According to legend, a mysterious new arcade game swept through Portland in 1981. It was incredibly addictive; people lined up for hours just to get a shot at playing it, even fighting over who got to play it next. The lucky ones who pushed through the line complained of seizures, insomnia, nausea, nightmares and amnesia. Several are rumored to have killed themselves. Stranger still: men in black suits hung around the machines, watching and recording what happened to the players. There were rumors that the government was using the machine to test subliminal messages and mind-control through the flashing screens of the arcade. Just as quickly as they appeared, every arcade cabinet vanished, never to be seen again.
Sounds a bit far-fetched? It is. Polybius, the game in question, is an elaborate urban myth, perhaps even an outright hoax. It's been perpetuated over the internet by people claiming to have either worked on or own original cabinets of the game. None of these people have ever been able to produce concrete proof it either does or once existed, and its alleged creator, Ed Rotberg, has said he never had anything to do with it, nor had heard of it when he worked at Atari.
Yet, tonight, Joe Streckert will talk about Polybius for an hour at the Jack London Bar in downtown Portland. The local writer spent a lot of time researching the Polybius mythos for tonight’s lecture.
“I want to say emphatically that: yes, it is an urban myth and the presentation I'm doing about Polybius is as an urban legend,” he says. “This is not an unsolved mystery kind of thing; I want to explore the stories behind it, why it's interesting to us and things related to it that were real.”
Those things, he says, are real instances where police hung around arcades in the early 80's because they suspected the new and unfamiliar form of entertainment to be somehow connected with gambling and the mob—who had in the mid-20th century been involved with setting up cash-dispensing pinball machines. Reports of lurking police in Portland’s arcades and stories of overly dedicated kids who got sick from playing too much Asteroids combined to form the original Polybius myth in the Usenet chatrooms of the early internet. Additionally, back in the early 80s game developers like Atari did create training simulators for the U.S. Military (Battlezone, for instance, was modified into a training program for an Infantry Field Vehicle); this has fueled speculation that the Government might have had a hand in trying to turn video games into mind-altering weapons.
There are a lot of holes in the legend.
“If it was real we'd have known people who said 'Yeah I've totally played Polybius,” Joe adds. He leans in close and feigns seriousness. “Unless they were abducted, man! Unless the men in black totally took them away!” We both laugh.
Unsurprisingly, there's still a lot of people on the internet who take the legend far too seriously. From time to time people still pop up claiming to have firmware from the original game, but most of these are little more than the supposed title screen. Some have even created custom arcade cabinets made up to look like what the original one from the legend was supposed to. In the background of a 2006 episode of The Simpsons the cabinet can be seen with “Property of U.S. Government” written on the front.
“The story is mythical,” Joe says. “But when you dig into it you can find other things that are similar to it that really did happen. Kids really did play early video games and just collapse; cops really did go into video arcades to see what was going on.”
While Polybius itself is likely fake, could a video game really cause people to do all the things mentioned in the myth?
I decided to try. In 2007 a game was released claiming to be the closest approximation of what Polybius would be like, based on descriptions of it mentioned in the legend. It was a complicated nightmare to get running (we had to dig up an old Windows 2000 machine just to play it), but we did it, and I spent about an hour risking my mental health for the sake of this article.
Luckily, I survived. The game itself is a lot like the old vector-based arcade game Tempest if that game decided to drop some acid while taking a math test. In the center of the screen is a hexagonal base that shoots out all sorts of nasty shapes that try and kill you; while dodging this you have to try and hit a large polygon with a number orbiting it. If the number in the base is divisible by the number orbiting the polygon you shoot, the base’s number will drop and you go to the next level when it reaches zero. As the game progresses your vision is obscured by a bunch of different psychedelic screen filters and flashing text that only appears for an instant, things like “REWARD INDIFFERENCE” and “CONSUME” (ripped straight from the 1988 cult classic They Live).
Playing it for an hour didn't make me suicidal, but it did give me one hell of a headache.
GO: Joe Streckert will be giving his lecture at the Jack London Bar on 529 SW 4th Avenue tonight, June 25, at 7:30 p.m.