A few weeks ago, Liam announced that he was going to be a computer hacker when he grew up and that for his first hacking endeavor, he thought maybe he’d go into his school’s main computer.

When I pointed out that that sort of hacking is pretty much a felony, he was devastated. “I’m not going to do anything,” he said. “I just want to see if I can.”

We had a lovely little teaching moment about such things as trespassing, privacy, and respecting the rights of others. I am fairly sure that my laptop hard drive is still intact and I’m reasonably sure that when I think Liam’s playing “League of Legends,” he isn’t busy writing code to break into the UAE central banking system.

I think.

But you can see why the movie “War Games” would be a natural choice for family movie night, right? Lest you’ve forgotten this deathless bit of cinematic history, let me refresh your memory: a teen-age kid, David Lightman (played as always by Matthew Broderick, who looks alarmingly like Liam might, after Liam gets his braces off), slacks off at school to spend all his time with his home-built computer system. He inadvertently hacks into the NORAD computer and almost starts World War III when he activates what he thinks is a game but is actually a military simulation of a nuclear attack.

David’s high-tech computer system looks like this:


 (Yes. that’s Ally Sheedy playing a teen-ager, as she seemed to do for decades until suddenly she was a bitter drug-addicted middle-aged photographer, in “High Art.”)  Note, please, this computer, which is huge, and which worked in sync with the multi-colored buttons and whatnots in the background. But in 1983, this system was the pinnacle of home computing.

Liam and Caleb took the big computer in stride.

This high-tech gadget, however, threw them for a complete loop:


“That,” said Husband, “is how we used to look things up. It’s called a microfilm machine.”  I almost couldn’t look. I spent hours and hours and hours peering into microfilm readers and–even worse–microcfiche readers during graduate school.  The machines lurked in the basement of the library and a more perfect migraine delivery system has never been invented.

As David races the clock, trying to figure out how he could stop the NORAD computer from launching missiles into the USSR, he relies on his wits and other high-tech research aids:


 “More looking up,” said Husband sagely.  The children were flummoxed. All this…labor…just to figure out the name of the scientist who’d created the computer system?  The boys didn’t ask, but I could see their shared, incredulous thought: there was a time before google?

As the movie winds to its climax, David finds himself in a phone booth (which my children recognize because they’re New Yorkers and know that those are the little kiosks used for ads), and consults yet another research tool:


“I know what that is,” said Caleb, “that’s a phone book!”

“I’ve never seen a phone book,” says Liam. (Yes he has: they used to pile up, unread, outside our apartment in New York.)

“I have. They have really, really small writing inside,” says Caleb, in tones used by oracles and other prophets.

Liam shakes his head. “This movie is old.”

After the movie, Caleb said, “I might have nightmares about World War III.”

I might have nightmares about microfilm.

Liam still thinks being a hacker might be pretty cool.


image sources

war games still


microfilm source

card catalog

yellow pages