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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

WARGAMES and the Great Hacking Scare of 1983

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the release of WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. AMC was running it last night and I wound up watching a good part of it.

In case you've never seen it before, WarGames is about David Lightman, a high school student who's an unmotivated slacker in class but a first-rate computer hacker at home. David's real talent is running automated searches for systems that can be dialed into via phone modem, and then cracking their security. While trying to locate a new video game company's system so he can do his own brand of beta-testing, David unknowingly winds up accessing a computer at NORAD and nearly starts World War III from his bedroom.

A quarter-century later, WarGames still holds up extremely well. Practically all of the technology depicted is now horribly dated (look at the size of those floppies that David is using!) but in spite of that, and perhaps even because of it, WarGames has become a curiously good snapshot of both Cold War bunker mentality and the introduction of computers into civilian life. It is also, I believe, one of the more successful morality tales about the fear of nuclear war: WarGames is not a "political" film as many of the time were. And neither does it make anyone out to be "the good guys" and "the bad guys". The genius of WarGames's longevity is that it wisely adheres to its own lesson: that to win the game, sometimes you have to choose not to play the game at all.

I thought that WarGames also merited mentioning (in addition to it being a terrific film) because of the reaction that it engendered upon its release. With its depiction of teens hacking into school systems to change their own grades, and then breaking into military-grade mainframes and coming a hair's-breadth from nuking the whole planet, WarGames initiated unusual paranoia in the mainstream press about the power of computers. I remember one CBS Evening News report at the time that seriously questioned whether parents should allow their children to access the outside world via their personal computers at home. A magazine article suggested that computer modems be "locked up" just like firearms, to keep them out of the reach of teenagers. I even heard one pundit proclaim that there was no need for regular people to be able to log in to a remote system: that if you need to access your bank account, a friendly teller was just a short drive away.

And Bill Gates once declared that the average person would never have a need for more than 640 kilobytes of memory in a personal computer, too.

Such news stories were very fashionable in 1983, and looking back I think the corporate media unwittingly demonstrated the moral of WarGames. It was an unfounded fear but the press played on it, and it wound up embedding itself into the popular conscience. I know of one friend whose parents were so horrified at the prospect of "accidentally" breaking into an unauthorized computer system, that they didn't buy a computer at all until 1998! After their fears were allayed, they eventually got on the Internet and found that it was a fine thing.

Now to be fair, WarGames was not the first movie about computers going awry and driving mankind toward nuclear apocalypse. 1970's Colossus: The Forbin Project might have been the first to explore the theme, and of course there as also The Terminator. Many will convincingly argue that Dr. Strangelove had them all beat.

But WarGames was different: it wasn't only a computer glitch in a far-removed system or a demented military officer which we had to fear could doom all mankind. After WarGames, we were told that Jack D. Ripper could be anybody.

I don't know if the paranoia was completely without merit, though, but only because of one funny incident that happened to me. In the fall of 1994 I was using my first real computer to dial into various bulletin board systems, and there was one that had just started up in Eden. I tried to dial into it but instead of a computer I heard a voice telling me that "This number is not in service". I changed one digit in the prefix, thinking that maybe it was just the wrong number that I had been given. This time the modem did connect to another one, but the terminal window filled with gibberish. I changed the modem protocol, tried it again... and found that I had dialed into the computer system for the Eden branch of NationsBank (now Bank of America)! What was the first thing that popped into mind? Yup: WarGames. I hit the disconnect button so fast that I can still remember my heart pounding against my rib cage.

A few months after WarGames came out CBS began airing Whiz Kids, about a group of teenagers who built their own supercomputers and used it to solve crimes, and by that time the Great Hacking Scare of 1983 was in full swing. CBS execs were quick to emphasize that what the Whiz Kids characters did could not easily be pulled off in real life (which might have backfired: Whiz Kids had great potential but it was canceled after one season). The fear had pretty much diminished by 1987 when ABC's Max Headroom (a groundbreaking show that I've long thought has never been fully appreciated) came out, but it would still rear its head in the years to come, particularly with movies like 1992's Sneakers and Hackers in 1995. And then the success of Independence Day in 1996 finally turned the tables on the mistrust of computers as a tool. Suddenly hacking was not something that we worried would destroy the world: it could even save the world if it had to.

But for a long time, beginning in those strange days of 1983, there was a hesitancy to reach out and harness the computer: just as early man no doubt originally feared the flame. WarGames clearly announced that the digital fire, originally the province of the technology gods, was now a boon to mere mortals. And with it came a choice: we could use it to build, or to burn.

I like to believe that we have generally chosen the former.

EDIT 4:42 p.m. EST: This post has been Slashdotted! That's three times since this past August that this blog has been featured on Slashdot...

We're also getting lots of visitors today via the post about the DHARMA Initiative snacks, presumably from countries that are either about to start watching Lost Season 4 or are already at the season finale. Welcome to everyone who's found their way to this blog, however it is ya got here :-)

And it has been brought to my attention that Bill Gates apparently did NOT make the statement famously attributed to him about 640K of memory. Which is news to me 'cuz I was hearing that ever since taking C++ programming in college years ago. So I happily stand corrected.


Kevin Bussey said...


I thought I was the only geek who watched last night. :)s

Anonymous said...

How was Dr. Strangelove about computers being at fault?

Anonymous said...

I love WarGames, and wish I would have been home to watch it. My Dad told me that they were remaking it, but I think I read somewhere that they're actually trying to make a straight-to-DVD sequel ...

They just can't leave well enough alone.

Chris Knight said...

"How was Dr. Strangelove about computers being at fault?"


Computers were TOTALLY what went wrong in Dr. Strangelove! First there was the attempt to recall the planes, and then there was the Soviet doomsday machine (the "network of computers" as Strangelove even describes it) that bombs everything at the end of the movie.

Roxanne, yeah the original should stand alone as a classic. Unless they plan on bringing back David somehow (doesn't Matthew Broderick have better things to do?) I don't think it'll ever be accepted. Although it would be neat to see Dabney Coleman in action again, if he's up for it :-)

Anonymous said...

Yup, it's true that they're making a direct-to-DVD sequel called WarGames: The Dead Code (but it's really WarGames in name only, because there are, as far as I know, absolutely no characters from the first movie involved.) The DVD is scheduled for release on June 10th, and also on the same day will be the release of WarGames: 25th Anniversary Edition 2 Disc DVD.

Anonymous said...


Read this post on usenet


again i am disappointed that one would use a quote that is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Ah, War Games. Great movie, and many a fond memory did I rekindle last year while playing DEFCON.

I still want to replicate whatever vocoder/modulator they used to do the computer voice from the movie.

Anonymous said...

Bill Gates SAYS that he never said it. That's not quite the same thing.

Given that the original statement is consistently said to have been made back in 1981, way before usenet or even the internet generally, was established, finding an attributable source for the original statement is going to be difficult, and therefore very easily denied if (e.g) it was made verbally or only internally within Microsoft.

But is the Wondrous Bill Gates simply incapable of making such ludicrously bad judgment calls?

Of course not:

Windows 3.x was a surprise hit - Microsoft (and Bill) believed in OS/2, not Windows.

The internet - something that Bill G was famously "not interested in" in 1993.

Bill can deny having said it all he likes, but it has the smell of truth about it.

Like too many aging, successful men, there is a temptation to rewrite the history of their early mistakes to make themselves look even greater than they already are, as if admitting early failings will somehow diminish what they became.

NOTE: Greedo did NOT shoot first.


Chris Knight said...

Plenty enough people are sending me e-mail about how Gates supposedly didn't say that. But I am also inclined to believe that there's some validity to the notion that he did say it, then denied it as you suggest.

"NOTE: Greedo did NOT shoot first."

You should watch Forcery, the spoof of Misery that we made a few years ago, about George Lucas being held hostage. There's one scene in it that you would absolutely love :-)

Unknown said...

"Bill Gates SAYS that he never said it. That's not quite the same thing. Bill can deny having said it all he likes, but it has the smell of truth about it."

Of course it's the same thing: Bill Gates is just rectifying a malquoted statement. Once he rectifies it, it becomes truth, and whatever is true now is true from everlasting to everlasting. It is quite simple. All that is needed is an unending series of victories over your own memory.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Why wouldn't Bill Gates have said that 640K was all a user needed? It was the maximum the processors of the time could handle. At the same time I was building business computers based on the Motorola 6800 microprocessor with 2 (very large) diskette drives [8 1/2 in. diameter] and 480kb of memory (640kb was optional). The computer did Payroll, General Ledger, Accounts Payable, text editing (no, not 'word processing') and had a random access file system to access the diskettes! [a step up from the cassette system in the prototype.] We sold 13 of those machines before I went to work for Exxon. What else could anyone want?

Anonymous said...

"And Bill Gates once declared that the average person would never have a need for more than 640 kilobytes"

I despise Bill Gates as much as the next geek but there is no proof that he ever actually said that. Until anyone can come up with proof, the 640k quote is pretty much an urban myth.

Anonymous said...

" Chris Knight said ... (5:06 PM, June 04, 2008): Plenty enough people are sending me e-mail about how Gates supposedly didn't say that. But I am also inclined to believe that there's some validity to the notion that he did say it, then denied it as you suggest."

So he must have said it because he denies he said it?

Have you stopped beating your wife?

Gates is a jerk, he's been wrong about a lot of things, but not this.

See: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15180 in the New York Review of Books for an exhaustive examination of this.

Lots of people would love to embarrass him by proving he said this; in the 20 years this has been floating around no one has ever produced a citation for when and where he's supposed to have said it. It just gets endlessly copied and pasted.

Anonymous said...

Don't forgot to watch "Paper Man". It was before "WarGames" and an excellent candidate for hacking movies. Think "Dragon Naturally Speaking" is newer? Watch the movie.


Anonymous said...

yeah it was actually Steve Jobs who said it duuuuh

Anonymous said...

Great article.. It was Wargames that got me on my path of hacking... just seeing how David went from hacker to saviour planted a nice seed in my brain. Luckily neither of us ended up in Jail but these days I don't think I would have been so lucky.. Global Thermonuclear war vs "Possibly the single biggest threat to world peace since Adolf Hitler".... you have to love it really 8-)

Anonymous said...

One thing that WarGames illustrated better than pretty much every other hacker movie was the fact that while computers were becoming more and more ubiquitous, the general public using them were less and less aware of how the damn things actually worked. Average Joe Eighties might have easily known how to change a tire on their car, change a tube in their television, swap a belt in their washing machine, and get stuck bread out of the toaster, but the computer was just this magic box that somehow did stuff. And yet you didn't have to be a super genius scientist to understand what was going on in that box if you wanted to. You just had to be eager to learn. And after that, the box did what YOU wanted.

Nobody else was really talking about that back then, but that revelation to me was like suddenly learning how to read. Sitting in front of my TRS-80 as a kid with a stack of fat tech manuals written for people thrice my age, I began teaching myself every aspect of how the thing did its tricks, and that's basically the direction the rest of my life took from there.

And indeed, Max Headroom has never been as appreciated as it should have been. Brilliant stuff.

Anonymous said...

Max Headroom was ground-breaking and has never been appreciated for being as prescient as it was. Watch a few episodes, then turn on CNN or Fox News and tell me it didn't come true!

Jason said...

1964's Dr Strangelove was actually based on a 1958 Book, Red Alert. Although the I think the 1964 movie, Fail Safe (based on the 1962 book of the same name) is a lot closer to War Games.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to my article on your post and Wargames 25th anniversary (in Spanish)
How about a nice game of chess?


kuriharu said...

What was great about WG is that it showed two elements of hacking. One, that social engineering is what leads to the biggest hacks. And two, that hackers have to do research to hack. You don't just press buttons.

Anonymous said...

Your name "Chris Knight" indeed reminds me to one of the characters of a really nice eighties films "Real Genius".

This one plus Wargames and Tron are my favorites of this soft of films ... and also a later one called "Sneakers".

Nice environment, nice effects, and possibly the right moment to release them.

Anonymous said...

Re: The Voice of the Whopper.

I have searched high and low for that voice myself. However...

In the writer's commentary on the DVD, thay said the voice was created by having an actor read the words in the sentence backwards (to avoid any inflections) and then processing the recording a bit to get the synthesized sound.

Anonymous said...

Also WarGames proved that even computer geeks / nerds could nail a pretty girl. :)

Wonderful film. I was hm.. 12 years old back then and I have seen the movie two dozen times - and have it on DVD.

I even tried to look for the songs from the movie, but that's hard to find.
I did get some LP with the text, but I don't have that anymore.