The Winning Move: On WARGAMES and Daring to Be Naive

I didn’t really expect my first post to be, well, so charged. But recent events have got me thinking about my place in this increasingly dangerous world as someone who’s primary obsession is entertainment. Last week, we (the United States) launched dozens of missiles on a Syrian airbase. Say what you will about the motivations involved – whether it was truly in retaliation to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, or if its a veiled dick-measuring contest between a powerful dictator and a game show host played in a war criminal’s yard – this was a direct confrontational action carried out by our new Commander in Chief. An act(ion) of war. But we can’t just posit the effects of that act. The motivations matter.

So let’s talk about WARGAMES. From 1983, directed by John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER), and starring young, button-nose, pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick. The movie sees Broderick playing teenager David Lightman, a nerd with an easygoing attitude towards school and computer privacy ethics. He’s trying to find a videogame company to play some unreleased games, when one day he stumbles upon an unidentified system with a game called “Global Thermonuclear War.” He runs a simulation of total world destruction, and soon discovers that the system he tapped into was NORAD’s newest automated defense intelligence, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), also known as Joshua. Now David has to escape authorities while also preventing the hyper-advanced computer from starting an actual, world-ending nuclear war.

I first saw this thing in 6th or 7th grade, and I think there’s something obvious and yet poignant about the fact that my understanding of its basic “lesson” has stayed mostly the same over the years. The only thing that has increased is my appreciation of it. It carries a simple message: war is pretty bad.


Watch this scene.

In order to shut it down before it launches a nuke, David makes several attempts to beat the computer in a game of Tic Tac Toe. It makes sense if you’ve seen the rest of it. But he finds the machine an unbeatable opponent. So what does he do? I LOVE THIS.

He gets the computer to play against itself. It goes rapidly through hundreds of games in a matter of seconds, each time ending in a tie. It is its own perfect opponent. But finally the computer stops and makes a conclusion: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play.

But of course! War is bad, and we all win if we’re friends and we don’t fight. Right?

I rewatched the movie in its entirety this weekend and picked up on more of its thematic logic. Joshua’s creator, Professor Falken, played with achingly human sensibility by John Wood, speaks to the one lesson his brainchild never learned, even with all of its hyperactive learning capability: futility. When to give up. When David and his maybe-girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Seedy having more fun than any of us) arrive to Falken’s secluded hideout – in a location he selected specifically to die quickly in the case of nuclear attack – he himself has given up. His wife and his child, Joshua’s namesake, having died a long time ago, he is resigned to his an the rest of humanity’s inevitable demise.

In a wonderful scene, David smacks down Falken’s well-thought-out logic and brashly declares his desire to fight and to live. Falken concedes and helps David and NORAD stop Joshua.

But back to that climax. David gets the machine to give up. It accepts futility. It can’t win. So why keep trying? The same mindset that Falken engaged with at his lowest point is proven to be the only thing that can save us. But rather than mope, alone, waiting for death to come, we should stare death boldly in the eye and enjoy whatever we can while it approaches.

WarGames rides a wonderful line ideologically between action and inaction. What has a greater impact on our fate? Doing something or doing nothing? Another important detail I didn’t notice until now is that the reason they can’t unplug Joshua is that the nuclear silos’ own computers would interpret that as the destruction of NORAD – leading them to activate a failsafe and launch all their nukes. This movie’s NORAD essentially wants to ensure world demise; if NORAD goes down, everyone must go down with it. The movie condemns this form of nihilism. And it’s that nihilism that David convinces Falken of overcoming, so even though the end of the world could come at any time, we do not submit to it.

The action must be for the right reason. You cannot automate a war. We must be human and naive, and be responsible for being those things.


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