After Hours

Geek Trivia: Game within a (war)game

What is the most complex game ever completely solved under mathematical game theory -- a form of competition far less complicated and subtle than the various types of nuclear war that were "solved" during the climax of the classic geek movie WarGames?

On the long and storied list of beloved geek movies, WarGames has a special place in the hearts and minds of hackers and techno-nerds of all colors, creeds, and operating systems. And with good reason. Not only did the plot of WarGames flesh out every code-monkey's dream of becoming the most powerful and dangerous person on Earth by virtue of programming talent and video-game skill, but it introduced mainstream culture to a relatively accurate hacker archetype in the form of teenager David Lightman, as played by a very young Matthew Broderick.

Exactly how much street cred does WarGames have amongst the sysadmin set? The term wardialing — and its more modern derived equivalent, wardriving — was named for this film. For those who don't know, wardialing is the practice of using a computer to methodically dial a sequence of phone numbers until another computer answers, thereby generating a list of possible computer network connections (or hacking targets). The Lightman character uses this technique in WarGames to locate a video game company's test network, but instead unknowingly stumbles upon a secret military war-games computer.

Besides its technical bona fides, WarGames also indirectly introduced much of the non-mathematician populace to game theory, which is the study of optimal competitive strategies using advanced mathematics. In the film, a military supercomputer is given control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under the auspices of using game theory to ensure that America could prevail even in an "unwinnable" nuclear conflict. In game theory parlance, the mission of this supercomputer was to render nuclear war a solved game.

To grossly simplify the esoteric mathematics of game theory, a solved game is any two-person game (or two-sided conflict) wherein there is a known, invariably successful strategy for reaching stalemate — if not an outright victory — for one side in the game. For simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe (as seen in the film), solving the game is easy. For complex games, like chess, it is computationally impossible (given current technology) to mathematically map every possible iteration of the game and calculate a strategy that can win every time. There are simply too many variables.

One of the major conceits of WarGames is that the supercomputer Joshua could effectively solve nuclear war. That's something of a stretch, given that nuclear conflicts are incredibly complicated affairs, and the most complex game ever solved is far simpler than nuclear politics or warfare will likely ever be.


Get the answer.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox