Missile Command’s Message about War

In 1980, during the midst of the United States’ Cold War with Russia, Atari designer David Theurer created the game Missile Command (Atari Inc 1980), an arcade game that required players to fend off incoming attacks and protect their nameless cities. Theurer himself did not come up with the idea for the game; a high-ranking employee at Atari saw a story about satellites in a magazine that included a picture of a radar screen and he passed the image along to Theurer’s boss. His boss told him to make a game that resembled the photo with the intent to intercept missiles and protect the player’s bases, which would remain the general concept of the game throughout the design process as would the core components of the gameplay (Rubens).

Once the game was commissioned, Theurer finalized the narrative and worked to make the game as sleek as possible, routinely taking out additional design elements. While the finished game design simply has base camps at the bottom of the screen and missiles coming in from the top of the screen, there were many features that were removed before the game was released, including a railroad system to bring in more missiles that could be blown up by the enemy’s fire, a radar that would reveal parts of the screen slowly, and, most notably, any signifiers for the location of the base camp (Rubens). The cities were originally six cities in California where Atari had offices, but they removed the names and any clues to the location so that every player would feel that they were protecting their hometown (Rubens). This kind of choice by Theurer shows that he was taking the concept and narrative of the game very seriously and was interested in the morality behind having the USSR bombing America, especially with regards to the larger social context as that was a very real fear for many people. Theurer also consciously made the decision to not allow the player to be capable of being on the offensive of the attack; he wanted the players to be able to take pride in this game of defense.

To play Missile Command (Atari Inc 1980), the player must move the crosshair across the sky background by using a trackball and press a button to launch missiles to counterattack the incoming enemy fire. The player has thirty missiles cased in three batteries which can be damaged by enemy fire that is not stopped. Once the player passes a level, they are faced with new challenges and difficulties, including faster and more prolific missiles. As with most arcade games of this era, there is no real way to win; the six cities are eventually all destroyed and the player is simply competing to see how long they can last. However, there is an option to win a bonus seventh city, which would keep the player in the game a bit longer. Each level ends when all enemy missiles are destroyed or reach the cities and only three cities can be destroyed per level. Once the level ends, the remaining missiles and cities are converted to the bonus points capable of unlocking a seventh city. If the player runs out of missiles during the level, the enemy’s missiles will continue if there are more cities left and they will lose control of their base. When the game finally ends, it does not display the traditional “Game Over” message, but rather, above the image of the burning cities, the screen reads “The End.” This is emblematic of the creator’s intended message as he was tormented by the game and even had nightmares of his city being attacked by missiles; he wanted the player to know that “In the end, all is lost. There is no winner” during war (Rubens).


Works Cited

Atari Inc 1980. Missile Command, video game, arcade, Atari Inc.

Rubens, Alex. “The creation of Missile Command and the haunting of its creator, Dave Theurer.” Polygon. Vox Media, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.



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