The Computer Virus That Brought Down Whac-A-Mole

Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk inside any pop-up carnival, amusement park, or retro arcade space and you’re likely to find a rodent infestation so stubborn that visitors are expected to bludgeon the pests to death with a mallet. Despite receiving thousands of concussive blows, these creatures are virtually guaranteed to continue being a nuisance—and for the game’s operators, their seeming indestructibility is a lucrative source of revenue.

Whac-A-Mole, first introduced in 1976 by the Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) amusement company out of Florida, is a cabinet game that features plastic-molded moles raised and lowered on mechanical sticks to be walloped by players wielding a foam club. Despite all of the moving parts, it’s generally understood that the games will require only minimal maintenance: a new washer every now and then, and maybe a cleaning.

That’s why the sudden failure of several Whac-A-Mole machines beginning in 2008 was so strange. BSR began fielding calls from unhappy customers who complained that their units were malfunctioning. After working fine for days or weeks, the units would power down without warning.

Some of them opted to deal directly with Marvin Wimberly, a computer programmer and contractor working for BSR who was able to diagnose and fix what appeared to be a defective module that was infected with a virus.

Before long, both BSR and local authorities would come to believe the repair came easily to Wimberly for a simple reason: They suspected he was the one who infected the modules in the first place.

A Whac-A-Mole game in Cedar Point, Ohio
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to a 2011 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Wimberly, then 61, had been with BSR since 1980 as an independent contractor. For 22 years, Wimberly wrote the computer programs that told Whac-A-Mole and other games how to interact with players. Wimberly believed his software was his property; BSR believed they owned it—a point of contention that would soon come into dispute.

The work wasn’t always steady, and Wimberly was apparently unhappy with his wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations for BSR to buy his software outright for $500,000, in 2009 he asked that his fee per chip be raised from $60 to $150.

A few months prior, in September 2008, modules began surfacing that were infected with a virus—or what some programmers call a “logic bomb”—that would render the machines useless after a set number of games: sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 511. BSR bought equipment to examine the chips, found the virus, and became convinced that Wimberly had gone rogue. They told police he had sold them 443 infected modules for $51,000, then sat back as the company began to field complaints from operators. When BSR approached Wimberly with offers to fix the chips, he would—and then, according to police, promptly install a new virus that would begin the countdown all over again.

The authorities also believed Wimberly fielded inquiries from disgruntled customers who didn’t want to bother going through BSR for repairs, and even registered a website, bobsupgrades.com, that sought to solicit repair work from amusement operators.

The cabinet art for the Whac-A-Mole arcade game
Nick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Feeling they had sufficient information from BSR, Orlando authorities arrested Wimberly in February 2011 on charges relating to offenses against intellectual property. He was released after posting $15,000 bail. BSR CFO Michael Lane told the press that Wimberly’s actions had led to roughly $100,000 in losses for the company.

The news media found a lot of humor in poisoning the well of Whac-A-Mole, but Wimberly, who was accused of a second-degree felony, wasn't laughing: He faced 15 years in prison.

Except Wimberly wouldn’t be swatted away so easily. According to court records kept in Volusia County, Florida, Wimberly asserted the virus was a software bug that was a result of new diagnostic procedures, not sabotage. In April 2012, Wimberly argued before a judge that, as the owner of the software under question, he couldn’t be accused of tampering with it—as he owned it outright.

“He is essentially accused of modifying his own software,” read the motion to dismiss, which noted that Wimberly hadn’t been paid for the repairs and was therefore failing to profit from the alleged wrongdoing. The court agreed, and the criminal case was dismissed in April 2013.

But Wimberly wasn’t satisfied. In September 2013, he sued Bob’s Space Racers for misappropriation of trade secrets, accusing them of continuing to sell Whac-A-Mole and other games containing Wimberly’s codes after parting ways with him and without paying any licensing fees. He also alleged that BSR had failed to come to him with news of the virus’s discovery, preferring to build a case against him with local police instead; BSR countered that Wimberly had “intentionally programmed the [chip] software to include a virus” and that he was paid to repair the malfunctioning chips.

The case dragged on for more than two years, inching toward a jury trial. In November 2015, the parties finally reached a settlement with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for BSR declined to comment to Mental Floss on the matter; Wimberly could not be reached.

If there was an attempt to sabotage Whac-A-Mole, it couldn't be proven to a criminal court's satisfaction. If Wimberly did indeed own the software, his argument that he was free to do with it as he liked would have been weighed against the harm done to BSR's reputation for having to service defective modules. But Wimberly insisted he did not write or install a virus: The accusation that he had, he claimed, was unfounded.

The next time you play, it may be a good idea to remind yourself that the people behind the game often have worse headaches than the moles.

8 Festive Facts About Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies

The holiday season means gifts, lavish meals, stocking stuffers, and what appear to be literally hundreds of holiday-themed movies running in perpetuity on the Hallmark Channel, which has come to replace footage of a crackling fireplace as the background noise of choice for cozy evenings indoors. Last year, roughly 70 million people watched Hallmark's holiday scheduling block. If you’re curious how the network manages to assemble films like Check Inn to Christmas, Christmas at Graceland: Home for the Holidays, and Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen with such efficiency—a total of 40 new films will debut this season on the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and Hallmark Movies Now—keep reading.

1. The Hallmark Channel Christmas movie tradition started with ABC.

The idea of unspooling a continuous run of holiday films started in the 1990s, when ABC offshoot network ABC Family started a "25 Days of Christmas" programming promotion that would go on to feature the likes of Joey Lawrence and Mario Lopez. The Hallmark Channel, which launched in 2001, didn’t fully embrace the concept until 2011, when ABC Family moved away from the concept in an effort to appeal to teen viewers.

2. Most Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are shot in Canada.

To maximize their $2 million budget, most Hallmark Channel holiday features are shot in Canada, where tax breaks can stretch the dollar. Wintry Vancouver is a popular destination, though films have also been shot in Montreal and Toronto. One film, 2018's Christmas at the Palace, was shot in Romania to take advantage of the country's castles.

3. Each Hallmark Channel Christmas movie only takes a couple of weeks to film.

If you’re wondering why a holiday movie on basic cable can regularly attract—and keep—a list of talent ranging from Candace Cameron Bure to Lacey Chabert, the answer is partly scheduling. Most Hallmark holiday movies take just two to three weeks to shoot, meaning actors don’t have to commit months out of the year to a project. Actors like Rachael Leigh Cook, who stars in this year's A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, have also complimented the channel on giving them opportunities to be with their families while on location: Cook said that the production schedule allowed her time to FaceTime with family back home.

4. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies use a variety of tricks to create snow.

Even more pervasive than Dean Cain in the Hallmark Channel Christmas line-up is snow. Because some of the films shoot in the summer, it’s not always possible to achieve that powder naturally. Producers use a variety of tricks to simulate snowfall, including snow blankets that mimic the real thing when laid out; foam; commercial replica snow; crushed limestone; and ice shavings. Actors might also get covered with soapy bubbles for close-ups. The typical budget for snow per movie is around $50,000.

5. There’s a psychological reason why Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are so addictive.

Like a drug, Hallmark Channel Christmas movies provide a neurological reward. Speaking with CNBC in 2019, Pamela Rutledge, behavioral scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, and a faculty member in the Media Psychology department at Fielding Graduate University, explained that the formulaic plots and predictability of the films is rewarding, especially when viewers are trying to unwind from the stress of the holiday season. “The lack of reality at all levels, from plot to production, signals that the movies are meant to be escapism entertainment,” Rutledge said. “The genre is well-defined, and our expectations follow. This enables us to suspend disbelief.”

6. Hallmark Channel Christmas movie fans now have their own convention.

Call it the Comic-Con of holiday cheer. This year, fans of Hallmark Channel’s Christmas programming got to attend ChristmasCon, a celebration of all things Hallmark in Edison, New Jersey. Throngs of people gathered to attend panels with movie actors and writers, scoop up merchandise, and vie for prizes during an ugly sweater competition. The first wave of $50 admission tickets sold out instantly. Hallmark Channel USA was the official sponsor.

7. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are helping keep cable afloat.

Actors Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas are pictured in a publicity still from the 2017 Hallmark Channel original movie 'Miss Christmas'
Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas in Miss Christmas (2017).
Hallmark Channel

In an era of cord-cutting and streaming apps, more and more people are turning away from cable television, preferring to queue up programming when they want it. But viewers of Hallmark Channel’s holiday offerings often tune in as the movie is airing. In 2016, 4 million viewers watched the line-up “live.” One reason might be the communal nature of the films. People tend to watch holiday-oriented programming in groups, tuning in as they air. The result? For the fourth quarter of 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network among women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, even outpacing broadcast network programming on Saturday nights.

8. You can get paid to watch Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

If you think you have the constitution to make it through 24 Hallmark Channel holiday films in 12 days, you might want to consider applying for the Hallmark Movie Dream Job contest, which is sponsored by Internet Service Partners and will pay $1000 to the winning entrant who seems most capable of binging the two dozen films and making wry comments about them on social media. You can enter though December 6 here.

Get Cozy This Winter in a Harry Potter-Themed Tiny House on Airbnb

Airbnb
Airbnb

If you're in need of a magical getaway, look no further than this Harry Potter-themed listing on Airbnb. The tiny house packs all the magic of Hogwarts into a space slightly larger than Harry's cupboard under the stairs.

The "Harry Potter Fan’s Magical Tiny House of Wizarding" is located in Marlboro, New York, about 90 minutes away from New York City. Though the 300-square-foot space is tiny, there's no shortage of whimsical details for Muggles to discover. Memorabilia from the wizarding world—like wands, a Sorting Hat, and a Goblet of Fire—are hidden throughout the home. Available reading materials include issues of The Daily Prophet and The Quibbler, as well as all seven books in the Harry Potter series. And whether, you're a Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff, you'll feel welcome: The crests of all four Hogwarts houses are hung on the walls.

The listing features plenty of perks guests can enjoy, regardless of their level of fandom. The tiny house sits on a 30-acre farm with a lavender field, a fire pit, and easy access to nearby vineyards and orchards. The Airbnb host writes that you should even expect to see some fantastic beasts during your stay. "Don't be surprised if you see coyotes, families of deer, and every type of bird you could imagine—not to mention more butterflies than you've ever seen, depending on the season," the listing reads. "This is a truly immersive experience into nature."

The Harry Potter tiny home is only available as a limited-run pop-up during the winter. You and up to three friends can book your stay for $159 per night today through Airbnb. And if you're looking for a slightly roomier experience that's just as magical, there are Harry Potter-themed rentals in Atlanta and the UK.

Harry Potter tiny house on Airbnb.
Airbnb

Wands in Harry Potter tiny home.
Airbnb

Harry Potter tiny house on Airbnb.
Airbnb

Harry Potter tiny house on Airbnb.
Airbnb

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