The Wisdom of “WarGames”

At the end of the 1983 movie WarGames, after the WOPR computer (called Joshua) had completed its frightening game of Global Thermonuclear War, its conclusion was: The only way to win is not to play. In that age of deep-seated fears about Russia and nuclear war, this thematic statement pointed toward what we all knew in real life, too. If a nuclear war did break out, we would all lose.

In a way, Joshua’s truism is correct, and in the Deep South, we have a euphemism for no-win quarrels: a pissing contest. The fight that will gain nothing and change nothing, but is only about causing damage in the interest of bravado and perceived superiority. From middle-school bullying to political grandstanding, these conflicts lack value and substance, but sadly so many of us get sucked in by them, picking sides (because we feel like we must) and digging the trenches we’ll use for self-defense. Then the nitpicking starts, then the antagonisms, then we look up and things have gotten out of hand . . . but the needle doesn’t move one way or the other. These are pretty prevalent on most social media platforms.

However, Joshua’s little truism is also wrong, in a way. In some situations, we must play. We’ve got clear and present problems in this country, and in this world, and our attention, time, and effort will be required to solve them. While more than half of American adults check social media every day, more than half of us also don’t exercise the most fundamental right in a democracy once every two years. I often hear from people that they don’t vote because they don’t know anything about the candidates. That can be remedied . . . with attention, time, and effort. For an American adult with internet access, it would take a few minutes to establish which districts he or she lives in – city council, county commission, board of education, state legislature, and congressional – followed by a few hours every other year to get a better understanding of who and what are being decided upon. Someone who was really ambitious might even spend some extra time exploring third-party candidates.

Like that game of Global Thermonuclear War at the end of WarGames, these days elections break out and we lose, because the machine is playing itself while we watch. Then we end up like that roomful of awestruck on-lookers who can do no more than stare anxiously and hope that everything turns out OK. In the movie, the bureaucrats were so busy with their pissing match that the only hopes for a positive outcome were a down-and-out computer scientist who had faked his own death and a slick teenage hacker who reorganized the world from his messy bedroom. While we all felt relief when Joshua didn’t blow up the world, when these anti-heroes saved us all by defying The Man, in the real world the wisdom of WarGames lies in an altogether different realization, one that has great relevance in our current era: the people who are supposed to be taking care of business need to quit bickering and do the work they’re charged with doing.

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