Would you like to play a game?

WarGames did. It played with the fear that the western military is a self-absorbed doomsday machine whose only job is to drag the world into annihilation. It toyed with a grim technophobia, as offices and bedrooms were invaded by green screen monitors and giant floppy discs, and the only people who could control them were irresponsible teenagers. It teased with the idea that the cutest person in the class would seek out the nerdiest and nod earnestly as they initiate World War III. And it could do all of these things because it was right for its moment. Because it was 1983.

The best way to understand this film is as a primary source of its period, when home computers were still unusual and glamorous, and so were the people who used them. The fear of nuclear war informed so much then, from electioneering to stand-up comedy, that its effect on the contemporary culture is difficult to overstate. The world was making exciting advances and yet was doomed at the same time – there was a unique, if lightweight, flavour of promise and foreboding, and for all its flaws, nothing captured this in the way that WarGames did.

And flawed it surely is: the army are buffoons who let teenagers infiltrate their nuclear operations bunker, the story halts and has to restart itself mid-way through, the climax is a computer persuading itself that war is futile by playing noughts and crosses. Script, acting and direction all waver.

So be careful with this uneven gem. Its accidental genius is that its themes and aesthetics, even its existence, are flush with the essence of its time – simply remembering it can be a sentimental pleasure. But like the real computer games of that era, its shortcomings glare when revisited.

It’s a strange game, nostalgia. Sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

Pete Baran says:

Tic Tac Toe in the UK is Noughts And Crosses. This threw me a fair bit when I first watched WarGames, as I had not worked out the “obvious to a five year old” fact that it is possible to always force a draw. If I took anything out of the film (apart from Ally Sheedy being rather hot) it was aburgeoning interest in game theory. Especially the bit that would get my parents to buy me a computer so I could play games on it.