Would You Like to Play a Game?

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Scott Brown looks back at WarGames, the film that turned geeks and phreaks into stars — and notes that it didn’t even start off as a film about hacking into NORAD’s computer system:

In 1979, Walter Parkes, the future head of DreamWorks Pictures, was a young screenwriter with the outlines of an idea he’d developed with Lawrence Lasker, a script reader at Orion Pictures. Called The Genius,it was a character film about a dying scientist and the only person in the world who understands him — a rebellious kid who’s too smart for his own good. The idea of featuring computers and computer networks would come later.

Walter Parkes, Screenwriter: WarGames is looked upon as technologically prescient, but we actually started off with a concept that had nothing to do with technology.

Lawrence Lasker, Screenwriter: We were complete newbies. In 1979, we didn’t even know that home computers could hook up to other computers.

Peter Schwartz, Futurist and creative consultant: I spent 10 years at the Stanford Research Institute, from 1972 to the end of 1981. That’s where all this began. Walter and Larry came to SRI with a script idea called The Genius. And it was about a boy and a relationship he had with a great scientist named Falken, who was basically Stephen Hawking.

Lasker: For me, the inspiration for the project was a TV special Peter Ustinov did on several geniuses, including Hawking. I found the predicament Hawking was in fascinating — that he might one day figure out the unified field theory and not be able to tell anyone, because of his progressive ALS. So there was this idea that he’d need a successor. And who would that be? Maybe this kid, a juvenile delinquent whose problem was that nobody realized he was too smart for his environment. That resonated with Walter. So I said, let’s actually go talk to people about how a kid could get in trouble and get discovered by a brainy scientist and take it from there.

Parkes: Before our conversation, the Falken character was just a way to access the adult side of the movie. It wasn’t even much about computers yet.

Schwartz made the connection between youth, computers, gaming, and the military — and The Genius began its long morph into WarGames.

Schwartz: There was a new subculture of extremely bright kids developing into what would become known as hackers. SRI was in Palo Alto, and all the computer nerds were around: Xerox PARC, Apple just starting — it was all happening right there. SRI was node number two of the Internet. We talked about the fact that the kinds of computer games that were being played were blow-up-the-world games. Space war games. Military simulations. Things like Global Thermonuclear War. SRI was one of the main players in this. SRI was, in fact, running computerized war games for the military.

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