1983 was the year Matthew Broderick almost blew up the world. Cast as the playful but lazy adolescent David Lightman in the now cult-classic film WarGames, Broderick hacked his school’s computer system to improve his biology grade. An avid gamer, he also hacked into what he thought was a gaming company, anxious to preview their newest offerings. Only after completing a round of “Global Thermonuclear War” from his suburban bedroom did he make a few important realizations: he hadn’t connected to a gaming company at all, but had instead accessed “Joshua”, a government artificial intelligence computer; “Global Thermonuclear War” wasn’t a game, but a war simulation. And, worst of all, the supercomputer couldn’t distinguish between the simulation and reality. Jets were scrambled, submarines deployed, and the military panicked. (And Broderick’s character was in deep trouble.)
Broderick’s hacking escapades lit up movie screens at a time when most audiences had yet to experience computers. To make the plot legible, the film had to signpost the technological process, to explain step-by-step how one uses a computer, a floppy disk and drive, a screen, a landline telephone, and a modem to remotely access other computers. It showed Broderick stealing passwords and researching the computer systems’ architects to riddle out possible means for access. (In this, the film showed something contemporary hacker depictions often miss: hacking isn’t always an online-only activity, but often involves in-person research and reconnaissance.) And WarGames didn’t depict just anyone leading the audience through the process of hacking. It centered on a rascal teenager’s adolescent transgressions. Matthew Broderick’s breech of Joshua was intentional, but its effects were somewhat innocent in that they were accidental.
WarGames is historically important as one of the first and now iconic depictions of hacking—one that introduced themes that persist to this day. Viewers experienced a lighthearted narrative of teenage mischief intertwined with the menacing prospect of computer-instigated global nuclear catastrophe. The film invited audiences to see computers as fun-filled objects, while also teaching them to fear their power. It invited audiences to see hacking as playful mischief, while also suggesting it should be controlled and even legislated. The first major political debate about hacking focused on WarGames. Legislators even screened the film while they were developing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), the first law regulating hacking. In all this, the film set the stage for how we would understand computers and hacking in the decades to come.