The Arcade Game Polybius

PolybiusEveryone remembers certain classic video games that got their start in arcades, such as Pac-Man, Asteroids, Pong, or Galaxian. Some of these games are remembered for their uniqueness, some are remembered for their simplicity, and some are remembered for being the first of a particular genre. In recent years though, rumors have begun circulating around the Internet and in creepypastas (a short scary story written online) about an arcade game called Polybius, which is known not for fond memories gamers had of playing it, but of the strange effects it had on those who played it.

A supposed picture of one of the original cabinets
A supposed picture of one of the original cabinets

Polybius was reportedly released for an extremely brief period of time (believed to be one month) to arcades in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981. Since then, the game Polybius has all but disappeared, aside from a photograph of the starting screen (which could easily have been Photoshopped) and a black and white photograph of the original gaming cabinet. There are also other color photos of supposed Polybius game cabinets, although these are reportedly recreations built by game enthusiasts and historians. The maker of the game was a German company named Sinnesl√∂schen Incorporated, which translates to “sense-delete” or “sensory extinguishing.” The name of the game, Polybius, is actually named after Polybius, a Greek historian known for The Histories and his involvement in early cryptography.

Despite being playable for only such a brief time, the effects it had on gamers were numerous. For example, players reported that after playing Polybius, they began to suffer from nausea, sleep deprivation, migraines, nightmares, a new-found aversion to video games, memory loss, and in some cases there were reportedly instances where players exhibited an “inability to become sad.”

A recreation of a "Polybius" cabinet
A recreation of a “Polybius” cabinet

Since the information about Polybius became more widespread, more fantastical elements have been added to an already obscure story. Sometimes it is said that the game would work without requiring coins. Other additions include the game being designed for mind-control purposes, having the ability to drive players to suicide, or that it was intended to cause players to join the military. Of course, these are almost certainly hoaxes.

Due to all of the stories and legends surrounding Polybius, it goes without saying that the gameplay of it must have been very unusual. Descriptions of the gameplay state that it was a space-fighter shooter very similar to Tempest, although it also had elements of logic puzzles and mazes similar to Pac-Man. There are no surviving footage or photographs of the original Polybius‘ gameplay, although some individuals on the Internet have made recreations of it based on eyewitness descriptions. In particular is a ROM of the game floating around the Internet, which some claim is legitimate but is almost certainly a reproduction. It is rumored that the gameplay of Polybius was capable of inducing epileptic seizures in certain players, although it was addicting enough that long lines formed and even fights over the game broke out.

"Polybius" featured in an episode of "The Simpsons" with the words "Property of U.S. Government"
“Polybius” featured in an episode of “The Simpsons” with the words “Property of U.S. Government”

Then there are also the rumors that the government was involved. According to some people who supposedly played Polybius and arcade owners, men in black suits (the “men in black”) either watched people play the game and recorded things on clipboards, or came by after hours and collected some kind of records from the game. This has led some theorists to suggest that the game Polybius is related to the CIA program MKUltra, a top-secret program aimed at developing new techniques related to mind-control and interrogation.

Gameplay from a recreation of "Polybius"
Gameplay from a recreation of “Polybius”

According to the International Arcade Museum, out of roughly 6,736 members who participate in owning, selling or searching for games, only three members stated that they own Polybius. Two of these individuals stated that they were original game cabinets, while the third stated that it was a conversion unit with the circuit boards placed into a different cabinet. This is very strange, since if three people supposedly owned Polybius then one would think that there would be more information relating to the game readily available. Also, one of the owners commented that “Every time I play this game my head gets warm and I have to urinate,” and said that his unit’s serial number was “666.” While his symptoms do not match those reportedly caused back in 1981, it does seem highly suspect that his Polybius‘ serial number is “666,” which is also the number of the Beast in the Christian Bible and most likely added for a scary effect.

Gameplay from Atari's "Battlezone"
Gameplay from Atari’s “Battlezone”

It should be remembered that even though the prospect of the government using a video game for subversive purposes sounds outlandish, there was a video game made for the U.S. military by Atari in 1980, a year before Polybius reportedly came out. Specifically, the Army commissioned Atari to make a variant of the popular game Battlezone in order to help train the gunners on Bradley Fighting Vehicles. To date, there are only two copies of the game that remain today. One was sent to a conference at Fort Eustice, and the other is reportedly owned by a former employee of Atari.

There’s plenty of evidence that Polybius (or at least a game similar to it) existed at one point in 1981, and there’s plenty of information around the story that has been exaggerated and definitely a hoax, causing the story as a whole to be considered fictional. It should be remembered that the government has been involved in video games in the past, and that if Polybius isn’t around anymore, than aside from the recreations we may never know exactly what Polybius was like.

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