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Playing War Games




Back in the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I remember seeing a film called War Games (1983). The film told the story of a teenaged computer hacker who, while messing around in his bedroom, found that he had broken into the heart of the United States nuclear weapons system and started a chain of events that would shortly lead to World War III. As the film reaches its climax, a huge mainframe computer that probably had less processing power than my SMART phone does now is playing tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses to you and me), trying to find a way to be sure of winning. Having gone through all the possible permutations of the game, it declares, in the nick of time, that there is no way of making sure that the 'game' (i.e. all-out nuclear war) can be won by either side and, therefore, that it is probably not a good idea to start playing. Phew!


I was a computer geek myself at the time. I spent all my free afternoons programming a BBC B Micro with a staggering 64K of memory in the school computer room. I even wrote a game in which you became the coach of a rowing squad and had to train them up to race at Henley Royal Regatta. We played Sphinx, too, one of a number of very primitive simulation games with no sound or graphics. My favourite game, however, was called Great Britain Limited. In this game, you were put in charge of the British government and got to do things like mess around with tax rates and departmental spending plans to see what would happen. I put Income Tax down to 0% at one point which made me very popular with the virtual electorate until they found out that there were no longer any schools or hospitals to go to, the railways had collapsed, the libraries had closed and there were no longer any police on the streets. Or, indeed, anywhere at all. It was at that point that the simulation declared "Law and Order have broken down. You must call a General Election".


The thing is, there were other people who also spent time in the same Computer Room. It would be dishonest of me to say that I remember seeing them there at the time. They were just teenagers, like me. There was a certain Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who was a King's Scholar and at one point Captain of the School, and another David William Ronald Cameron, who boarded in a house which, it was widely alleged, was out of the housemaster's control.


The thing is, I knew I was playing a game at the time.


I do wonder whether our leaders still think that they still are.







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