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An Oral History of Whac-a-Mole

The surprisingly contentious story of the beloved family game about bludgeoning small rodents

Over the past four decades, the game of Whac-A-Mole has not only enjoyed immense popularity, it’s become a part of the American lexicon. While it’s as much of an arcade staple as Pac-Man and Skeeball, Whac-A-Mole is also an ever-present carnival game, rivaling the likes of the water gun game and the shooting gallery. And while countless imitators would arrive over the years, the original Whac-A-Mole game has always been made and sold by Bob’s Space Racers in Holly Hill, Florida, on the recently renamed “Whac-A-Mole Way.”

Mike Lane, retired CFO of Bob’s Space Racers: It started back in 1976. Each November there’s a trade show called the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions — or IAAPA — and that year there was a game brought from Japan where you beat these animals that came out of holes. A couple of carnival guys named Gerald Denton and Donny Anderson saw this and decided they wanted to make this into a carnival game by putting it in a trailer. 

A short time after that — possibly at the February carnival trade show in Gibsonton, Florida — Denton and Anderson brought their non-working prototype of the game to the owner of Bob’s Space Racers, Bob Cassata, who said, “That looks pretty cool, I’ll fix it for you. I’ll make it work.” At the time, that’s something that we did — people would come to us with a concept, then we’d make the game for them and in return, we’d continue to make the game for others. 

So Bob got the game to work. You know, when you have something where the heads pop up and you’re beating it with a mallet, there’s a certain destructive action there and there’s a whole science behind making it indestructible. So he developed the piece for them, bought the rights and then we started producing them from there.  

Aaron Fechter, inventor and owner of Creative Engineering: It was November 1976, and I was at the first IAAPA I had ever attended. I brought a talking animatronic head to the convention — that was getting a lot of interest, but a lot of people also wanted me to build specific things for them, because I’m really an inventor. So I built a talking bear and things like that, and one guy had a request for me. His name was Denny [Gerald] Denton — Denny was a nickname — and Denny showed me this game a few aisles over. It was the first mallet game of its type, but it didn’t work. It was being shown by some Japanese men who couldn’t speak English. In the game, there were some kind of animals that jumped out of holes, so that was the inspiration. There was no great genius idea to come up with this game, I was just inspired by that. If anything, Denny deserves the credit because he saw the potential in the game.

I was commissioned by Denny to build a game inspired by that, and I came up with the name “Whac-A-Mole.” I had a mole sculpted by an artist who I knew and then I had a fiberglass mold made. I made an air-operated game using air cylinders, so that when air pushed up the moles, the air acted as a cushion, so when you hit the mole, it didn’t break the game. It was very durable. 

That was November 1977 and I finished it by February, but Denny came into town while I was building it and asked to stay with me in my apartment. I was single so that was fine, but one night I came home from work and he pulled out a big gun and was playing around with the chamber and acting like a tough guy — which he was, he was a tall, big guy with a 1970s mustache. He was an intimidating guy, but now he was even more intimidating because he had a gun!

So I called my dad and asked him for advice. My dad said to kick him out of my apartment, quit building the game and give him back his money. I was scared, but I had to do it. When I did, Denny broke down in tears and said that I can’t abandon him on this project, and that the men he’s working for will kill him if he goes home without this game. It broke my heart, so I told my dad that he begged me to finish the game, so my dad said to ask him to leave the apartment and finish the job, but after the game is done, he has to promise never to contact you again, ever. So I went back to Denny — he agreed and moved out.

When I was done, Denny returned, and the only other thing I did was help him put the game together on a trailer behind my warehouse, as the original model was an eight-person carnival game. But once it was done, he drove off and I never saw him again. 

Denny sold the game to Bob Cassata, and Bob called me once to ask how the electronics worked. I thought he wanted to work with me and have me build them, but that wasn’t the case, he just dragged me out to Daytona Beach to try to steal my secrets. So, I said “good luck” to him and went on my way.

At the time, I wasn’t really worried about it — I was on my way to creating Showbiz Pizza, but years later when I saw online that they were claiming they invented it, I started a grassroots effort — with the help of Showbiz Pizza fans — to get back my street cred as the inventor of the greatest carnival game of all time, which I eventually did. I was even featured in a question on Jeopardy! as the inventor of the Whac-A-Mole.

As for Denny, I don’t know what happened to him, but last I knew he was in Gibsonton, Florida, a town where carnivals go in the off season. I’ve tried to locate him over the years, just to set the record straight, but I’ve had no luck. I don’t have any ill will toward Bob or Denny either. I understand that they both felt I sold the IP when I really just sold one game, and I’ve never cared enough to want to go to court or anything over it.

Lane: As for Aaron Fechter, well, I’ve got no animosity toward him, but I don’t like some of the things he’s said about us and Bob. Maybe he did have a hand in building the original prototype, I don’t know, but he’s got some wild stories about it. 

Peter Rugg, journalist who profiled Fechter in 2015 for Popular Mechanics: It’s hard to say how much of Fechter’s story is true. It’s possible that he embellished, but it’s hard to say how much, and there are some details that point to there being more than just a kernel of truth to his story. After all, he knew the name “Denton,” which was the same name that was on Bob Cassata’s original contract, which Mike Lane showed me in person when I did my story. Fechter’s timeline also lines up with Lane’s and he also knew the original game was an eight-player trailer, which I don’t know how he’d know if he made it all up. He also shared a photo with me of him with the original mole sculpt.

I tried tracking down Anderson and Denton when I did my story, but I couldn’t find them. Fechter also puts Denton in Gibsonton, Florida, which, if you don’t know, is like a weird carny town, there’s even an X-Files episode based on that town. 

Even if Fechter’s story is 100 percent true, he’s basically saying that he jacked it from some Japanese dudes that couldn’t get theirs to work, and it’s not like he tracked down those Japanese guys to give them credit. On the other hand, if I invented the Whac-A-Mole and spent 30 years down the street from a successful business gaslighting me about it, I’d want to set the record straight too.

Lane: We don’t claim to have invented Whac-A-Mole. Over the years we’ve probably invented 50 different switches, electronics and additions to the machine, but the credit for invention goes to Denton and Anderson. Like I said, maybe Fechter was involved, but on the contract Bob signed, the credit goes to Denton and Anderson and what became of those two, I don’t know.

Mole-Whacking Goes Global

While the full story of the Whac-A-Mole’s origins may never be confirmed (I also failed to locate Denton and Anderson), how the game gained popularity is much simpler, and it happened remarkably fast.

Lane: After we built that initial trailer for Anderson and Denton, later that year we sold another trailer, then the first park model was sold to a park in Arizona in 1977. In 1980, we went to a coin-op show and we brought one with us — through that we ended up selling some to Showbiz Pizza. So it went from a non-working model in 1976 to three different markets in 1980: It was in the carnival market, the amusement park market and the coin-op arcade market, where it would dispense tickets for redemption.

It spread pretty quickly from there. See, when you take a game and you put it in an amusement park, there’s a million people that’ll see it. If you put it in a carnival, they might have a few hundred thousand to a million people who will visit that if it’s a major fair. So once these things are out there, they become pretty well-known. 

Fechter: Funny enough, shortly after, when we were building Showbiz Pizza places left and right, we were the biggest customer of Whac-A-Mole in the world, two for every location, so that was at least 400 or so machines.

The Leader-Post, Saskatchewan, Canada, excerpt from an article by Bob Watson from August 3, 1978: Certainly the most popular game in this year’s midway is the Whack-A-Mole [sic], a new addition invented by one of the concession operators. Whack-A-Mole is a silly game, combining a degree of both skill and luck. But silly or not, the players are lined up to play. And it’s easy. Just give the operator 50 cents and pick up the weird-looking hammer.

When the game starts, a mole (not a real one!) pops up from one of the five holes in front of you. All you have to do, is clobber him on the head and you score points. First one to reach 100 points (10 points per hit) wins. The difficulty comes in that you just don’t know what hole that silly mole is going to come out of next… but all who play the game agree it certainly is a lot of fun.

The Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales, Australia, excerpt from an article from July 11, 1979: Feeling vicious and aggressive lately? Bash some electronic wildlife. That’s the psychology behind the latest fun game due to make its debut in a Kings Cross pinball parlour in three weeks. Whack-A-Mole [sic] consists of coin-slot-operated orange and black boxes. Players grab hammers and try to bash tiny greenish grey moles which sneak out of holes. Every time a mole is hit, it gives a tiny screech and tallies points. 

Fechter: I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, as Bob has done a great job at marketing that game, which I don’t know that I could have done making and selling these myself.

Lane: Over the years there have been many improvements, like “high score of the day” and a skill feature to make the game more difficult. There’s an executive version that sits in a walnut cabinet, and you can even get single ones made for your basement, where the moles are based on you and your friends, which we have an artist create. We’ve also taken to making themed versions, like at Universal Studios in Orlando, in The Simpsons area, there’s a version there called Whac-A-Rat starring their rat character.

Cameron Andrews, pier communications at Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier: Our Whac-a-Mole has been at Pacific Park since we opened in 1996. Guests see it on the midway and immediately want to challenge their friends or family. The game design is unpredictable, which creates an adrenaline rush as players try to whack as many moles as possible in the allotted time. And, of course, in addition to bragging rights, there’s always a nice prize for the winner.

Adding to the fun, in 2017 we opened Wac-A-Molé Tacos, a new taco shop on the Santa Monica Pier. Whac-A-Mole might be a weird name for a taco shop, but we like to think we upped our taco and loaded nacho game with this place.

The Legacy of the Whac-A-Mole

While Fechter is once again widely credited as the inventor of the Whac-A-Mole, and Bob’s Space Racers as the ones who made it a household name, the impact of the game hasn’t been limited to these two — it’s also provided countless memories for friends and families at carnivals, theme parks and arcades. Despite its family-friendly image though, the game hasn’t been without its occasional detractors who feel it’s encouraged violence and cruelty.

The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY, excerpt from December 1, 2001: “‘Tis the season to encourage peace on Earth and goodwill to all — including animals,” said PETA education manager Danielle Moore. The animal-rights organization says toys like the electric Whac-a-Mole Game promote a link between cruelty to animals and violence to humans.

Fechter: I remember back in the Showbiz Pizza days, we got a complaint from PETA and rather than fight it, the guys running it decided to change the game to “Whac-A-Demon” instead. They got new devil sculpts instead of moles to pacify PETA.

Luca Chittaro and Riccardo Sioni, excerpt from “Killing Non-Human Animals in Video Games: A Study on User Experience and Desensitization to Violence Aspects,” PsychNology Journal, 2012,: The classic Whac-a-Mole arcade game is the first example of a popular genre in which a specific violent element (i.e., aggression toward non-human animal species) seems to be central to the user experience. As video game technology progressed over the years, this game genre moved to computers and, more recently, to handheld consoles and mobile phones, which are well suited for quick, on-the-go gaming sessions afforded by this genre.

Richard Parliament, aka Top Hat Gaming Man, gaming historian: When you think about it, the concept of Whac-A-Mole is kind of hilariously dark, and because of this, some have viewed it as the first mechanical game centered around violence, as though it was the predecessor to games like Call of Duty and the like. But mechanical shooting galleries stretch all the way back to the 19th century, and even before that, shooting cans in the fair has a violent aspect to it. Acts of violence are so entrenched in gaming that most of the time we don’t even notice that they’re there anymore. I guess you could argue that shooting gallery games are the ancestor to the first-person shooter, while Whac-A-Mole is the ancestor to something like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, which — like Whac-A-Mole — are generally considered clean family fun. 

Angel Castelan, assistant manager at Coney Island’s Luna Park: I’ve run the Whac-A-Mole game so many times at Luna Park, it’s a really fast-paced game and it gives people a huge rush. We have 14 players going at once and the first person to 150 wins a prize. It’s one of the top games in the park, along with water racing and a few others. It’s such a classic game, everyone knows it.

Dan Stanek, special events consultant at Castle Party Rentals: We’ve been renting and selling Whac-A-Moles for about 10 years now, and it’s a game that anyone can play. We’ll rent them out to a five-year-old’s birthday party one day and a corporate trade show the next. 

Lane: In 2008, the rights to the “Whac-A-Mole” brand were sold to Mattel. So Mattel actually owns the name and they produce Whac-A-Mole tabletop games. They handle all the licensing. We actually had licensed the first Whac-A-Mole tabletop game in 1999 through Toybiz, and later that was acquired by Hasbro, but when we were renegotiating, Mattel made us an offer and we went with them. But Bob’s Space Racers retains a perpetual license to produce the amusement products, so we continue to be the ones making Whac-A-Mole for arcades and carnivals. We’ve also been involved in a number of commercials featuring Whac-A-Mole, my favorite being one with Venus Williams.

Stanek: We were involved in a Super Bowl commercial this year with Jeep. It had Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and he played a version of Whac-A-Mole while the groundhog watched. It was a pretty cool thing to be involved with.

Lane: Whac-A-Mole has also become part of the language, I see and hear it on TV all the time and people would call me and say they heard it being used. It happened so much that when I was getting ready for my retirement, I told people, “You can quit calling me now!” whenever somebody used Whac-A-Mole as an expression. 

Just this past year, the city of Holly Hill renamed the street we sit on as “Whac-A-Mole Way.” Bob’s Space Racers sold its first game in 1970, so 2020 is our 50th year, which is pretty special, as not many gaming companies are in business that long.

If you’ve ever played Whac-A-Mole, there’s a real satisfaction in the game that sets it apart from others. For carnival gaming, we generally consider it a type of merchandising — like when you shoot a water pistol at a target, you win a prize, so people are motivated to play the game by a prize, but when it comes to Whac-A-Mole, there is a certain sense of accomplishment. There’s a certain sense of competition. You can compete with your friends on a single player or in a group game in a park. It’s become part of the culture, and I think its staying power is due to that competitive play value — that’s why people are still playing it over 40 years later.