Urban legend

'Polybius' is real

Video gaming's most notorious urban legend turns out to have been all too true.

In 1981, an arcade in the Portland, Oregon area was the scene of countless gamers coming down with migraines, heart attacks, addiction, seizures, strokes, and even amnesia, all due to one game cabinet: Polybius.

The game itself was said to have been created by an unknown government agency to test mind control technology on unsuspecting civilians. It worked — almost too well. Or so the legend goes.

It's almost quaint to discuss Polybius now. In the age of hyper-targeted Facebook propaganda, military recruiting via Twitch, and the looming specter of deepfakes, the idea that the public would be so terrified of an arcade game is adorable. It goes without saying that urban legends like this were the product of a more naïve time — a time before such tales would become weaponized and mutate into the far more dangerous genre of conspiracy theories.

There's nothing about high scores or bonus levels in this book.The General History of Polybius

The name Polybius itself was likely selected specifically as bait for the inquisitive and easily spooked. The original Polybius was an ancient Greek philosopher born around 208 B.C. in Megalopolis, Arcadia. He is known for his affinity for cryptography and puzzles (he created the Polybius square, naturally) as well as his belief that historians should strictly report what they can verify through hard evidence and by interviewing witnesses. His name itself means "many lives" in Greek. Get it? "Many lives," Arcadia, cryptic puzzles, his famous skepticism — it's almost too good a name for a spooky video game.

The urban legend of Polybius gained popularity on February 6, 2000 when a listing for the game popped up on CoinOp.org, a digital museum and database for arcade gaming. The page for Polybius listed the game as having been copyrighted in 1981 (though no such copyright exists) and only briefly mentions "bizarre rumors" about the title before classifying its history as "unknown."

The game's listing on CoinOp.CoinOp.org

Though impossible to confirm without a confession from the man himself, the person believed to have created the post is Kurt Koller, the owner of the site. Koller would also tip off writer Dan Elektro of GamePro, which at the time claimed to be the world's largest independent multiplatform gaming magazine, to the existence of the story. Eventually, in a 2003 listicle called "Secrets and Lies," GamePro came to an "inconclusive" verdict regarding the veracity of the tip. The story went on to hit Slashdot — the closest thing to going viral in the early '00s — on August 21, 2003.

Ah, physical magazines.GamePro

But, as we in the age of (say it with me) "fake news" know, the point of getting the story out there was not to have it debunked — it was to lodge it in the popular imagination of American gamers. At this, Koller was wildly successful. Polybius has gone on to be the subject of television shows, music videos, documentaries, extensive investigations, an episode of The Simpsons, and has even become a real, purchasable game — more than once. CoinOp.org has had a similarly long life; it still exists on the internet today, with Polybius remaining its most popular entry.

On the page for Polybius are infamous comments left by a user claiming to be a man named "Steven Roach." Roach details his involvement in the game's supposed development, reassembled below for legibility:

“Marek Vachousek was the programmer who came up with the name Polybius — he had studied Greek Mythology at Masaryk University and came up with the name because it sounded quite bold and mysterious, which is what we wanted quite simply. The inspiried (sic) graphics combined with the puzzle elements and scintilating (sic) gameplay was something to behold — we playtested it for hours and hours and it certainly was an addictive game that was well-loved professionally and recreationally by all that played it.”
“We then received a phone call stating that there were concerns within the company that the basic graphics which featured prominently in so many other games of the time were fine for the average gamer to spend hours at a time without any noticable (sic) physical or mental detriments but the intense and engrossing gameplay of this new step was very much an unknown quantity so the game was put back several months due to divided opinion within their board of directors, much to our consternation for breaking our backs to finish it on time.”
"We disbanded ... shortly afterwards because we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to the stringent deadlines of other companies and favoured distancing ourselves from the game in case of any lingering recriminations which could have done a great deal of damage to our personal and professional reputations which was our livelihood and with some of us having very young families, this was extremely important to us."
“As far as I’m aware, no ROM’s or otherwise exist unless they remain in the bowels of the company that distributed it. We only received a basic payment in view of the fact that the game was withdrawn without nationwide or international distribution so we grew to loathe it and was often a cursed word whenever we used to meet up and still is today, which is a shame."

In his documentary investigating the game, called POLYBIUS: The Video Game That Doesn't Exist, Stuart Brown of Ahoy, claims to have actually tracked down the user who claimed to be Steven Roach and states unequivocally that his addition to the story is entirely fabricated.

In addition to the would-be hoaxers, there were feature films about arcade machines with supernatural powers which would popularize the concept. 1984's The Last Starfighter is about a boy so good at video games that aliens recruit him to wage an actual intergalactic war. Then there's Nightmares, a 1983 horror anthology featuring a vignette called "The Battle of Bishop" about a game so addicting that it actually sucks a young Emilio Estevez into its secret 13th level.

Maybe it's just been hiding in Springfield this whole time.The Simpsons

The popularity of Polybius' story is such that it transcends other video game tall tales. It's easily more popular than Minecraft's Herobrine, GTA: San Andreas' sasquatch, or that time people thought Saddam Hussein was trying to conquer the world with a PS2. As mainstream urban legends go, Polybius is probably only slightly less successful than Slender Man or The Hook.

But is any of it true? Actually, yes.

To understand the truth behind the legend, one must fall down an internet rabbit hole that spans both time and cyberspace. Online listings for Polybius all contain the same blurry photo of the game's cabinet and marquee. There's no way to tell if this physical cabinet ever existed or if its an early photoshop job, thanks to its dubious quality. Listings also host the only known "screenshot" of the game.

Definitely maybe kinda real. Sort of.CoinOp.org

The screenshot displays the game's title screen, the aforementioned copyright date, and credits its development to a company called "Sinneslöschen," a word which roughly translates to something along the lines of "sense-deleting" or "sensory deprivation" in broken German. There is no evidence of any such company having ever existed in Germany, the United States, or arcade gaming's capital, Japan. So that's a dead end.

The font used for the name "Polybius" itself is actually quite notable for being so large and colorful during an era when the memory required to produce such an effect was at a serious premium. Only games from powerhouses like Nintendo or Williams were known to spend such high-priced resources on something as fleeting as a title screen. In fact, the lettering is reminiscent of the one used for Nintendo's Vs. Pinball and one used for Williams' Bubbles, though not an exact match for either. It even resembles an East German cabinet called Poly-Play from the era, though it's unlikely anything this obscure inspired the American legend. Again, there's not much to go on here.

Some sources have claimed that the story of Polybius was making the rounds on Usenet as early as 1994, though there is, yet again, no record of this in any existing Usenet archives. This may be a case of the Mandela effect, where groups of people misremember the same events, as there was indeed a Pink Floyd-themed puzzle (or a hoax of a puzzle) going around Usenet in the early nineties called "Publius Enigma" which became so popular that its name was inexplicably displayed during one of the band's concerts. The puzzle itself is near-incomprehensible and has never been solved.

Maybe someone in Pink Floyd loved Usenet?

Still other dubious sources have claimed that the gameplay of Polybius was similar to the vector stylings of Rez, Tempest, or Qix. Tempest was extremely popular at the time and known for its mesmerizing graphics, so it's not a stretch to think it may have stuck in the memories of gamers from that era. Cube Quest, similarly, was a visually stunning title that was only in active use for a very short period of time, owing to its reliance on sensitive laserdisc technology. A local arcade can only afford so many high-priced repairs.

There's also all the people that got sick while playing games like Tempest at the time. Just like Polybius.

As was the case with Michael Lopez of Beaverton, Oregon, who suffered a sudden migraine while playing Tempest with some friends at the Malibu Grand Prix arcade. “I began to feel a weird sensation in the back of my head, then my vision started going out. Little flashing lights," recalls Lopez. "Suddenly I got sick and stumbled outside where I threw up all over the parking lot. One of my friends walked with me back home, but we didn’t make it all the way there. My head hurt so bad. It got to where I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t walk anymore. I collapsed on someone’s lawn, four blocks from my house, rolling and screaming in pain. It felt like my head was cracking open. Someone called the cops. That was the first migraine headache I ever had. I’ve had them off and on my whole life since. But it was freaky because I didn’t know what was happening at the time.”

Blame was put on the game's flashing lights and intense visual effects and the incident was documented by a local paper. As was the case of Jeff Dailey, a gamer who suffered a heart attack and died after getting his name on the high score list of the game Bezerk. In that case, blame was also put on the stress-inducing arcade cabinet.

Depressing in any circumstance.Chicago Tribune

Similarly, Peter Bukowski also died of heart failure, possibly due to myocardial inflammation, while playing Bezerk. Then there's Brian Mauro who, after 28 straight hours of playing Asteroids and drinking Coca-Cola, got sick and collapsed. Mauro survived, but it's easy to see how the reporting of such events in the northwestern United States could lead to paranoia about the long-term effects of this new entertainment medium.

It's hard to imagine now but at the time gaming was such a new phenomenon that it was labelled a "fad" and classified as part of the toy industry. Parents were suspicious of the machines that were, seemingly out of nowhere, mesmerizing a generation of American children. Who could blame them? Game developers have spent decades trying to wring the money out of their audience by making their games attention-grabbing, sensorily immersive, and increasingly addictive. If anything, parents today should be more skeptical about the immersive, addictive, gambling-adjacent games that are freely available on every conceivable screen in our homes.

The Surgeon General was definitely a n00b.Associated Press

But today, as was the case in the '80s, people tend to be more suspicious of their own shadowy government than they are of corporations, whose motives are transparent (they want take your money). It doesn't help matters that the FBI indeed was conducting top-secret operations out of America's arcades.

The Bureau's records indicate that the agency actually was monitoring and subsequently raiding arcades in the Portland area right around the time that stories of players collapsing in arcades had hit the mainstream media. In those days, arcades, which are naturally dark and maze-like, had seedy reputations as hotbeds of gambling, drug activity, and pickpockets looking to prey on teenagers. Though the extent to which arcades captured the public imagination was out of proportion with the actual issues in the establishments, some of that reputation was earned. Cabinets were being repurposed for gambling. People were selling weed in between rounds of Pac-Man. There are pickpockets wherever teenagers tend to gather — especially in the days before cell phones.

In the age of COVID, arcades actually could be dangerous now.Electronic Games Magazine

One more fanciful operation conducted by the FBI included agents rigging classic cabinets like Tempest, Scramble, and Galaxian with cameras and microphones in the hopes of catching criminals in the act. Games like Tempest were selected less for their mind-control abilities and more because their cabinets featured glass bezels, ideal for sticking cameras behind. The program was so extensive that it briefly caused a shortage of Tempest machines in the Seattle area during the early '80s.

Just imagine teenagers watching men in black wheeling Tempest machines in and out of arcades every few days. It only makes sense that they would start ascribing outlandish motives to the agents.

These stories of mind-control and government experiments are also, unfortunately, completely based in reality. Many people have heard of it by now but at the time there were only whispers about a CIA program known as MK-Ultra which was pursuing mind control techniques using technology, multimedia, and a whole lot of drugs. The experiments were conducted without the permission of their subjects, who have described the experience as extreme psychological torture. With that in mind, a mesmerizing video game doesn't seem so fantastical.

"The Battle of Bishop" holds up.Nightmares

These disturbing stories are all verifiable — but none of them contain the actual game Polybius. To actually play Polybius, you'll have to settle for one of many fan games developed in tribute to the legend.

There's the supposed copy distributed by gooddealgames.com around April 2004 called Polybius.exe. The game claims to contain its own emulation software and warns players "The Polybius video game has been linked to impaired memory and psychological changes. Game play may cause epileptic seizures in susceptible individuals. Do you still want to continue?” before booting into the familiar title screen. Once one presses any key, the game crashes and another pop-up message explains that it was simply an April Fool's Day joke.

A spooky sight for Vista users.Rogue Synapse

Freeware developers Rogue Synapse, known for creating fan-made cabinets of arcade games which never existed, like the one from The Last Starfighter, developed and distributed a game named Polybius in 2007. This version attempts to faithfully recreate the gameplay as described in the urban legend, including "trippy" visuals and "subliminal" messages. In an effort to further the immersive prank, the company's owner, Dr. Estil Vance, registered the URL sinnesloschen.com and trademarked the usage of the name Polybius — though noted that it wasn't an authentic original and was simply an “attempt to recreate the Polybius game as it might have existed in 1981.”

The most famous, and easily obtained, version of Polybius is from developer Llamasoft, who released its game for the PlayStation 4 and PSVR in 2016. Though the game contains vector-like graphics, it's very obviously a modern creation intended to actually be played as a standalone title. It was in fact so popular that it was used for the music video "Less Than" by Nine Inch Nails in 2017.

What we wouldn't give to slip a quarter into this bad boy.

None of those games are the true Polybius which, if it ever existed at all, only survives via word-of-mouth and articles like the one you're reading. Polybius was almost certainly invented by Kurt Koller to promote his website — which obviously succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.

But in the light of free-to-play mobile games with addicting gacha mechanics, corporations and the governments hyper-targeting ads on Facebook — effectively mind control, and the alphabet soup of federal agencies torturing children, the themes of the legend are more relevant than ever before.

In a way, the story of Polybius is entirely true. People were dying while playing addictive video games. Men in black were using arcade machines in secret operations. The government was, and probably still is, pursuing mind control. The Portland area witnessed all of these things. It just wasn't called Polybius.