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.
WHAT IS THE MOST COMPLEX GAME EVER COMPLETELY SOLVED?
The most complex game ever solved is English draughts or, as it’s known in the United States, checkers. It was solved by the Chinook computer program (the Deep Blue of checkers players, and the first checkers program to win the world checkers title) on April 29, 2007. That said, if the fate of the planet ever came down to guaranteeing a win in a game of checkers, Chinook may be the best player to have on your side, but it can’t necessarily promise you a victory.
That’s because checkers has only been weakly solved. Within game theory, there are three levels of solved games: ultra-weakly solved, weakly solved, and strongly solved. An ultra-weak solution means that, if both players play a perfect game — making no mistakes and always taking the optimal move at each turn — the outcome of the game can be predicted based on the first move. A weakly solved game means that, using the weak solution strategy, one side can guarantee a win and, if both sides use the weak solution, a stalemate is the inevitable outcome. A strongly solved game is one wherein there is a strategy that allows one side to win the game, or force a draw, no matter how far into the game the strategy is adopted. Put another way, a strong game solution is one that will let you draw or win even if you screw up the first 10 or 20 moves and have to fight your way back.
Checkers has a relatively small, finite number of possible positions, moves, and counter-moves, and it still took 200 PCs lashed together to give Chinook enough computing power to weakly solve the game. In WarGames, the Joshua supercomputer not only strongly solves Tic-Tac-Toe, but strongly solves nuclear war in under three minutes (complete with graphics, too). Given that chess eludes game theory’s reach as yet, it seems unlikely that even the most powerful computer on Earth in 1983 could realize that “the only winning move is not to play.”
That’s not just some spurious cinematic supposition; it’s a mathematically melodramatic mess of Geek Trivia.
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