WarGames and research

As another year draws to a close, here is a final film analysis post for 2014!

Last month, a reader left a comment on my Class IV page — films in which the reel librarian(s) plays a cameo role and is seen only briefly with little or no dialogue — about WarGames (1983).

Reel Librarians  |  Reader comment about 'WarGames'

Lo and behold, I had a personal DVD copy of this cult classic film — some might argue it’s a straight-up classic, and I would not disagree. I was looking forward to rewatching it, as I had not seen the film in years. And I was very pleased to find that WarGames holds up well, especially for a film about cutting-edge technology made in 1983. Also, part of the film’s setting is in Oregon, and it was filmed mostly in the state of Washington! 🙂

Screenshot of 'WarGames' trivia on IMDB.comMany retrospective reviews tout how the film was a touchstone for computer geeks, as it tapped into the psyche of the younger generation and the fun of exploring exciting technology and being creative in ways unfathomable to an older generation. I can totally see its influence today. And it was influential back then, too. I recommend reading the trivia on the film’s IMDb.com page to find out how influential it was. FASCINATING!

One major aspect of the film that gets overlooked, time and again, is about how it’s also a powerful anti-war film. That’s the message I remembered from first watching WarGames. The core message — SPOILER — is that when it comes to war, “The only winning move is not to play.” An anti-war film with the word “War” in its title, no less. A truly brilliant film that manages to be both of its time as well as timeless.

The only discordant note I found while rewatching the film is that it definitely skews male; I wish there could had been more female computer programmers in the film to inspire young females along with young males. (Ally Sheedy’s character has much-needed spunk, but let’s face it, her role in the film mostly consists of listening to Matthew Broderick’s character explain things.)

Now onto the research. There is a very important research scene in a library, as Marco mentioned in his reader comment, but the reel librarian shows up for only a few seconds toward the end of that scene. So yes, it does fall into the Class IV category of reel librarian films.

A little over a half-hour into the film, David (Matthew Broderick), begins a quest for the back door password to hack into a computer game system. From the system’s list of games, he researches the first game on the list, “Falken’s Maze,” as well as the game’s creator, Stephen Falken. (FYI, the character of “Stephen Falken” was inspired by real-life genius Stephen Hawking.)

And where does David go first to start his research? The library, of course!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

We also learn later that he’s been skipping school to do this research — as an educator myself, something I cannot endorse — but it does provide a clue that the library featured in this research montage must be that of a college or university library. And look, as you can see above, there are call numbers on the spines of the books. It’s a real library! 🙂

By the way, I looked up filming locations to try and ferret out the real library used for the reel library. There are several locations listed on the film’s IMDb.com entry, and some info here on this “WarGames Filming Locations” post, but no info specific to the library. The commentary track of the director and screenwriters during the library scene also did not reveal anything about the actual library used in the film. I suspect it’s one of the libraries either at the University of Washington in Seattle or the California State University – Long Beach, but I can’t confirm that.

The following montage highlights a very important — and overlooked — aspect of research:  that it is REsearch. Meaning, you expect to search more than once. And so David does. He first finds a journal article on Falken’s maze from the Scientific American periodical.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

He then goes back to look for more articles using microfilm and a microfilm reader. (Yes, I sighed in nostalgia for microfilm. Cutting-edge technology in its day.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

He then goes back a third time and shuffles through a card catalog drawer to locate a card for Falken’s thesis, as seen below. (More sigh of nostalgia.) Another clue that he’s researching at a college library, because the call number is a Library of Congress (LC) call number, which uses a combination of letters and numbers. (Most public and school libraries use the Dewey Decimal call number system.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

And yes, I totally looked up that call number in WorldCat. The first part of the call number, QA76.9, is spot-on, as that’s in the call number range for computer systems and software. The Qs are for Science, and the QA subclass is for Mathematics. Also, all of the research materials in this film are super-convincing. None of the articles are real — there’s no Stephen W. Falken, of course — but the film’s prop masters used real publications, like Scientific American and The Atlantic to add an edge of verisimilitude. Also, somebody studied real library catalog cards, as that is the best faux-library catalog card I’ve ever seen onscreen. Look at all that info!

In the next clip, David then hands a card to a librarian at a counter. We only get to see the back and side of the reel librarian’s head. She appears to be younger, with contemporary clothing and a bun. (Of course.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

The librarian then prints out a list of Falken’s publications and a brief bio; this looked to me like some kind of combined authority control file and publications bio for Falken.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

The reel librarian, only onscreen for a few seconds, does relay some very important information, to both David and the audience. First, she relays the information that Falken is deceased; later, we learn that David has printed out a copy of Falken’s obituary. We can piece together that the librarian’s information then led David to this obituary, when then led David to the backdoor password for the computer game system, when then led to the major plot of the film.


Librarian prints out Falken’s bio (includes date of Falken’s death)

obituary

 clue to password for computer game system

war games ensue and real plot of movie begins


Thanks, librarian! 😀 A well-deserving Information Provider.

As the director John Badham also chose to include a shot of the reel librarian using a computer to locate this important information about Falken, as seen below, the audience also associates the librarian (and library) with technology. We see David reflected in his home computer monitor several times throughout the research montage, and we ALSO see the librarian reflected in the library’s computer monitor. Therefore the audience cannot help but draw a connection, however brief and fleeting, between the two.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

He is young and a student, while she is older and part of the education establishment. However, they are both using technology, and she aids him on his quest. The significance of this reel librarian portrayal makes a much bigger impact than its few seconds of screen time initially suggest.

I also appreciate this research scene for showcasing several different types of research materials (including peer-reviewed journal articles, newspaper articles, a thesis, and a documentary video), as well as different methods of approaching research. David is persistent and creative when it comes to researching Falken — we also find out later that he even checked out a videotape of Falken from the library! — and that is a very important concept when it comes to research. There’s never just one way. There’s always a back door to research. Just like with computer systems. 😉

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'WarGames' (1983)

David, a computer whiz, also knows that not everything he needs can be found through the computer. It’s an easy trap for young people to fall into — especially today — to limit themselves only to what is available online. Yes, some of the information that David finds in this 1983 movie could be found online today, but those resources would be available in different systems. And not everything is available for free on the web. Some of those resources, like the thesis, would probably be available only in a library’s print or perhaps digitized collections — and even then, available only to its users, or by special request. (It’s notoriously difficult to track down theses and dissertations, by the way. And obituaries. Just so you know. You would need a librarian’s help to find those resources.)

In addition to highlighting creativity in research, David also shows EFFORT in this research scene. As a librarian myself, I really appreciated seeing this onscreen. David tried out several avenues first by himself, and then when he hit a roadblock, he enlisted the help of a librarian. Another aid to his research! And she obviously helped, as the information she provided led him eventually to the answer, as well as the plot of the movie. Well done, David. And well done, anonymous (and uncredited) reel librarian. Together, you’ve shown a successful research process in action!

Writing this analysis post of WarGames (1983) surprised me. The research scene is only a few minutes long, and the reel librarian portrayal only a few seconds long. I wasn’t expecting to get so much from so little. But there are so many layers to this scene, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, with a lot of useful information relayed to the audience.

Analyzing this research montage, therefore, was a maze in and of itself. A-maze-ing! (I couldn’t resist.) 😉

Next week, I’ll be back with a round-up of yearly stats. Happy New Year!

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One comment on “WarGames and research

  1. […] and revisiting past favorites on this blog… next up is a post from the last day of 2014, “WarGames and research,” in which I delve deep into the brief research scene that takes place about a half-hour into […]

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