in order to image the mainframe’s processing power on a cathode ray tube. These were known as demonstration programs, charged with igniting the imagination and challenging the observer to look past the static object and intuit or imagine its vast potential. An early demonstration program was Spacewar: the first interactive computer game.
“I want to play those games!”
Designed by Steve Russell and other hackers at the Higham Institute in Cambridge, MA in 1962, Spacewar involves a dogfight between two rocket ships in space.14For Flanagan, Spacewar’s emphasis on conflict and battle evinces the American tradition of demo programs which is usefully contrasted with the British demos like the 1951 Nimrod: unlike British demo programs, that highlighted “brain teasers, code breaking, poetry, problems solving, and artificial intelligence […] American games highlighted notions of accuracy, strategy, the laws of physics, binary combat models and outcomes, zero-sum conflicts, competition, and efficiency. And it was these values that entered into the conceptual framework of the invention we call the computer and that continue to shape the game industry” (225). For more on Nimrod, see Atkinson 188-190. The ships are positioned within a gravity well of a massive star, and players must negotiate the gravity well to manoeuvre while firing torpedoes at each other against the background of a starfield. A control box enabled players to rotate the ships, thrust, fire, and occasionally “jump to hyperspace” (which involved the ship disappearing and reappearing in a random location). Spacewar was played in research institutions across the United States throughout the 1960s (as only these institutions had access to computers before the development and marketing of the personal computer) and was introduced to the popular imagination by Stewart Brand’s article in Rolling Stone. The first commercial arcade games were directly inspired by Spacewar, which can thus be seen as the origin of the industry.15“Spacewar! is often regarded as the first computer game and video game not so much because it was the first game to use a computer or a video display (it was neither) but because it was a game that was created for the computer with a video display that could only be played with a graphical computer system” (M. Newman 124). Newman adds that Spacewar!’s significance is “the centrality of the screen for the meaning of a computer as understood in everyday life. It was not adequate for the microcomputer to be under the individual’s control. […] it also had to do something interesting and fun, and that thing was most often visually engaging games” (133, emphasis mine).
The significance of Spacewar to the computer game medium cannot be overstated, not least because its reliance on visual display cemented the centrality of screen images to the personal computers that were entering the market in the early 1980s (M. Newman 133). Spacewar’s visual display revolved around verisimilitude: the images onscreen mimic the real world; the scrolling starfield of the background display, for example, duplicated both the position and brightness of stars as seen from earth, providing players with mappable coordinates (Levy 52-53).16Though Graetz notes that the laws of gravity did not apply to torpedoes and that the star was not entirely Newtonian (66), such quibbles only reinforce the significance of realism to the game world. The gravity well provides the game with what Noah Waldrip-Fruin calls an operational logic—that is “a selection and arrangement of elements that would matter in terms of its models and mechanics, shaping patterns of play, opening new strategic possibilities and new skills needed to exercise them” (129). These elements—the visual display, its realism, and the high stakes of the game’s operational logic—would dictate game design from virtual pinball games to simulation games to shooter games like Space Invaders and Doom. As Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton write, because of Spacewar “It's no longer acceptable for such a game to show the same bloody mess every time the player shoots an enemy, for instance. If the enemy is hit at point-blank range with a shotgun, it ought to go flying back, perhaps bouncing off a wall or two before finally settling down to wallow in its puddle of blood” (“Spacewar!”).
As a film that is premised on a computer game out of control, WarGames capitalizes on the myths, mystiques, and mirages that inform popular imagination of this new medium—myths established in no small part by Stewart Brand’s influential article “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” Published in Rolling Stone in 1972, the article introduced the game to a mainstream audience, and Brand’s image of “hundreds of computer technicians […] effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friends and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time” has persisted for half a century.17Monnens and Goldberg’s quantitative analysis of the game’s spread qualifies this myth. They demonstrate that the game spread rather slowly in the United States and that marathon sessions of regular players were the exception rather than the rule. WarGames, too, captures the fears and fantasies of the game extending beyond the player, beyond the screen, transforming or infecting the real, and its genealogical debt to Spacewar is explicit: Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, developed an arcade version of Spacewar called Computer Space before his Pong jumpstarted the industry. Atari entered the Japanese market in 1973 by partnering with Namco to distribute Pong machines in Japan (Kent 74). That market returned with a vengeance with Taito’s Space Invaders (1978). In WarGames, David first appears reflected in the screen of the game Galaga (1981), a Space Invaders clone developed by Atari’s partner Namco. On the poster advertising the film, the images on David’s PC are reproduced precisely on the large screen at NORAD, which, as MacCallum-Stewart points out, bears a remarkable similarity to Galaga’s graphics (565).
The reflection of David’s face on the Galaga game screen, and the mirroring of the game of Global Thermonuclear War on the NORAD screens, shift the stakes of the film away from the paradox of representation (in which the difference between the simulation and the reality is of crucial import, as it is for the men in the silo) to the lure of simulation, which does not recognize the value of that distinction. This shift is signaled by the introduction of the David Lightman character in a sequence that departs from the pattern established by the cold open and the opening credits. Both opening sequences had emphasized vehicles (cars, a helicopter), nature (the storm, the mountain), and were structured as a series of progressions to increasingly enclosed, isolated, hidden spaces. David, on the other hand, is introduced after a static establishment shot identifying the location as Seattle, WA. The camera pans across a crowded video arcade, coming to rest on David, whose face is reflected in the screen of the arcade machine. In marked contrast to the cold open’s primarily diegetic sound, and the opening credits’ nondiegetic martial theme, the pop song “Video Fever” by The Beepers (“livin’ in the shade of a video arcade”) shifts the tone, and the song’s synthesized bopping continues as David rushes out of the arcade, ceasing only as he arrives, late, to his high school biology class. There, David causes some disruption by responding to the teacher’s question, “who first suggested the idea of reproduction without sex,” with, “Uh, your wife?” and is sent to the principal’s office. The synthesized bopping of “Video Fever” returns as David, in the office, accesses the unguarded password to the school’s computer system, and, yet again, when he dials into the school computer and changes his grade and that of his love-interest, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). When Jennifer apologizes to David for getting him into trouble by laughing at his joke in the biology class, David responds, “no, you were perfect,” suggesting that Jennifer was a tool in a larger game he was playing. Clearly, the shade of the video arcade has extended to David’s navigation of the school system’s computer and to his interactions with other people!
On the one hand, David’s quip about asexual reproduction captures the social and cultural context of the early 1980s: enhanced anxiety about divorce rates, working mothers, and latchkey kids.18WarGames departs from the traditional Hollywood conventions, however, in that David does not reunite (with) his family (as in Back to the Future  or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ). In fact, his parents are eager to support NASA’s suspicion that David is a spy, and do not reappear after their buffoonish scenes in the early part of the film. On the other hand, like the synthesized bopping that extends the shade of the video arcade beyond the confines of the screen, it represents what David Myers (2010) calls an “affordance”: “opportunities for action within the game environment, which are predisposed to be acted upon and to be valued—or to be ‘embodied’—in particular and predetermined ways” (58). This distinction between the film’s reflection of its social and political context (the images on the screen reproduce real-world elements) and its underlying operations (signaled by the soundtrack) evokes Myers’s discussion of figurative simulations and game simulations, a distinction he locates at the level of screen image on the one hand, and code on the other (2016: 393). We can see the operation of these two levels in David’s evolving relationship with images, specifically images of, and on, the computer screen. In the chaotic dinner scene, David’s mother, a real estate agent, spends most of the meal on the phone with a client, to whom she hints broadly about orgasms, while his father remonstrates weakly with the family dog. David spends the meal perusing the catalogue to the game company Protovision. The catalogue shows two images. In the first, three boys gaze at a dark, blank screen against a black background. In the second a family is bathed in warm light from the computer.19Another accurate reflection of the period, as video games in the early 1980s “were often presented in marketing and advertising materials as a way to bring the family together” (M. Newman 15). Propelled by this marketing suggestion that the screen will produce a warm family environment, David leaves the table to seek out the game company online through dial-up access.
He encounters an unidentified modem, and, in consultation with his hacker friends, who tell him that the system is likely to be a military one, David insists on access, saying, “I want to play those games.” He studies the life and work of the system’s designer, Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood), who employed games to study machine learning (in the tradition of early computer scientists like Claude Shannon). In response to Jennifer’s question, “What’s so special about playing games with some machine,” David responds: “It’s not just some machine. [Falken] designed his computer so that it could learn from its own mistakes. […] The system actually learned how to learn. It could teach itself.” David’s initial goals of, first, replacing his unsatisfactory (biological) family life with computer screen images, and second, playing the forbidden games listed on the military system, have evolved: he now wants to penetrate beyond the screen to engage with the AI program. When David and Jennifer access the system and commence a game of Global Thermonuclear War, graphics, tables, and maps fill the screen. “What’s that?” asks Jennifer. “I have no idea,” crows David, “but it’s cool!” The surface is now unintelligible, incomprehensible; it’s the opaque, encoded system lurking behind it that David responds to.
If the Spacewar myth—the game’s ethos of realism, the high stakes of its operational logic, the significance of its screen images, and its ability to extend beyond the screen to infect the real and transform it—informed the film’s marketing and reception, David’s interactions with the Joshua program evoke a very different game: Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as Adventure or ADVENT), developed in the mid-1970s by Will Crowther and Don Woods. In ADVENT, the player must explore a world, fight enemies, seek treasure, and solve puzzles by interacting textually with the program, which was not only able to respond to commands, but could also offer evocative images and flashes of wit. Aarseth refers to ADVENT’s parser as “the game’s voice, the simulated correspondent that relates events” (1997: 114). In contrast to Spacewar, which relied on a visual, interactive interface, ADVENT offered, “nothing to see” (Graetz 60); the game was compelling because of its abstract structure which simulated computer programming as such. The text-based interface was uncompromising: the labyrinth of the ADVENT world could be traversed only via precise and strategic instructions. Levy describes ADVENT as “a metaphor for computer programming itself—the deep recesses you explored in the Adventure world were akin to the basic, most obscure levels of the machine that you’d be traveling in when you hacked in assembly code” (136). Crowther noted of ADVENT that “People enjoy it … Because it’s exactly the kind of thing that computer programmers do. They’re struggling with an obstinate system that can do what you want but only if you can figure out the right thing to say to it" (qtd. in Montfort 92).20ADVENT required mainframe processing power: the program was distributed widely on the ARPANET, and, like Spacewar, is steeped in myth. Aarseth, reflecting on the competing statements about the game’s origins, concludes that ADVENT “transcended the cultural position of a singular text and became a mythological ur-text, located everywhere and nowhere” (1997; 107-108; for more on the game’s publication date see Montfort 91). The experience of ADVENT’s gameplay reached the public with Infocon’s Zork, developed in the mid-1970s by students at MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group and available commercially from 1980. Zork shared with ADVENT the text-based interface, a Tolkienesque world, and an interactive program that gives the impression of artificial intelligence. Zork’s parser, more sophisticated than ADVENT’s, was, as Janet Murray notes, written in LISP, a programming language associated with artificial intelligence research (ELIZA, developed to pass the Turing test, was also written in LISP). Hence, as Loguidice and Barton put it, “Zork is funny, Zork is witty, and—above all—Zork is human” (371).
ADVENT’s and Zork’s “human” quality, the games’ association with AI, and the uncompromising, text-based interface are all evoked by the Joshua program that lurks within WOPR. David’s pursuit of this program marks an evolution from an engagement with the images on the screen (as in the game of Galaga and the Infocon brochure) to a more abstract, depth-oriented mode; it is significant that when David accesses Joshua, he exclaims, “We’re in!” (emphasis mine). He connects a speech synthesizer so Jennifer can “hear it talk” and asks the program how it feels. But Joshua’s association with these text-based games extends beyond David’s screens and NORAD’s and into the world in which the action is set, where David and Jennifer seek out the program’s designer, Stephen Falken, to help them convince the NORAD officers to ignore the images the program projects on their screens. Passionless, unemotional, and occasionally witty, Falken, like Joshua, and like ADVENT itself, is “an obstinate system that can do what you want but only if you can figure out the right thing to say to it.” Falken first speaks to David and Jennifer with the rudimentary syntax associated with AVENT and Zork: “Path. Follow path. Gate. Open gate, through gate, close gate.” Only David’s reference to Joshua, the password to the program, elicits a response, and David and Jennifer are, again, “in.”
“What you see on these screens…”
The previous discussion has underscored how WarGames articulates a relationship to screen images that is not predicated on distinguishing between the game and the real world but rather on establishing a new relationship to screens and to the realities they obscure or convey. In this way, the film anticipates by at least a decade the evolution in the gamer’s relation to her screen. While today “videogames are looked at, listened to, and physically touched in order for players to perceive an imperfect and partial sense of presence ‘in’ the videogame even as they play ‘at’ the videogame” (Keogh 13), the idea of the screen as a transparent medium, a portal to an immersive world, evolved only with the introduction of 3D graphics in the early 1990s: “The first and dramatic difference [effected by these technological developments] was that the game world began to appear through the screen rather than on it” (Idhe 129, emphasis in original). These developments would inform Janet Murrey’s anticipation of the evolution of a medium that we look not at but through in Hamlet on the Holodeck (277).
WarGames, released over a decade before these developments, models this shifting status of the screen both within the diegesis of the film and for its viewers, establishing, for the latter, a relationship with the cinematic screen that is modelled on a player’s relationship with the game interface. “Interface” refers to the player’s interaction with the game—not merely through input devices like mouse or joystick but the images on the screen.21In computer games, interface “occurs at the boundary between the player and the video game itself, and can include such things are the screen, speakers (and microphones), input devices (such as keyboard, mouse, joystick, trak-ball, paddles, steering wheels, light guns, etc.), as well as onscreen graphical elements such as buttons, sliders, scroll bars, cursors, and so forth, which invite player activity and allow it to occur. The interface, then, is really a junction point between input and output, hardware and software, and the player and the material game itself, and the portal through which player activity occurs” (Wolf and Perron 15). It is not a specific liminal space or point or object but rather a dynamic interaction. Galloway emphasizes that “an interface is not a thing, an interface is always an effect. It is always a process or a translation” (2012: 33), and this process includes the evolution of the player’s experience of encountering, and then mastering, the gameworld—the “two poles of the game experience” as Torben Grodal puts it (144). These two poles—novice and master—are echoed in Myers’ distinction between mastery of a simulation from mastery of a game: mastery of a simulation takes the form of compliance with the simulation’s rules; mastery of a game takes the form of manipulating these rules, “pushing them to the point of breaking” (2016: 394-395). This distinction is fundamental to the opening sequence, in which nuclear war is simulated both for the characters and the viewer, and defines the characters’ approach to the events on screen. John Spenser’s character, who does not turn the key, is differentiated from his junior colleague in important ways. He is older, acquainted with sex and drugs, values comradeship over protocol, and the story he tells, about a girl who grows amazing marijuana by chanting over the plants, attests to the presence of forces and powers that exceed human logic. He knows machines can fail—he suggests tapping the faulty alarm indicator that corrects the false alarm—and is less likely to trust the images on his screens. Michael Madsen’s character, not humanized in this way, like a computer-controlled character, performs precisely according to programming. For the viewer, the twinned opening sequences initiate a similar evolution from novitiate to mastery. They instruct her, first, not to believe in the reality of the images on screen (the cold open, with all the trappings of realism, was a staged simulation, a trick on the viewer as well as a test for the characters) and, second, to direct attention to the underlying patterns and processes that the image abstracts. The twin finales, a mirror of the twin opening sequences, will invite the viewer to participate in the ultimate stakes of WarGames, computer games, and the status of the screen.
The film’s final, climactic scenes take place in the NORAD war room, where David and Falken must, first, convince the NORAD officers to disregard the images of Soviet military activity displayed on their screens, and, second, understand that screen images are indications of programming, not real-world events. In the first climax, Falken convinces the blustery General Berenger (Barry Corbin) not to respond to the apparent Soviet attack by insisting that the images he sees are “not real.” “General,” he says, “What you see on these screens up here is a fantasy, a computer-enhanced hallucination. Those blips are not real missiles, they’re phantoms.” In the second, ultimate climax, the Joshua program gains access to the nuclear launch codes and prepares to launch the warheads independently. David manages to convince the computer to play a game of tic-tac-toe against itself to learn that the game is unwinnable. Joshua, per programming, extends this logic to the game of Global Thermonuclear War to conclude that the World War III game is likewise unwinnable.
While they are quite similar in structure and design (in both, images on the NORAD screens are intercut with reaction shots of David, Jennifer, Falken, and the NORAD personnel as the tension rises), the sequences situate the images on the screens in very different relationships to the reality of the diegesis. In the first finale, Falken has convinced the U.S. army to ride out the attacks in order to ascertain his and David’s claim that the images on the screen do not represent real-world actions. Both NORAD’s screen and the viewer’s display images of nuclear missile impact, and the viewer—both onscreen and off—must actively disbelieve what she sees. In the second, final, climax, the screens show images of games: first tic-tac-toe, then Global Thermonuclear War. “What’s it doing?” asks Jennifer; “It’s learning,” replies David. The tension is resolved only when Joshua, having learned that the two games are similar in their futility, suggests, “how about a nice game of chess?”—a question that, as David had underscored to Jennifer earlier in the film, is not an expression of intelligence but, rather, a function of programming. Once Joshua reverts to program, the tension is resolved, celebration ensues, and a whimsical, acoustic theme plays over the closing credits.
Read together, the paired climaxes underscore that the proper way to read screen images is not mimetically—an accurate reflection of real-world actions and events—but, rather, as abstract indications of a deeper, structural, operation: game after game of Global Thermonuclear War on the NORAD screens indicate the AI program at work. The two finales thus convey two lessons that mimic those of the opening scenes: first, don’t believe the images on the screen; second, treat the images on the screen as evidence of deeper, invisible, program operation. But if the viewer has identified with David over the course of the film, the musical theme that plays over the closing credits takes her education one step further. She has heard that theme before. Earlier in the film, David had travelled with Jennifer to Falken’s island home. On the ferry, the two kiss for the first time and, with their arrival on the island, a new, nondiegetic, music theme is introduced; whimsical and acoustic. As the young people walk across the island, their images are intercut with nature shots, and they marvel at an especially large bird. The bird surprises them by swooping low, causing them to throw themselves to the ground to avoid it. It comes to rest, not a bird at all but a meticulously constructed model of a pterodactyl controlled by Falken. The film has thus introduced us to the idea that the real, experienced world of nature and acoustics and kisses is not reliably distinct from constructs, simulations, and man-made machines.
Thus, while the introduction of the David Lightman character had figured the gamer as collapsing the distinction between the game and the real world (a collapse established by the soundtrack, with the synthesized bopping of “Video Arcade”), the return of the acoustic theme in the closing credits extend this collapse to the viewer, situating the cinema screen as one more screen reality that must be looked not at but through for evidence of deeper logic and programming. With this final move, WarGames invites its viewer to treat representative realism as just another stage in a game, and the reality to which, film over, she returns, as an extension of the gameplay. That it does so years before the computer game industry resurges with realistic graphical imagery, and almost two decades before computer game studies explicated this interpenetration, may explain the film’s continued significance to tech culture, for whom game playing, screen images, and programming have always been interconnected. As Craig Silverstein puts it at the screening and roundtable discussion hosted by Google to mark the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, WarGames remains “one of the few films that gets technology right.”
“What’s the Difference?”
When David asks Joshua, “is it a game, or is it real?” the program responds, “What’s the difference?” The program’s inability to recognize the distinction between game and real has heretofore been read as evidence of technology’s limits or its menace. But setting WarGames in the context of the history of computer games enables us to read Joshua’s response as a prescient anticipation of the medium’s evolution. Well before the enhanced realism and immersive worlds of the 1990s encouraged the player to look both at and through the screen, WarGames made clear that, as Timothy J. Welsh puts it, “[r]epresentational, art/life binary models are inadequate to the ways in which the artifice of gaming prompts and participates in the ‘life processes’ of wired culture” (61).
But the relation of reality and its simulation, the game and the real, and the film and the world we return to after the credits roll is not the only one we need to question. Regardless of whether you think of a computer game as a respite (however creative, welcome, or necessary) from real-world challenges, or whether you value the computer game as a tool in service of more important, real-world, issues (including labour, gender, and problem-solving), you are assuming that there is a difference between the world and the screen, and that that difference, however one might define or defend it, matters. You are asking, with David, “Is this a game, or is it real?” Tracing the shifting status of the screen in the film (both in the evolution of the protagonist and that of the viewer) underscores that the more pressing question is not David’s but Joshua’s: “What’s the difference?” WarGames challenges the distinction between the real world and the game to question the nature of the difference between the two and to wonder whether that difference makes a difference, attesting to the deep integration of digital images into our minds, our bodies, and the world in which we point, and click, and move.
Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
-----. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001). www.gamestudies.org. Accessed 1 Mar 2018.
Atkinson, Paul. Computer. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.
Beck, Melinda and David C. Martin. “A New View of Nuclear War.” Newsweek 18 Aug (1980): 39. Accessed 26 Jan 2018.
Blackford, Holly. “PC Pinocchios: Parents, Children, and the Metamorphosis Tradition in Science Fiction.” In Sherman and Koven, eds. 74-92.
Brand, Stewart. “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” Rolling Stone 7 Dec 1972. https://www.wheels.org/spacewar/stone/rolling_stone.html. Accessed 24 Dec 2020.
Burr, William. “Jimmy Carter’s Controversial Nuclear Targeting Directive PD-59 Declassified.” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 390. The National Security Archive, The George Washington University. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb390/ Accessed 24 Dec 2020. N.p. Web.
Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. 1961. Trans. Meyer Barash. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Carter, Jimmy. Presidential Directive / NSC-59. 25 July 1980. Jimmy Carter Library. Jimmycarterlibrary.gov. https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/assets/documents/directives/pd59.pdf. Accessed 24 Dec 2020.
De Koven, Bernard. The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. 1978. Rpt. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013
Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
Evans, Joyce A. Celluloid Mushroom Clouds: Hollywood and the Atomic Bomb. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
Fasching, Darrell J. The Ethical Challenge of Auschwitz and Hiroshima: Apocalypse or Utopia? New York: SUNY Press, 1993.
Flanagan, Mary. “Games as a Medium.” In Lowood and Guins, eds. 221-228.
Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
-----. The Interface Effect. Polity, 2012.
Google. “WarGames Panel.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 July 2008. Web. Accessed 31 Oct 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4lmecSPDiU
Graetz, J.M. “The Origin of Spacewar!” Creative Computing 7.8 (1981): 56-67.
Grodal, Torben. “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles.” In Wolf and Perron, eds. 139-155.
Harrigan, Pat and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, eds. Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. 1938. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.
Idhe, Don. “Embodiment.” In Lowood and Guins, eds.127-132.
“International Scenes.” Phrack 48.7 (1996): file 17. Phrack.org. http://phrack.org/issues/48/17.html. Accessed 24 Dec 2020.
Jensen, Graham H. “Making Sense of Play in Video Games: Ludus, Paidia, and Possibility Spaces. Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 7.1 (2013): 69-80.
Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokeman—The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World. Three Rivers Press, 2001.
Keogh, Brendan. A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018.
Kocurek, C.A. Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Koerner, Brendan. “Bush’s Cyberstrategery.” Slate. 3 March 2003. Accessed 24 Dec 2020. N.p.
Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.1984. Rpt. O’Reilly Media, 2010.
Loguidice, Bill and Matt Barton. “Spacewar! (1962): The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe.” www.armchairarcade.com/vintagegames. Accessed 1 March 2018.
-----. Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of all Time. Boston: Focal Press, 2009.
Lowood, Henry and Raiford Guins. Debugging Game History : A Critical Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016.
MacCallum-Stewart, Esther. “Wargaming (as) literature.” In Harrigan and Kirshenbaum, eds. 555-572.
Malaby, Thomas M. “Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games.” Games and Culture 2.2 (2007): 95-113.
Mandel, Naomi. Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust, and Slavery in America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Monnens, Devin and Martin Goldberg. “Space Odyssey: The Long Journey of Spacewar! from MIT to Computer Labs Around the World.” Kinephanos: Cultural History of Video Games June 2015. www.kinephanos.ca. Accessed 7 Mar 2018.
Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
Myers, David. Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games. Ann Arber: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
-----. “Simulation.” In Lowood and Guins. 393-400.
Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 2.1 (2002). www.gamestudies.org. Accessed 1 Mar 2018.
Newman, Michael Z. Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.
Peterson, Jon. “A Game Out of All Proportions: How a Hobby Miniaturized War”. In Harrigan and Kirschenbaum, eds. 3-32.
Recchia, Edward. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers: High-Tech Heroes and Electronic Villians in Films of the Computer Age.” Studies in Popular Culture 17.2 (1995): 1-15.
Salen Tekinbas, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Schulte, Stephanie Ricker. Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2013.
Shaw, Tony. “‘Rotten to the Core’: Exposing America’s Energy-Media Complex in The China Syndrome.” Cinema Journal 52.2 (2013): 93-113.
Sherman, Sharon R. and Mikel J. Koven, eds. Folklore/Cinema: Popular Film as Vernacular Culture. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2007.
Thomas, Douglas. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Waldrip-Fruin, Noah. How Pac-Man Eats. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020.
WarGames. Dir. John Badham. United Artists, 1983.
Weart, Spencer R. Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Welsh, Timothy J. Mixed Realism: Videogames and the Violence of Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Wolf, Mark J.P. and Bernard Perron, eds. The Video Game Theory Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.
-----. “Introduction.” In Wolf and Perron, eds. 1-24.