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Why DEFCON is the scariest game ever made

When the only winning move is to die the least

Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

DEFCON is a game that makes me think. That’s not unusual for a strategy game, but DEFCON doesn’t just make me think about tactics; it makes me think about Stanislav Petrov. Back in 1983, Soviet lieutenant colonel Petrov decided his nuclear missile-detecting computer was wrong when it showed a couple of incoming missiles from the United States. He assumed it was wrong because surely the U.S. would send a much larger first strike.

I think about that, because it’s also true in DEFCON. You can’t hope to annihilate your opponents in a first strike without an overwhelming bombardment. For a brief moment, this abstract game becomes a little less abstract. The existential dread creeps in. What did Petrov’s computer interface look like? Probably nothing like my game ... right?

A lot of games have scared me — usually because I play a character, facing off against or running away from some kind of monster. But the game that’s terrified me like no other is a minimalist, real-time strategy game. In the video above, I explain exactly what makes DEFCON the scariest game ever made.

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