Monday, November 24, 2008

Shall we play a game?

Recently I read the article "The 10 movies you shouldn't watch online" and it reminded me of one of my favorite 80s geek flicks, WarGames. If you've never seen the movie, go watch it, online, big screen TV, 13 inch CRT, whatever :) Then come back and read the rest of this post! The remainder of this post may contain movie spoilers... but if you followed my instructions, that should not be a problem ;)

I remember when I was a young geek being totally fascinated by the things David Lightman could do with his computer... things I could only dream about doing. I thought he must be some sort of super genius, disguised a high school student. I couldn't imagine how anyone learned to war dial. On a good day I could make my Apple II Plus play "Math Blaster!", and that was about it. Now I'm a little wiser about the skill level of David's antics, but I still think it's a really fun movie.

The technology in WarGames is of course quite dated. I don't know anyone who still uses a modem, much less an a modem with an acoustic coupler. However some of the fundamental theories still hold today. David breaks into the WOPR by finding the programmer's back door, which was password protected with his son's name. Passwords are still one of the places many systems are vulnerable because many people use words or numbers connected to themselves in their passwords. The address of the house I grew up in would make a poor password. Anyone with decent detective skills could find that out. Later in the movie the WOPR determines what the missile launch code is using a brute force attack. Brute force is too slow for most encryption methods these days. It is however a valid algorithm solving technique in a number of situations.

My favorite line from that movie is still the title of this post. I think WOPR stole the show! :)

1 Comment:

Dennis G. Jerz said...

I actually taught Wargames as part of a video game culture and theory class a few years ago.

Here's how I introduced the movie to my class:

In the early 1980s, with communists declaring martial law in Poland, three soviet rulers dying in quick succession, and assassination attempts on both Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, tension was running high regarding the threat of nuclear war.

In the Latin I texbook I had as a freshman in high school, I penciled a nuclear mushroom cloud on every page. Not because I was violent or anti-social, but because I was so afraid of the possibility. As a teenager, I remember having nightmares about "the bomb."

While the Soviets had achieved military and political success in Viet Nam and in Easter Europe, the communists could not compete with the US economic power. Reagan's arms race policy -- which ultimately proved successful -- involved forcing the Soviets into an expensive arms race. The set built to represent NORAD (which is not actually an acronym, but stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command) was considered lavishly expensive at the time, but the filmmakers decided it had to be huge in order to meet the public's expectations of what this secret facility would look like.

Joshua: "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"

The political message is not subtle.