Playing Games with the Cold War: Introducing ‘WarGames’

LUDUS is the UCLA Cinema and Media Studies program’s graduate student organization dedicated to video game theory, history, and play. LUDUS members are video game enthusiasts who have, over the past several years, sponsored lectures from industry professionals, programmed machinima screening series in conjunction with Melnitz Movies, worked closely with designers in the UCLA Games Lab, and coauthored publications and collaborated on conference presentations with one another.

The WarGames screening on November 26th was part of a continuing series that interrogates how cinema has engaged the medium of the video game. This text is an embellished version of the introduction I gave the film prior to the screening. —Harrison Gish

[jwplayer mediaid=”1261″]

Good evening and welcome to WarGames, and what will hopefully be the first of several LUDUS screenings that will, as a whole, interrogate the intersection of cinema and video games, displaying the numerous ways in which cinema has represented, adapted, and translated game play and game culture into film form.

To understand WarGames, one must understand that the early 1980s was a period of transition for both Hollywood and the growing video games industry. Both Star Wars and the contemporary blockbuster were less than a decade old, and Hollywood producers were still attempting to figure out the best way to monetize the suddenly massive genre of spectacular science-fiction. Well aware that the video games industry had made more money than Hollywood’s collective box office in 1982, film producers were eager to play upon the growing interactive medium to appeal to youth audiences. Results vary: while many of my friends’ childhoods were defined by The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984), and numerous contemporary scholars have a love/hate relationship with Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), no one remembers the teen sex comedy Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983), for good reason. In a period prior to Nintendo’s U.S. release in 1985 and the sweeping penetration of game consoles into middle-class living rooms, Hollywood attempted to draw youth audiences out of the home and into the movie theater by representing and idolizing the game culture of which many from that demographic were a part. Released in 1983, John Badham’s WarGames is emblematic of the time.

A film that positions a game player’s ingenuity as the solution to nuclear holocaust, WarGames reinforces a healthy paranoia about the USSR and incoming Soviet missiles while approaching this very serious subject through the lens of Spielbergian family fun. Video games show up infrequently in WarGames, and are used more to establish the protagonist, Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman, as a computer-savvy middle-class suburban youth than they are to remind the audience of the filmmaker’s knowledge of games and game culture (one can see video games used in this manner, as cinematic motifs that establish character instantly, in films as diverse as The Princess Bride [Rob Reiner, 1987] and The Karate Kid [John G. Avildsen, 1984]). Like any good ’80s teenager, Lightman excels at video games but does poorly at school; we glimpse him in the local arcade early in the film, having to abandon extra rounds of Galaga (1981) so that he can run to his biology class, arrive late, and receive an F on his symbiosis exam. Lightman’s symbiotic relationship is not with biology but with computer hardware and technology; the advanced system he has in his bedroom allows him to both change his high school grades and break into NORAD, nearly destroying the world by engaging an Air Force computer in a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

Though Lightman does not own a game system, he logs on to early dial-up networks to access electronic versions of both children’s games and strategy games, which he considers little more than enjoyable trifles, free of serious import. He is as willing to play chess with an anonymous computer as he is to book a flight which he will never take to Paris for himself and Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), the classmate with whom he uses computer technology to flirt. But as he—and we—will learn, games can be powerful instructional tools, with the potential to teach machines the fallacy of thermonuclear war and just possibly avert World War III.

While Badham’s film deploys video games to establish character and class motifs, the film positively reveres games more simplistic than those played addictively in the local arcade. Tic-tac-toe, while described by several characters as a children’s pastime, free of challenge and requiring no ingenuity, is capable of teaching a supercomputer the meaning of a stalemate. Similarly, while we might write off WarGames as a film singularly critiquing the rise of digital technology and its control of our national defense system, we would do well to remember that it is the imagination and creativity of a teenager versed in computer technology that is our one hope of averting a nuclear crisis. ’80s films, especially ’80s films about video games, are rarely as polemical as they first seem, and WarGames, for all its fear of faceless technology destroying humanity, heralds the ability of simple strategy games to teach us to avoid the crises of the Cold War. If WarGames are the games at hand, the only choice is not to play, a solution that is lost on warmongers and military commanders, but, the film tells us, is a conclusion that really should be child’s play.

Video Credits:

Author Bio:

Harrison Gish is a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. His research interests include video game avatars, how video games represent traumatic histories, and the intersections of games and cinema. His recent work is published in Mark Wolf’s Encyclopedia of Video Games, Mediascape, eLudamos, and the UCLA Games Lab blog.

Leave a Reply