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.

Marvel Fan Creates Petition to Bring Back Luke Cage Following Netflix Cancellation

David Lee, Netflix
David Lee, Netflix

Fans are still shocked over Netflix's cancellation of ​Luke Cage​. For many, it's the end to an important series that tackled racial issues and privilege with a predominantly black cast. So Marvel fans are fighting to bring it back.

Luke Hunter took to Change.org and launched a petition for ​Netflix to bring back the two-time People's Choice Award-nominated show.

Luke Cage is the finest Marvel show in existence," the petition plea begins. "It exemplifies heroics, sassy banter, great music, and family fun. The cancellation of this beloved show is utterly flabbergasting. We must fight to save our hero of Harlem as he fights for us. Save Power Man!”

The petition, which started yesterday, already has 2060 signees, with a goal of 2500 signatures.

Luke Cage is one of many Marvel shows that Netflix has axed in recent months. The streaming service ​cancelled Iron Fist just last week.

Unfortunately, Marvel’s Luke Cage will not return for a third season," Marvel and Netflix announced in a joint statement. "Everyone at Marvel Television and Netflix is grateful to the dedicated showrunner, writers, cast and crew who brought Harlem’s Hero to life for the past two seasons, and to all the fans who have supported the series."

Deadline Hollywood is reporting that Disney has no plans to bring back the show on its ​upcoming streaming service, or on any other platform.

Halloween Breaks Franchise Record With $77.5M Opening

Ryan Green, Universal Pictures
Ryan Green, Universal Pictures

Horror fans have waited nearly a decade to see ​Michael Myers return to the big screen, and have finally gotten to see the knife-wielding serial killer return in an exhilarating and frightening new movie.

The nine-year wait for a new Halloween movie was the longest in the series' history, and it did not disappoint—especially when it came to its box office haul. In North America, ​Variety reports that the movie earned $77.5 million over the weekend after launching on nearly 4000 screens. It's the second-highest October debut in history, only behind this year's Venom.

The new film, which is directed by David Gordon Green, obliterated the series' previous record-holder, Rob Zombie's polarizing 2007 remake, which made $26 million in its first weekend.

"I am enormously proud of this film,” producer Jason Blum said in a statement. “Halloween brings the franchise back to life in a fresh, relevant, and fun way that is winning over fans and critics alike.”

Early estimates were targeting a $65 million opening weekend, but it hardly comes as a surprise that fans came out in droves to see the movie. Not only is Halloween a direct sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 classic, which is easily the most acclaimed film in the series' history, but it also saw ​Jamie Lee Curtis reprise her iconic role as Laurie Strode.

Curtis wasn't the only returning player; ​John Carpenter came on board as the executive producer, which marks his first direct involvement in the series since 1981's Halloween 2.

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