The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Losers Don't Play Videogames . . . Heroes do!

Dawn Stobbart

The 1980s was big; big shoulder pads, big hair, big muscles, and big films. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van-Damme, and Sylvester Stallone regularly appeared on cinema screens with their heroic achievements, superhuman ability to survive any peril, and unerring belief that they could triumph over all evil. The 1980s also saw the science fiction film move from being a niche genre to occupying a place in mainstream cinema, as it became clear that it was well suited for the blockbuster structure. In this article I argue that the rise of the computer system, both in the public and private sphere, caused filmmakers to consider how this new technology might be exploited and the dangers inherent with its use, alongside the more positive suggestions of progress. When first introduced in the 1980s, computer generated images (CGI), sequences, and animation in live action film was revolutionary. Tron (Lisberger, 1982) was the first film to feature large segments of CGI, and whilst compared to contemporary examples it looks cheaply made, at the time it was cutting edge technology and its introduction changed the way special effects were used in film production, and even the way film itself is created. One only has to look at films such as Avatar, Avengers Assemble, and Inception, to see its widespread and continuing influence. Computers and computer technology were beginning to be used to create the very stories that were commenting on their use in society, as well as on the people that used them, with War Games, (Badham, 1983) The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), and The Last Starfighter (Castle, 1984) making this commentary explicit. This protagonist is a younger, broadly identifiable character, whose appeal does not rely on muscles and violence, but instead relies on an ability to use intellect and emotion to solve problems and resolve issues. Coming from a wide range of economic and social backgrounds, these heroes, whilst predominantly male, were often seen as geeks, nerds, and even losers, and were able to use their skills as gamers and hackers and the geeky qualities often derided by their peers to achieve their heroic status, rather than the techniques frequently used by the muscular blockbuster heroes.


Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) (which was not a blockbuster on release, but later “achieved the status of blockbuster” (Whittington 169)), The Terminator (considered “James Cameron’s first blockbuster” (Welsh 171)), and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) are just a small selection of the science fiction films that made their mark on the consciousness of filmgoers, becoming canonical examples of the science fiction blockbuster. Despite, or possibly because of, this change the 1980s also saw an upsurge in the creation of family oriented films, partly through “being able to address a ‘family’ audience [which] enabled makers of films to capture large audiences through the new forms of distributing and circulating films that have come to be of increasing importance since the early 1980s” (Matthews 123). These films often featured a younger protagonist who did not rely on the physical strength of the established blockbuster her. This reflected the current concerns of the time, such as the use of technology as a theme, as well as containing critical commentary—themes and subtexts relevant to the key demographic: teenagers and young adults.


Media is used to provide social commentary, asking the viewer or reader to reflect on its content, and in turn to question events in the real world, something that the films considered in this article adhere to. Historically, the plight of the working class was extensively explored through the fiction of authors such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell in the Victorian period, and can more recently be seen in the novels of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.  Film too, has been a carrier for social commentary, almost since its inception. Early films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawnshop (1916), “depict the squalor of slum life in the crowded city’ and this can be seen throughout film history” (Gazetas 93). Daniel Franklin writes that “during the Second World War, films taught us how to act as patriots and why we should fight our enemies” (Franklin 16). The Batman films of the 1990s and early twenty-first Century also contain commentary that reflects and questions events of the time—including the War on Terror, which Marc DiPaolo considers to be one of the major themes of Batman Begins (DiPaolo 49). Therefore, I argue that the rise of the computer system, both in the public and private sphere, caused filmmakers to consider how this new technology might be exploited and the dangers inherent with its use, alongside the more positive suggestions of progress. Christine Cornea considers that “the emergence of the blockbuster represents a response that was very much bound up with political, economic, and technological changes that began to occur in the late 1970s and early 1980s” (Cornea 113). Furthermore, it is commonly acknowledged that science fiction plays a role in critiquing and exploring the way technology impacts on our lives and our acceptance of it; films that showcase or explore technology can have a direct correlation to the presence of similar technologies in the real world.


The critical commentary surrounding computers and computer technology began early in the 1980s, ranging from being recognisable to being speculative science fiction. In The Terminator, machines are indistinguishable from the humans they are targeting. In an imagined future, computers have become sentient. In establishing their dominance over humanity they unleash a nuclear holocaust leaving the remnants of humankind to fight the mastery of the computer system, Skynet. The Terminator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg contract killer who is sent back in time to stop a future revolutionary leader from being born. This film explicitly interrogates the expanding role of technology in American society, and posits that giving this new technology too much power could be catastrophic. However, rather than offering a muscular, male hero, this film also offers an alternative, feminine protagonist, Sarah Connor played by Linda Hamilton. She must defeat this Terminator in order to save her unborn son and, by extension, the human race. During the course of the film, Sarah has to use her intelligence and her emotional capacity to defeat the terminator. In deviating from the norm of muscular masculinity in the blockbuster, the role of Sarah Connor in The Terminator is both a precursor to, and contemporary of, the adolescent hero that became more prominent as the 1980s progressed. Interestingly, this role is embodied by John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), as the future saviour of the world, whilst Schwarzenegger plays the more traditional blockbuster hero in the same film and Sarah has become the more recognisable version of the hero, her femininity hidden beneath a muscular, less emotional veneer, and her maternal role fulfilled through the birth of her son.


The young hero, whilst becoming more prominent in the 1980s, was by no means a new concept, stretching back to the 1950s. However, within the context of the Hollywood and science fiction blockbuster, the young hero is most famously found in Star Wars (Lucas), through the figure of Luke Skywalker. Christine Cornea considers one of the central themes of the Star Wars films to be “Luke Skywalker’s rite of passage into adult manhood” and posits that this “involves him leaving the domestic/matriarchal space of his youth to make his entrance into the public arena of aggressive, patriarchal, power politics” (Cornea 114). She furthermore demonstrates that this character representation marks the science fiction genre as beginning to consider the dangers that are associated with becoming an adult, and with the changing world, which is continued in many other films, including, The Last Starfighter (Castle), and Terminator 2.


longside Lucas’s coming of age narrative, these films offer a damning view of American society in the 1980s. The youthful protagonists must defeat an antagonist that adults either cannot.  In these films, adults represent failure, either through a lack of openness, absenteeism, or simply incompetence, and it is left to children and teenagers to rectify problems. This challenges conventional notions of childhood in western culture. This theme is repeated in many films as the perception of the nuclear family began to disintegrate. These films place the adolescent (or child) in the centrally responsible role of hero, seeking to restore, replace, and even to maintain their place within an imperfect society. The simple structure of these films allowed children and young adults to recognise their own culture and life in the cinema they were watching.


As well being more recognisable and offering a more realistic hero to viewers in the 1980s, several films used the theme of the alien to interrogate the place of young people in society, just as other films were doing. The Last Starfighter, for instance features encounters between young people and alien life – which Lincoln Geraghty suggests is because “the young are simply more open to wonder and therefore more able to accept the otherness of alien life forms” (Geraghty 70). I suggest that films that engage with the use of videogames and computers adhere to this same principle; just as Alex’s brother accepts the alien that has replaced his brother, so too do those characters dealing with technology. David Lightmann accepts the WOPR’s sentience in War Games, without significant questioning of the technology, or their own ability to interact with it. This technology, especially in the early and mid-1980s was as alien as any other science fiction topic to most of society, despite its basic grounding in fact. Films like The Terminator, The Last Starfighter, and War Games, as well as challenging the role of the muscular hero, tell stories that explore the growing, widespread use of computers and offer critical commentary on the perceived dangers of giving this new and unknown technology too much power.  However, despite the depiction of computers as futuristic concepts in these films, computers themselves were not science fiction, they were real. Brian Johnston writes that “for the first time, science fiction was coming into your house… the computers were real, the technology was real, and you could program your computer to do almost anything” (Johnson 2). Indeed, computers were becoming part of everyday life; they were beginning to be found in answer machines, videogame consoles, telephones, and children’s toys to name just a few things, and their potential appeared limitless both in life and in film.


The presence of a young protagonist, computers, and social commentary coalesce in The Last Starfighter, whichsees Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) as a young man who dreams of escape from his life at the Starlite Starbrite trailer park. Just like Star Wars before it, the film is a coming of age narrative that charts Alex’s journey from child to manhood—leaving home and exchanging the predominantly female domestic arena for a place in the masculine intergalactic Star League. The opening sequence of The Last Starfighter shows the economic status of Alex and the people he lives amongst. M Keith Booker writes that:

Every detail [of the opening scenes] reinforces the dreariness of the working class roots of the residents of the trailer park. Every tiny trailer looks rundown, with tiny front yards packed with kitschy lawn ornaments and banged up furniture. The small dirt lane between the trailers is overrun with too many people crammed into such a tiny space (Booker 154).

The perception of imprisonment this creates is deliberate, as director Nick Castle explains. The film, he says, was originally set in a suburban environment reminiscent of ET and Poltergeist (Hooper), but he considered that this was “too derivative of these works” (Castle). He therefore changed the setting of the film to foreground Alex’s feelings of imprisonment in his working class environment and economic situation. Furthermore, the first view of Alex is of him sitting in his bedroom, playing with a solar system model, with the window behind him and a wistful expression on his face. This is both a proleptic moment, foreshadowing his departure from Earth, and offers the viewer an insight into Alex’s feelings of being trapped. He is inside; confined to the small space he shares with his brother, dreaming of freedom, whilst the viewer can see that freedom through the closed window. This setting furthermore allows audiences to feel sympathy for him and to empathise with his desire to achieve the American Dream. Here, we see the effects of the contemporary American economic situation within the film’s setting.  Reagan, according to Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, “promoted the American Dream relentlessly”, and Alex’s ability to transcend his economic situation and achieve this dream signals an affinity to the political climate at the time (Benshoff and Griffin 192).


Despite Alex’s youth he is responsible for helping his mother run the trailer park, taking on the role of father figure to his younger brother. As with Star Wars, Alex’s father is absent throughout the film, and the opening establishes that Alex fulfils that role, despite his own desires. Early in the film, Alex has to forgo a group outing and must take care of maintenance work at the trailer park, as his adult responsibilities clash with his teenage desires.  In the face of this role, Alex’s principle relaxation and escape is to play an arcade game—Starfighter. Games are usually associated with childhood, and having Alex play the Starfighter game reminds the viewer of Alex’s youth, despite his adult responsibilities. The opening welcome of the game: “Greetings Starfighter!  You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada” allows Alex to escape from the demands of these responsibilities. These include his mother and neighbours, his paternal relationship with his brother, and the stress of being a working class American teenager, something the positioning of the game in the film’s setting reminds the viewer of—and also subverts. In 1984, when the film was released, computers were not present in every home, or pocket, as they are today, and the Starfighter game, in its huge arcade casing, is situated outside the trailer park’s shop in a communal space. Locating the Starfighter game here offers a counterpoint to the initial presentation of the trailer park as a space to escape from in economic terms.  Instead, the communal nature of the park is foregrounded.  It is shown as a supportive and nourishing social environment, with Alex being part of a loving community. When he plays more skilfully than usual and completes the game for the first time, many of the park’s residents gather round him in this public arena; as well as supporting and encouraging him as he plays, the technology is so new and exciting that the residents want to be part of it—even vicariously. However, almost at the same time as his gaming success, his mother brings the news that he is not eligible for the student loan he has applied for. Once again the viewer is reminded of the constraints Alex faces in trying to achieve social and economic mobility, and the hopes he has of being freed from his life in the trailer park.


Upon receipt of his rejection letter, Alex’s future role seems fixed.  He cannot escape his financial constraints and leave the trailer park. However, the arrival of an alien lifeform named Centauri, who takes him to join the Intergalactic Starfighters as a result of his skills as a gamer. Here the film suggests that financial mobility is available to everybody and presents an America that allows social and economic mobility for those who pursue it. In doing so, The Last Starfighter also offers an optimistic view of technology in the 1980s. At this point in history, videogames and computers were still a new and little understood medium and their use and application in films amounted to “some kind of magic, or a doorway to another galaxy” (Mason) and implied to the young people creating and using computers and videogames that this technology could change their lives, making the world a better place for everyone, regardless of the obstacles that need to be overcome. Like some other adolescent films of this time, The Last Starfighter suggests that you do not have to be the cleverest, the strongest, or even the bravest person to be a hero; you just have to be good at playing videogames. Like the themes of many other films throughout the medium’s history, this is simply wish-fulfilment, albeit targeted to a very specific audience.


The wish-fulfilment narrative of The Last Starfighter explicitly draws parallels to Star Wars and central protagonist Luke Skywalker, especially in using an arcade game that involves an intergalactic rebellion. Howard Hughes explains “in the wake of Star Wars’ mega-success, every kid wanted to be a star pilot and take on the Empire. The Last Starfighter was a tale of such wish-fulfilment, offering hope to those who spent their entire lives playing videogames” (Hughes 124). Often considered a clone of the Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, VI), there are several similarities between The Last Starfighter and Star Wars. Both Alex and Luke leave their working class roots to become intergalactic pilots; both have absent fathers, although it must be said, that as Star Wars progresses, Ben Kenobi becomes a paternal figure in Luke’s life (and revealing Luke’s fathers identity is a defining moment in that trilogy). Both also realise their own potential and save the galaxy in the process. Just like Skywalker, Alex must take control of his own destiny, and make his own choices, even when faced with certain death. Alex, with his humble working class roots, journeys to the stars on a grand adventure that mirrors those narratives of earlier adventurers such as Theseus and Odysseus. Just like the narratives of these heroes, The Last Starfighter demonstrates that the adventures heroes undertake are not the only important parts of a quest; in returning home, Alex is able to recognise the strength that comes from his upbringing in the trailer park, and in his ability as a gamer. Alex does not think of himself as a hero, he considers himself to be just “a kid from a trailer park” (Castle), and the film unfolds as a way to prove to both Alex, and to the audience watching him, that not only can a kid from a trailer park be a hero, but it is his childhood experience in that trailer park that gives him the ability to become a hero. During the course of the film, Alex is transformed from being a reluctant teenager who dreams of a life outside the trailer park, to being an intergalactic Starfighter, but more than that, he becomes the Last Starfighter, who will bring about a new breed of hero that the young viewers could more easily identify with, and be inspired by.


The Last Starfighter ends on a triumphant note. Alex and Maggie leave the economic and social confines of both the trailer park and earth, ready to create a new life for themselves. Alex leaves the matriarchal and domestic space that he has grown up in, and instead takes his place within the masculine arena of the Starfighters. More than this though, the trailer park itself loses the negative economic and social connotations it began with. In contrast to the opening shots of the film, which made it a place to escape from, the end of the film shows the park, and its inhabitants, to be a loving and supportive community, willing to “stand behind Alex and Maggie as they journey to the stars” (Booker 157). As Booker explains, “The trailer park is no longer a place where dreams die, but a home where dreams begin” (Booker 158).


Whilst The Last Starfighter shows a positive role for technology,offering its teenage viewers hope for a brighter future, films that featured videogames and computer equipment were not universally optimistic. War Games, following The Terminator and Tron’s examples was promoting a more cautious approach to computers and technology.  At the same time, it was suggesting that hacking and hackers were a positive force. In War Games, David Lightmann, “a computer geek, before most people really knew what a computer geek was” (Johnson 1) accidently hacks into a state-of-the-art government computer system instead of a videogame development company. In doing so, he inadvertently nearly starts World War Three by initiating a computer simulation called Global Thermonuclear War. The film rests on the premise that the Government are unable to differentiate between the artificial intelligence (known as the WOPR) running a computer simulation and a real nuclear threat. The military begin to take real measures to counter this perceived danger. Unable to terminate the program and avert the American counterattack, Lightmann has to teach the artificially intelligent computer humanity just as the simulation he began reaches its apex, bringing with it the realisation that there is no winner in war. At the time, the film gave a fairly accurate representation of how a hacker accessed a remote system, placing a telephone receiver onto a cradle and dialling a number and in using this depiction, just like Tron before it, War Games romanticised hackers and hacking, seeming to condone breaking into computers and stealing or changing information, something that has subsequently touched most people’s lives detrimentally. Twenty-five years after the film’s release Wired magazine stated that War Games was “the geek-geist classic that legitimized hacker culture” and that “minted the nerd hero” (Brown). Rather than the contemporarily perceived hacker as a destructive force, David Lightmann is as a good character, part of the ‘phreaker’ culture that studies how telecommunications work, and that considers that all information should be freely available, a movement that has gone on to include hactivism.1 The film simultaneously perceives hacking as a positive thing and yet questions the widespread use of computers and the potential for them to go wrong if machines are given too much autonomous power. The ramifications for the young audiences of these films was immense, just like Alex’s brother at the end of The Last Starfighter who is inspired to play videogames, a generation of children and young adults “started programming, building games, and basically geeking out” (Johnson 2) as computing interests were acknowledged, explored, and even accepted through the films being released as mainstream cinema.


War Games offers viewers a hero similar to Alex in The Last Starfighter, an adolescent, game playing male. However, it is doing something substantially different in terms of theme and the exploration of computers and gaming. Unlike the Starfighter game, which is a training simulation, the machine in War Games is a sentient intelligence that has been given the power and ability to simulate and enact war. The WOPR is portrayed as a childlike individual; one who must be taught that winning is not everything. David likens it to the inventors own son, Joshua, to the extent that it is even given that child’s name instead of the acronym it is officially known by, explicitly connecting the innocence of childhood with this sentience. When Lightmann’s interactions with the WOPR, fool the US military into thinking war is about to break out, it is he that convinces Joshua to end the simulation by teaching it that there is no winner in war. This makes him the hero of the film, despite the fact it was he who triggered the military incident in the first place! Where The Last Starfighter offers a positive image of technology as a means to escape and to achieve the American Dream, War Games instead questions the wisdom in giving computers too much power and control, as well as reinforcing the age old message that war is universally lost, no matter who wins.


30 years on, and the science fiction themes that the two films offer have in some respects become fact. The Starfighter game, an intergalactic military simulation that tests Alex’s skill has gone on to become reality in the form of an international military training programme, Virtual Battlespace 2. This program offers “semi-immersive, experiential learning opportunities to familiarize and train soldiers in various tactical scenarios and environments” and is used by many countries across the world, including the UK and the US (Rundle). Hacking is no longer the romantic pursuit that WarGames portrays, if indeed it ever was, but instead is part of everyday life, with news stories reporting the infiltration of multinational businesses such as PlayStation, and more than ten million attempts to infiltrate the Pentagon every day (Bender). Hacking organisations are common and include the network Anonymous, a collective of unnamed individuals, which use ‘collaborative hacktivism’ to take action against what it perceives to be “corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people’s right to share information” (Tsotsis). The friendly, harmless hacking Lightmann carries out has become an invasive, terrorist tool, and the power given to machines has become a threat. The warnings of technological dominance and reliance have been realised in the 21st Century, created by the viewers who watched these films in the 1980s, both as a force for good, and bad.


The films exploring computers such as The Terminator, War Games and The Last Starfighter offer two opposing views of computers and technology. The Last Starfighter shows the potential for computers to be a positive influence, whilst The Terminator and War Games are “cautionary tale[s] about the futility of war and the dangers associated with giving computers too much control over our lives” (Johnson 2).  Despite the seeming dissonance in the films themes, they all nevertheless were exploring the technology that was being brought into our homes, and our daily lives.  The protagonists in these films are not the muscle bound heroes of the big blockbusters, but a more recognisable, more identifiable hero to the children and young adults that were using computers and playing videogames, and while these films were empowering and entrusting their protagonists in the 1980s with “the huge responsibility of representing earth, and defending it from hostile others” (Geraghty 2), such as aliens or computers, or even from humanity itself, they were also offering us the hope that this technology could bring about our salvation, both economically and socially.  More than that though, these films intimated that the people using computers, programming them, and playing them were heroes, not losers.



1 Hactivism is a portmanteau of the two words, ‘hack’ and ‘activism’.  This movement champions the use of computers and the internet to promote free speech, human rights, and information ethics and uses technology to as a method of political protest.


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