It’s hard to believe today, but when it was released in 1983 WarGames – a silly little sci-fi movie starring Matthew Broderick – absolutely terrified the leader of the free world.
For those of you who missed this genuinely fun movie, it stars Broderick as computer hacker David, who accidentally hacks into NORAD’s top secret threat-detection computer the WOPR, inspired by a real NORAD machine named the BRGR – get it? Whopper, burger? Of course, while trying to play games on this computer, David accidentally triggers a thermonuclear war.
In a race against time to stop the WOPR before it destroys the world, David recruits his classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) and a reclusive scientist named Falken (John Wood). Our hero manages to sneak into NORAD’s headquarters where he famously foils the WOPR by making it play Tic Tac Toe against itself over and over.
It sounds silly (and it is) but most people didn’t know a thing about computers back in 1983, so the situations described in the movie seemed totally plausible. As it turns out, even President Ronald Reagan panicked after watching the movie during a vacation at Camp David.
Reagan seemed to get a lot of policy ideas from movies, because the nuclear apocalypse film The Day After also made him rethink his stance on nuclear weapons.
After seeing WarGames, Reagan just couldn’t stop talking about the movie and recommending it to his friends in Congress. He even asked Joint Chiefs of Staff head John W. Vessey Jr. what his take on the movie was, and his surprising response led to a number of big changes for America’s nuclear defense system…
Vassey had asked a NSA analyst to check how plausible the plot of WarGames seemed, and they warned that America’s technology was at risk of being hacked (just not by a high school student).
When Reagan found out, he led the push for America’s first federal laws against computer hacking, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act of 1984. Congressmen even aired a clip of the movie while debating on the bill, and called the movie “a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”
It’s important to remember just what they were dealing with: yes, WarGames got a few important details about computer hacking right. But the evil supercomputer in the film was also made out of wood and painted grey, with an Apple II inside controlling the display. This was hardly a documentary.
Reagan also wrote a presidential directive encouraging the U.S. Government to tighten up its cyber-security defenses, in case any nosy teenage hackers tried to mess with them. It turned out NORAD didn’t need any encouragement to update their tech: they were already embarrassed by WarGames.
The film’s massive NORAD control room was designed without any input from the actual agency, so the set designers let their imaginations run wild. It quickly became the most expensive movie set of all time, costing MGM $1 million, including $90,000 (in 2017 dollars) for each of the massive color computer screens.
Meanwhile, the real NORAD was still using black and white computer displays from the 1950s, and visitors often asked to see the “real” control room, “Like from WarGames.” The agency switched to color screens a few years after the film’s release.
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