WarGames movie launch detection scene

Joshua learns how to nuclear war in WarGames, 1983

Games On Film III: WarGames - Is This a Game Or Is It Real?

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United Artists, 1983

A WOPR of a Computer

Joshua, the renegade program that Lightman unwittingly unleashes during his hacking forays into NORAD, resides inside the movie’s equivalent of the SIOP that Lasker and Parkes had researched early in script development, the computer that runs WWIII simulations endlessly, looking for a way to win the “game”. Badham thinks that SIOP is the world’s most boring acronym, and thus dubs the computer the WOPR, or War Operation Planned Response. Not only does the resemblance to Burger King’s flagship hamburger tickle the director, he also likes the bravado of the sound in the first syllable, in that the U.S. military would WHOP! the opposition if push came to shove. WOPR is designed by the film’s production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland. Hailing from the U.K., Kirkland bases the look of the WOPR from early mainframe designs dating back to the 40’s and 50’s, as well as from various military furniture designs. It is built of plywood, meaning Gen. Berenger could actually throw it a fair distance. Various blinking lights give it a nice cinematic look, and there’s even an LED equalizer display appropriated from some stereo equipment. A prototype flat panel LCD display designed by Lowell Nobel is installed into the WOPR prop to display the countdown timer, with Fink squeezed into the back of the cabinet typing characters onto the screen with an Apple II computer as Badham directs him.

1982 image of John Badham, Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, creative team behind video game themed film WarGames

L to R: Director John Badham, co-writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes

Direct Hit

After receiving the honour of being the closing selection at the Cannes Film Festival, WarGames is released to theatres on June 3, 1983. It ranks 3rd in cash intake on its opening weekend, behind Psycho II and the blockbuster Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. John Badham has the honour of competing with himself, as his helicopter movie Blue Thunder is also released around the same time. WarGames proves to have legs and goes on to rake in nearly 80 million in its initial theatrical run, a nice investment on the 12 million it cost to make, and pegging it squarely at #5 for domestic box office gross for 1983. Trading Places, Flashdance and Terms of Endearment round up the top five, along with Jedi. The film also nabs three Oscar nominations at the 1984 Academy AwardsBest Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound, although it doesn’t take any of the statues home. The company that makes the special super-bright screen material to project the computer graphics on is, however, honoured for their technical achievement.

WarGames also has a strong and lasting impact on computer hacker culture. The release of the movie lights up the imagination of many a computer enthusiast, causing them to run out and buy a computer modem, in order to engage in the wider world of online bulletin board systems(BBS) springing up around the world. It also both defines the idea of a computer hacker in the minds of the public, and indeed influences a darker side of the computer world to flourish, such as the infamous phone phreaking hackers known as the Legion of Doom. Lasker and Parkes would later parlay their knowledge of computer hacking to make the similarly themed Sneakers, released in 1992.

War Games

Despite its success, several companies actually pass on a license for making a video game based on WarGames, afraid that a game based on the annihilation of the planet by nuclear war might be a hard sell. Sensing a big hit, Coleco pays one million dollars to UA/MGM for the license for their ColecoVision and Adam systems, undaunted by the subject matter. Going a more strategic route and attempting to stay away from sensationalizing nuclear armageddon, the game plays like a slightly more sedate version of arcade game Missile Command, with the player switching from among six screens spitting up regions of the continental United States, similar to those seen up on the big board in the War Room in the film, shooting down enemy fire with ABM missiles, fighter aircraft, subs and a deadly satellite-based weapons system that floats in and out of sectors on an undulating orbit. The point of the game is to keep the damage to your military and cities to a minimum, holding out for a predetermined amount of time until a ceasefire is reached. As you take damage, your DEFCON status slowly degrades towards level 1. If it remains this way for 60 seconds, a U.S. counter-attack will be launched, the world destroyed, and the game ended. Released in May of 1984, Coleco’s WarGames is backed by heavy promotion and a TV ad campaign. The game debuts on Billboard‘s video game sales chart at #6, rocketing up to #2 soon after. In less than 10 weeks, WarGames moves past 100,000 units, at a retail price of around $30. It is later released for the Atari 400/800 home computer line, and the Commodore 64.

Wargames: Defcon 1, a video game based on the MGM movie

Would you like to play another game?

Set up as a video game publishing arm in the late 90’s, MGM Interactive starts rummaging around their mother Corp’s IP library and dusts off WarGames for a video game adaptation. WarGames: Defcon 1 takes place 20 years after the events of the film, pitting NORAD against WOPR, who apparently has decided that the only winning move IS to play, and is attempting to destroy humanity again. Available for both the original PlayStation console and PCs, the PS version is a tactical vehicular shooter, while the PC version is an RTS. Both games contain the same content and missions, however. The PS version also features a two-player co-operative mode, allowing partners to play through all the missions together.

Ad for WarGames: Defcon 1, a Playstation video game by MGM Interactive

Ad for the PlayStation version of WarGames: Defcon 1

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Comments >>

  1. avatarRobert Decker

    I was extremely impressed with t he accurate detail of this article. I was the Location Manager on “War Games” for 7 months. Robert Decker. I try to read what is written on the film and there is usually quite a fewof inaccuracies.
    Anyone is welcome to email me with questions.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks so much for commenting on the article! I’m glad to hear that my research has been met with approval from someone who actually worked on WarGames. My quest to get it right just might have been prompted by the fact that this is one of my favourite movies. Thanks again for reading AND commenting!

  2. avatarPatmanQC

    Excellent article. I can recall seeing this movie in science class and I knew immediately I had to have a computer. I had no interest in one prior to seeing this movie.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks for the kind words. I remember being jazzed up on the whole online thing, but at the time it was pretty hard to network with the ColecoVision except network with all the kids in the neighbourhood around the console, heh. I imagine memories of WarGames might have been in the back of my mind when I jumped through hoops to log onto fidonet through BBS’s in the 90s. WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME? NAMELY TRADEWARS?

  3. avatarAndrew Dobson-Frueh

    To-99/4A also had a game, Computer War, based ostensibly on the movie. The games was made of two parts – an action stage to shoot down icbms, and a puzzle stage to match patterns with the computer.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Whoopsie, I choked on my cereal when I read your post. I will correct my mistake, and point out that Cap’n Crunch contains a whopping 754mg of sodium per serving, or 31% of the daily recommended intake! The Cap’n surely be a salty dog! Thanks for writing! Yaaar.

      1. avatarPatmanQC

        Don’t you just love idiots who point out a mistake in a massive article like this rather than at least give a compliment or two before doing so? Once again, excellent article

        1. avatarWilliam

          I have to say that I enjoy any user interaction with the site, both positive and negative. Negative, because no matter how many times I review the material there are always things to improve here and there, and it helps when people point out things I can correct and make the site that much better. And positive because, I also like hearing positive things! As always, thanks for your kind words.


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