Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
In this new homage to the 1980s film, the only winning move is not to play.
Shall we play a game? In the 1983 geek-classic WarGames, a high-school hacker dials his way to the government supercomputer in charge of American nukes. When the talking machine suggests they play checkers, chess, and a little thermonuclear war, the teen thinks it’s mere fun. But World War Three may actually be imminent.
In the finale, a missile-launch sequence flashes across massive Air Force computer maps, apparently signaling global apocalypse. Fortunately, it turns out to be just a game—with a strong anti-proliferation message.
That scene just got a makeover in a new interactive from Mapbox.
Mapmakers Anya A'Hearn and Allan Walker recreated the iconic WarGames world map in a fully 1980s digital aesthetic, populated with open-source data on the current whereabouts of the world’s known nuclear weapons. Surprisingly, this information is relatively up-to-date, and freely available, on the websites of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, and a smattering of rabbit hole-y sites that document things like global locations of surface-to-air missiles.
Nuclear weapon-loaded aircraft carriers, air force bases, and international target ranges are mapped in terrifying detail across the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, India, Turkey, Israel, the UK, and a clutch of other European countries. You’ll find missile silos and parked ballistics on fields from North Dakota to just outside of Paris. The team also created a “command terminal” and interactive dashboard that lets you “talk” to Joshua, the computer from the film.
With North Korea inching towards a functional nuclear arsenal, the Obama administration modernizing its weapons stash, and the Iran nuclear deal playing out in unexpected ways, the moral of WarGames is as relevant as ever. Matthew Irwin, who helps head government and humanitarian work at Mapbox, says that the map takes abstract information that would otherwise be lost in a spreadsheet and makes it more palpable and real.
“It means nothing to me to talk about the numeric blast radius of a weapon,” he says. “But when you see a dot on a map the size of Detroit that represents it, that’s really scary.”
The map can be an overwhelming experience, in its level of detail and subject matter. It works best in macro, as a reminder of the film’s wise and witty message: A strange game, the computer says. The only winning move is not to play.