Winning at Whac-A-Mole

Our daughters were young when I first saw the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. The game is simple enough. The task for the player is to hit the five randomly appearing plastic moles that surface from holes in a waist-high, flat-surfaced console with a mallet. The player is rewarded for hitting fast and hitting hard. There is an inherent satisfaction for a kid, who is otherwise discouraged from hitting anything, to be holding a mallet with an acceptable target. Some developmental experts might point to the benefits of the game in stimulating eye-hand coordination and response time, while others may be concerned about an emerging pattern of violence. Parents may be pleased to simply have an opportunity for energy to be spent, even at the risk of transference from the mole to a sibling.

I sometimes wonder if a prehistoric version of Whac-A-Mole existed to train youngsters with the skills needed for survival in a potentially life-threatening environment. At that point in human history, Whac-A-Mole was not really a game, but the everyday reality of life. Maybe that’s still true…sort of.

As I watched the game played for the first time, I experienced an immediate aversion to the experience. Perhaps it felt too real. Each mole represented something on my to-do list. Like the game, in the course of modern life we are presented with things that simply appear, seemingly at random. Society rewards us for hitting fast and hard. For kids, homework assignments are a version of Whac-A-Mole when coupled with many athletic, arts and community activities. The experience is actually quite rewarding as effort turns to achievement and kids lay waste to the land of life’s moles. Hit well, and life will reward you; miss, and there are sanctions. It’s simply reality.

Whac-A-Mole is also designed to increase speed as the play continues and more moles appear along the way. This is real enough. As we proceed into adulthood the clock does seem to turn faster and we learn that our moles breed. The pathways of education, career and family invariably introduce new things that need to be whacked. For most this is anticipated, in fact welcomed, as we grow in our capacity to hit hard and fast. What is sometimes a surprise is the realization that other people can add moles to our game whether we like it or not. The game is limited to five moles; the reality of life is not. This is what we could technically call the elasticity of moles, as our capacity increases our demand for moles grows in direct proportion to our capacity to handle them. Ask a busy person to do something and it will get done.

There is another aspect to the game that often goes unnoticed. If we fail to hit the moles they go away. The consequence for the game is that we also fail to score points. When a mole disappears without a whack, an opportunity is lost. I know of someone who kept a pile of papers in his office with the label O.B. E. – overtaken by events. This is another form of disappearing moles. Eventually the pile was tossed (hopefully recycled) and life continued. The problem is sometimes when we allow things to become O.B.E., a choice has been made, whether it is the loss of an opportunity or the consequences of inaction. To not act is simply the negative space of decision-making.

The arcade version of Whac-A-Mole also has the capacity for multiple players. Several individual games are linked together and the players compete. This is what we call a committee. The difference between the game and the real is everyone playing in the arcade begins and ends with five moles. In the committee, the task is to share the moles. Sometimes we feel like the one with the fewest moles wins. Here, the roles of the mole herders matter a lot. There are some, like me, who have the authority delegate moles to others. Many are simply on the receiving end. The task of leadership is to manage the mole herd effectively. The health of an organization has a lot to do with how we share the moles, and how we help each other with the whacking. There are always more moles than people, but teamwork makes us incredibly effective as the mole I miss, someone else will hit.

It used to be in Whac-A-Mole you could be certain to win with a score of 150, at which time you would receive a prize. Even better in the arcade context, as you made progress, smaller prizes could be redeemed for larger prizes as the scores rose. In part, this is still true. What’s new is the owners of the arcade now decide what serves as a winning score, the number points you receive for a single hit and the speed at which the game is played. Life works in a similar way as achievement can lead to more opportunities for achievement, but what it takes to achieve is often decided by those who set the rules. We spend a lot of time in society today just trying to understand the rules.

We cannot ignore one additional key element that brings excitement to the game. There is a time limit. The number of hits we score in Whac-A-Mole is also a function of time. In life we refer to this as a sense of urgency. In the game, if we were simply to concentrate all of our effort on one mole and be sure to hit that mole every time it appears, we could boast of consistency and accuracy that might indeed be legendary. However, we would score so few points, we would never win the overall prize. For some though, there can be great satisfaction in devoting focused energy on a specific task. As someone who ranges widely in life’s experiences, I sometimes envy the single-mole players. There is a contentment and surety about the tasks they undertake. How we choose to use the time we have is a very personal decision. Some of us want to win prizes for hitting the most; others are interested in hitting well. A few find a way of doing both.

For those seriously committed to Whac-A-Mole, there is also a home version. It’s obviously not at the same scale, but all the essential elements are present. Even more, there are now internet-based versions suitable for your favorite electronic device. Wherever you are, you can just keep whacking moles. But sometimes we have to wonder, “Is there more to life than whacking moles?”

That leaves us with the question, “What does it mean to win at Whac-A-Mole?” I think this is a very personal decision each of us should consider. For me it has something to do with persistence, since I know the moles will always keep coming. It also involves working in partnership with others. Together, we can always accomplish more. And from time to time I need to maintain perspective and have the courage, when I wonder if there is more to life than mole whacking, to simply unplug the machine for a while.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



12 responses to Winning at Whac-A-Mole

Diane kruger says:

I would love for you to write about your faith sometime, what it means to you, how it has impacted your life and how Imprtant faith and a relationship with our awesome God should be important to our Central students and graduates! Perhaps I have missed those words from you but it seems that you never mention your faith walk EVER And as President of Central College this is very disappointing to me!

Preston Steenhoek says:

I was disheartened to see Diane Kruger’s comment advising Dr. Putnam how and when he should express his faith. It is difficult for me to see such a comment as other than a self righteous, judgmental “cheap shot”, undeserved and not reflective of the values I hope Central is instilling in its students, religious or otherwise

Don Huffman says:

I am among those who feel that one’s faith perspective is best seen in one’s behavior in everyday life situations. Written, overt statements of faith are often less attractive to many people -in my perspective- than one’s evident character and behavior, and the caring for others than are the open expressions of one’s faith. .

Steve Manning says:

Reflections on the meaning of “Whac=a-mole bring back a personal odyssey of 30 years of service to the nation. Reflecting on “what it takes to win” that contest, I’m reminded of my time in combat, supporting combat operations, and leading combat operations across multiple continents and having experienced it in “human” terms, I can say with conviction that the words W-A-Mole remind me of the worst in our society, wanted destruction, gluttony, and lust for destruction.

Even at the end of our time in Afghanistan where precision in “whacking” can result in no loss of life… the results remain the same… unfilled promises and objectives, burned national treasure and a scared landscape mentally and physically…

Represented in humorous tones as part of the reflections piece… in my reality its conjures a different meaning… as such I can say with authority that there are no winners in the game of “Whac-A-Mole”.

Gwen Krueger says:

I am very interested in the same area of our lives as addressed by Diane Kruger in her email today. I hope you are passionate and want to share with colleagues, parents, students, and others. I am looking forward to your response and the response to your response!

George Brown, Jr. says:

My sense is that—like many things in life—playing Whac-a-Mole can have both positive and negative outcomes. The ambiguity is reflected in two meanings of the noun “whack” – a forceful blow, or an attempt. “Whack” in mobster movies has the more negative or violent meaning, while an engineer tacking a whack at solving a problem has a more positive meaning.

What is interesting to me is the prevalence of “whacking” in our society. Consider some examples of the more negative form that can be found on your television screen: In earlier seasons, NCIS, a popular TV show, often showed the senior naval officer (Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon) whacking one of his subordinates (Anthony DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly) on the side of the head. A Chicago television station promotes one of its popular sit-coms with a series of clips showing various cast members engaged in something called a “slap-fest” which is composed of brief clips from episodes in which the characters are shown slapping each other. A television advertisement depicts a person expressing regret at not choosing a healthy vegetable drink as an alternative to some unhealthy “junk food” by smacking themselves or another person on the forehead. What influence—if any—might the 1976 arcade game have had on the creative imaginations of the producers and writers for these programs and ads?

Granted, my limited, unscientific sample is from only one media, but I wonder why no examples of “whacking” as a form of problem-solving come to mind as easily as these more violent examples . . .

Jennifer Giezendanner says:

I appreciate Dr. Putnam’s focus on the value of teamwork in addressing life’s challenges. Perhaps some of the discomfort with the “whacking” metaphor comes from the fact that most problems require a more nuanced solution than a simple slap or bang. And it seems true to me that a lot of folks would happily whack when a more gentle approach, often more team-based, would be healthier. Many of us would do better to reduce “whacking” and approach our challenges more constructively.

Bob Sutton says:

The problem with Whac a Mole is that to win (succeed) all moles have to be whacked in the shortest amount of time, regardless. Life success might be more related to developing a physical, emotional and intellectual decision making process that is successful and at the same time systematically reduces the number of moles that need whacking.

Lloyd Sandbulte says:

Another delightful, thought provoking and insightful blog. You whacked this topic well. So much of our society seems to delight in whacking other people, when what we really need to do is cooperatively work at whacking the issues we face individually and as a society.

Don Huffman says:

Having just returned from a delightful visit with professional friends and colleagues in China, I too am sensitive to the fact that the reference to “whacking” is perhaps a bit more aggressive in tone to be an attractive sort of activity. Unfortunately, as several responders have said, we do seem to be too often involved with whacking, and too negligent of assisting and supporting one another with positive solutions to the challenges we meet day in and day out.
Whack-a-Mole apparently came along well after my time of association with recreational games of interest, but I do confess to very competitive games with horseshoes, croquet, baseball and Ping-Pong; all providing an outlet for one’s pent up energy, but not so blatant as in “mole-whacking”!

Don Huffman says:

Apparently this topic is “Whacked Out”!

Leland Schipper says:

If the game brings you joy, then play it. The same goes for your daily to-do list. Don’t do either if it is only the reward which is of interest.