Type “Is WarGames” into Google (in an incognito tab, of course; wouldn’t want to muddy the results) and the third search suggestion, after two questions about streaming services, is “Is WarGames based on a true story?” Short answer: thankfully no. Long answer: no, but it’s complicated.
Here’s how long ago 1983 is: Matthew Broderick had to learn how to type to be in this movie. But despite being extremely early for its message — the danger of relying on software solutions to complicated problems, and the ongoing arms race between computer security and hacker geniuses — it still gets more right about early computer-hobbyist and hack/phreak culture than almost any other Hollywood release. The events of the movie itself, in which the precocious David (Broderick) makes an illicit connection with an advanced NORAD military computer overseen by Dr. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and nearly starts a global thermonuclear war by trying to get it to play a game, weren’t based on any specific history. But all the pieces of a true story were there; the US government really was trying to remove “human error” from the equation of mutually assured destruction and developing computers to make it possible, and kids all across the world were experimenting with (and breaking into) networked computer systems from business interests to government departments. The writers, shopping the screenplay around to different studios, were repeatedly asked “is it science fiction?” Nobody seemed to get it.
Of course, everybody gets it now. In today’s headlines we read stories of cyberespionage groups ending nuclear energy development programs (and affecting elections), hackers pulling emails and photos off the cell phones of political leaders and celebrities, multi-billion-dollar credit card leaks and the development of ethical frameworks for self-driving cars. That’s why Tampa Theatre has invited Dr. Nathan W. Fisk, assistant professor of Cybersecurity education and New America Cybersecurity Policy Fellow at the University of South Florida to speak after the film as part of our CinemaSTEM series, which pairs popular movies with experts discussing themes of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Cybersecurity is everybody’s problem now. Come enjoy one of the great Cold War movies of the ‘80s and learn more about the bleeding edge of computational doomsday scenarios with Tampa Theatre and CinemaSTEM.
Nathan Fisk is an Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity Education with the USF College of Education, and the Community and Outreach Liaison for Cyber Florida. He is among the inaugural group of five Fulbright Cybersecurity Scholars, and was recently awarded a New America Cybersecurity Policy Fellowship. Currently, he is studying hackers, informal cybersecurity groups, and community mentorship as a means to develop innovative forms of cybersecurity education. Fisk’s third book, Framing Internet Safety, was published by MIT Press in December 2016.
After the film, he will speak on how WarGames – released just as the personal computer was becoming an increasingly common fixture in homes across the US – was at the center of one of the biggest coincidences in computer history. Connecting WarGames into a history of phreaks, hackers and media techno-panics, he’ll show how the movie forever changed US policy, hacker culture, and public perception of teens and technology, and how it continues to influence cyberspace and politics even today.
CinemaSTEM is sponsored by TECO, with support from the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners; the Arts Council of Hillsborough County; and Publix Super Market Charities.