War Games (1983)


Hulu is hosting the 80’s cult film War Games. War Games is the story of a teenage nerd who unknowingly hacks into a NORAD war-simulating computer, and by playing the game Global Thermonuculear War with the machine WOPR/Joshua, brings the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war against the Former Soviet Union.

Watching the film brought back memories, not just of ancient library catalogs, terminals, and microfiche readers, but the subject of Cold War nuclear war simulation and gaming. For example, in the film, Matthew Broderick’s character David tracks down Stephen Falken and John McKittrick’s fictional “Poker and Armageddon: The Role of Bluffing in a Nuclear Standoff,” published in the Atlantic Monthly on fiche. That high schooler had some serious research skills!

Perhaps I’m overthinking the film, but Herman Kahn’s (1965) On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios came to mind, especially his “Escalation Ladder,” rungs 4-12, “Traditional-Intense Crises.” This is illustrated in the film by WOPR/Joshua’s learning while gaming and the escalation from DEFCON 4 to 1. (I also thought of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (University of Michigan Press, 1994; trans. Sheila Faria Glaser), where among other things, Baudrillard sketches out the “murderous capacity of images“).

One of the most memorable quotes in the film is made by the savant scientist Dr. Falken, the creator of Joshua/WOPR:

Stephen Falken: Exactly. There’s no way to win. The game itself is pointless! But back in the war room, they believe you can win a nuclear war.

War Games is a fun adventure film that also has a definite perspective about the (im)possibility of “winning” of an atomic war.


Many of the original Cold War gaming documents, including from RAND, are indexed at DTIC.