In 1981 the biggest fad for American teenagers was to head down to the local video arcade and drop quarters into game machines. The mainstream media had already picked up on the soaring popularity of video games with youth, with magazines like Time and Newsweek publishing stories about hit games like Pac-Man, Asteroids and Defender. Rumor has it that there might have been an arcade game called Polybius gobbling up quarters, and it supposedly has a dark secret origin.
The Polybius legend is the video game industry’s scary bogeyman and plays into a fear that formed at the early days of video gaming: was all this gaming turning a generation of youth into brain dead drones? With plenty of glassy-eyed kids suffering from video game addiction, and mainstream reports of 24-hour non-stop gaming danger, the stage was set for the legend of Polybius to arise.
Here’s how it all began.
The Legend of Polybius
The story goes that in Portland, Oregon during the fall of 1981, a new video arcade game called Polybius was being tested in local neighborhood arcades. Long-lines formed as kids waited to be the next Polybius player. Tempers would get high, and even fights were supposedly recorded between eager, impatient gamers.
Then there were reports of strange formal-looking business men that would periodically visit the Polybius games in the area, performing “maintenance” on them. Some suspected that these maintenance personnel were in fact removing data taken of the Polybius players as they reacted to the intense gameplay. But if that were the case, who were these men, and what was really going on with Polybius? And why were Polybius players more prone to experiencing strange side-effects after binging on the game, like night terrors, hallucinations, paranoia and even memory loss?
Then, a few months after the games were spotted in Portland they all apparently disappeared.
Four Items of Polybius Strangeness
Let’s look at some of the things that were going on back in 1981:
Fact #1: arcade developers would place machines in arcades to test out the audience reaction to gameplay. However, these were rare events that would take place in major cities, and especially in California were the heart of video game manufacturing was based.
Fact #2: there was concern about the lasting effects of video games on the brains of children. Video games were new, and a lot of kids were spending dozens of hours a week playing them. What effect would a lot of time watching bright flashes, listening to the buzz of electronic sounds and, in the cases of some more violent games, destroying a never-ending wave of opponents have on a young person’s developing mind?
Fact #3: Battlezone, a game made by the world’s biggest video game manufacturer, Atari, was released in late 1980. A vector graphics tank simulation, Battlezone proved to be a popular release. The game also received more interest when it was learned that the US Army had asked Atari for a more tactical combat version to be used for training purposes for their Bradley Tank operators.
Atari did agree to make an exclusive military version of Battlezone but it was never released to the public. Only two known cabinets are known to have been made, and the lone surviving one is in a private collection.
Fact #4: in the fall of 1981 there were two reports of video game players falling ill due to excessive gameplaying. In 2013 Brian Dunning of Skeptoid looked back in the local news reports from Portland in 1981 and found mention of two arcade players getting nauseous from excessive gameplaying: one suffered a migraine from playing the game Tempest, and the other collapsed after a grueling 28-hour marathon playing Asteroids. Both incidents happened at the same Portland arcade.
Dunning then found something exceptionally unusual: ten days after the news report of the two gamers falling ill while playing arcade games, FBI agents raided several Portland video arcades. Agents believed that the arcade owners were using their games for illegal gambling and wagering between players. The bureau’s investigation was so throughout that agents even set up surveillance on certain arcade cabinets to see if scores were being tampered with.
With those four factors in play, was there enough hype and miscommunication that an urban legend arose about a fictional arcade game called Polybius that had sinister government connections and some sort of strange psychotropic effect on its’ players?
Was the Polybius Game Real?
Dunning traced back the first online mention of Polybius to a listing that was created on the CoinOp resource website, an online that lists known arcade games. The entry was dated August 3, 1998 – well before the tales of a Polybius creepypasta first arose, but that’s not smoking gun evidence.
The person that created the entry for the Polybius arcade game didn’t supply any information about what the game looked like, but they did give the name Sinneslöschen as the manufacturer of Polybius. The word loosely translates from German to “sense delete”. So far all work into confirming the reality of Sinneslöschen has hit a dead end.
Since the creepypasta legend of Polybius began around the early-2000s there have been people claiming to have copies of the game’s ROM and who have released the code online. However, there’s no evidence that any one of these Polybius games were created in 1981, and are likely recent creations by indie game developers to play into the bizarre mystery surrounding this infamous game.
With the ambiguous reality of Polybius still up for grabs, pop culture is blurring the line even further.
In a 2006 episode of “The Simpsons”, a Polybius game is spotted amongst other arcade machines in Springfield. On the side of the cabinet the words “Property of US Government” can be seen. Episodes of the 1980s-period sitcom “The Goldbergs” has also treated Polybius as a real thing by featuring the video game on posters, and Ernest Cline’s novel “Armada” also incorporates the game into the book’s storyline. And in the Disney animated move Wreck-It Ralph a Polybius arcade game can clearly be seen amongst other well-known games.