Today, computers are a part of everyday life. That's why movies and TV shows often show computers, and involve them in everything from comedy to action sequences. Unfortunately, they almost always get it wrong. Here are seven mistakes that almost all media make when showing computers.

1. Anyone Can Immediately Use Any Program
Examples: Law and Order, Mission Impossible
The Problem: You've probably seen it a thousand times - a police officer or secret agent or master thief gets into a room full of computers, and begins working it right away to access codes or turn off the doomsday device or deactivate security systems. And they have never used the computer program before.
The Goof: In the real world, sitting someone down in front of a new program always brings the question, "How does this work? Where's the command to do this?" Even people who have used a computer program for years still struggle to find and use all its features.
The Reality: If every instance of using a new computer were realistic, the first thing the secret agent or cop would do is look for the help feature, and spend a few minutes reading it, click around for a few more minutes getting it wrong, and then call someone for help.

2. Huge Fonts
Examples: Hackers, Watchmen, The Matrix
The Goof: Almost every time we see a computer, everything written on it appears in huge text that fills up almost the entire screen. An email could consist of three lines, but fills up the whole screen. People type and it scrolls across in massive type.
The Problem: The reason TV and movie computers do this is so we the viewer can read it. In the real world, most text on a computer is written in 12-point fonts. That's because it needs to fit on one screen. If everything we saw on a computer was written in enormous type, we wouldn't have room for anything but text. No pictures or windows or forms. It would take six or seven screens just to type a 250-word letter.
The Reality: If Hollywood computers occupied the real world, that plucky female lawyer who got an email from her boyfriend reading "Miss U" in text that fills the entire screen would frown, and fiddle with the display settings to reduce the text size.

3. Typing Does Everything
Examples: Tomorrow Never Dies, Swordfish, Iron Man 2
The Goof: In movies and TV shows, almost without exception, using a computer involves one thing: typing. Everything from using the Web to hacking into a government mainframe involves furious typing. And even more typing. The better the computer user, the faster they type.
The Problem: Keyboards are rapidly becoming obsolete as the primary interface. Most of today's computers use a graphical interface that operate with a mouse, but you rarely see characters in the media using mice. It seems this trope is based on the idea that audiences will find typing more impressive than clicking a mouse button.
The Reality: Watching a movie character use a computer should consist of watching the hero click a mouse button, drag it around, click the button again, type a few letters, and then go back to another click.

4. Time Travelers Can Use Modern or Futuristic Computers
Examples: Star Trek: The Voyage Home, Doctor Who
The Problem: In movies with time travelers, especially ones set in modern day, the time travelers acclimate quickly to computers. Whether they're from the year 1980 going to 2013 or from the year 2013 going to 5014, they still manage to sit down and do whatever they need to do on the computer with only slight adjustments.
The Goof: Computers have changed a lot and continue to change. If you took a computer expert on DOS from the year 1982 and dropped them in front of a Windows 8 computer in 2013, they would have no idea how it worked. Likewise, take a computer genius from our time, and tell them to operate a 1950's computer driven by punch cards. See how far they get. In fifty years, computers would look like nothing like the archaic systems of today, let alone a hundred or a thousand years from now.
The Reality: Time travelers should look at a computer, pound on it with their fingers, and call for help. Either that or go take a computer course..

5. Computers Controlled By Hand Gestures
Examples: Iron Man, Minority Report, Avatar
The Goof: It's become a cliche in today's movies and TV shows to have futuristic computers operating with hand gestures. You'll have the characters dragging and sweeping icons across panels or even thin air. The mouse and keyboard are obsolete, replaced by good old fingers. With today's touch screens, it seems like a natural progression. It looks really cool and fun, but there's a problem.
The Problem: Imagine a future where everything you wanted to do on a computer had to be done by moving your arms. That would be fun for a while. Now imagine going to work and having to fling your arms around for eight hours straight, all day, every day. By five o'clock, your arms would feel like spaghetti. Carpal tunnel would be replaced as the number one work-related injury by tennis elbow.
The Reality: After an hour, Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report would want to slump into a chair, connect a mouse, and just relax.

6. Computers Say "Access Denied / Access Granted"
Examples: The Net, Jurassic Park, Goldeneye
The Goof: It's become a staple of action movies where the hero tries to get into the enemy computer. They type out the password, and suddenly the computer shows on screen and says out loud, "Access Denied." The hero tries again. The computer yells, "Access Denied." The hero tries one more time, and the computer yells, "Access Granted."
The Problem: When was the last time you tried logging into your computer at work and saw a huge flashing banner and booming voice that says "Access Granted?" When was the last time you forgot your password, and saw a huge banner and voice yell out, "Access Denied"? There's a reason for that - what's the point? The time it takes to confirm your success by announcing it, you could just be in your computer and moving on. Likewise, there's no need to yell out that your password is wrong.
The Reality: In the spy movie, the hero would type out his secret password, the password lock would disappear, and he would move on with his life.

7. Easily Guessed Passwords
Examples: Watchmen, Batman and Robin, Wargames
The Goof: It's another one of those cliches where the heroes need to get into a computer system. They think about the person who owns the computer, maybe look at a picture on the person's desk, and type in the name of the owner's wife or daughter. Bingo, they're in.
The Problem: Of course, people are lazy, and want to use the simplest and easiest passwords to remember. If it were up to us, all our passwords would be the name of our children, pets, and birthdates. Or the most commonly used password in the world, "password." That's why any worthwhile security system requires passwords to be a combination of letters and numbers. The best security systems require at least eight characters, uppercase and lowercase letters, and a special character. Not to mention that most security systems require a unique user ID as well as a password.
The Reality: Even if the hero knew the password was the name of the villain's favorite cat, he would still sit there trying "fluffy," "yffulf," "Fluffy," "fluffy1," and a million other variations before he gave up and tried something else.

Have you ever seen any of these goofs? What goofs have you noticed? Let us know in the comments.

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Nigel Mitchell said...

TS, I agree that Doctor Who is an extraordinary time traveler, so he should get a pass. But his companions never have problems operating computers, either. But one thing I find funny is that computers look pretty much the same in the future. He'll go to the year 100,000,000 and operate a computer that uses a keyboard and screen.

As for STIV, I agree that Scotty's attempt to talk to the computer kind of addresses my point. But then immediately after that, he's typing away like a madman to design the stuff he needed. Even though he's never seen a computer like it before.

Nigel Mitchell said...

Yeah, I'm the overanalyzer. I can't help it!

Nigel Mitchell said...

While it's true that computer systems sometimes allow easily guessed passwords, my point is that they never run into computers with decent security requirements in movies. I wish my job would let me use "password" as my password instead of an eight-character password with upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters that has be changed every ninety days.

Nigel Mitchell said...

That was done well...except for the idea of a twelve year old girl knowing Unix.

Nigel Mitchell said...

Ditto, Alex

TS Hendrik said...

I concur regarding his companions. They have no excuse. However on the subject of the computers not changing, still having keyboards... I'm okay with that. We may have added rubber, but the basic shape of the wheel, hasn't changed since inception. Somethings work.

And yes, I know what you're saying about Scotty, but as few films actually make a point of referencing the gap, I felt it should be noted nonetheless. I also love Sulu with the windshield wipers. haha

Nigel Mitchell said...

Yeah, I was gonna use "Superman Returns" as an example - that's a good one. It's actually been discovered that governments had really crappy passwords. Like the password for the US system to launch nuclear weapons was 000000000. They were afraid a more complex password would slow them down. And in the Soviet Union, 12345 was a popular password on government systems. But stupidity in really life doesn't mean we should see it in fiction.

Pat Dilloway said...

BTW, I did some real-life movie hacking this weekend. I was at my brother's apartment complex's clubhouse and I wanted to use the Wifi. So I tried the property name as the password and it worked! So there, I would be an awesome movie hacker.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Chances are the Doctor was there at all the key moments in computer history, whispering into Clive Sinclair's ear "call it the Spectrum" etc...

manik hossain said...

This system involves 4-lane wide, exclusive roads with Real Estate Montage grade separators that will reduce the dependence on private transport in favour of more efficient public transport.

Google Boy said...

How about "uploading virus" movies? I have seen it in umpteen scenes including alien movies such as Independence Day! Who can actually upload a virus and not be infected with it? And how do you expect to work in the target without even knowing its OS ?

Another observation is that all programs run in full screen, Not seen anybody using browsers or any sort of framed windows. Even dating sites run in full screen with smileys as big as a tennis ball.

R. Humus said...

What about the 1980's dopey computer-game sound effects as text appears on a screen? Seriously? Does YOUR computer make a sound every time a character appears on a line of text somewhere?

Nigel Mitchell said...


Nigel Mitchell said...

Good points!

Talion said...

Number 3 is inaccurate. I use Linux and rarely use the mouse anymore. I Can initiate or close out a program in 3-4 keystrokes--a tenth of the time it would take me to use a mouse for the same thing. I make use of all of any programs' hotkey functions--adding my own when I can--and have a long alias file which allows me to do nearly everything I need to do from the keyboard. My mouse use is mainly starting, rewinding and stopping videos or working in Gimp. Someone is misinformed. I also freelance in IT, and can tell you most of the companies I have worked for had easily guessed passwords before I showed up; some still do because they were too foolish to take my advice.

Nigel Mitchell said...

In most movies and TV shows, they don't use Linux


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