Was this a government-created video game — or just an urban legend?
We all love an urban legend, but the legend of the Polybius arcade game may have some facts behind it to back it up.
The Polybius arcade game supposedly came out in 1981 in Portland, Oregon. The urban legend revolves around it being used by the government for mind control, and to recruit kids to be soldiers. It supposedly made people sick, and men in black were often seen around the arcades.
This is a classic urban legend and tailor-made for kids growing up in the 1980s. There were no social networks, Reddit threads, or anything like that — so it was all word of mouth.
It's like the one about the kid who died from drinking too much Jolt Cola.
The legend really didn’t take off until the early days of the internet, but it’s also considered one of the first true internet urban legends. The difference with the Polybius legend is that there may be some kernels of truth to it.
We just need to look a bit deeper into these “truths.”
What Was the Polybius Arcade Game?
In 1981, in Portland, Oregon, a mysterious black arcade cabinet showed up. The mysterious game only showed up in Portland, a few surrounding suburbs. This game was supposedly published and created by a company called Sinnesloschen.
This German word “kind of” translates to “sensory deprivation.” But if you do a Google translation from German to English, you get “senseless,” which is also interesting.
This arcade game caused some chaos (which we’ll get to in a second) and then mysteriously. disappeared from all the arcades.
What was Polybius? Was this real? Was it a myth? And what was the legend that came from it?
What is the Polybius Urban Legend?
The mythos behind the game is that in 1981 the United States government actually commissioned — and put into production — an addictive video game. The arcade game had a similar game play to the classic game, Tempest.
The game included a lot of subliminal messages and was filled with puzzles. Playing the game resulted in some horrible physical effects on the kids that played it. The game caused mental effects including seizures, hallucinations, amnesia, night terrors, and a bunch of other undesirable effects.
Other reports are that the game created suicidal feelings in those that played it and sometimes death.
They also reported men in black suits downloading data from the cabinets to get specific insights on the people who played it. One theory was the government created that Polybius to find qualified soldiers and advanced thinkers who I assume would be recruited during the cold war.
Who Was Stephen Steven Roach?
Any stories behind Polybius were kept pretty quiet. They were limited to the Portland/Oregon area, and it was pretty difficult for kids to spread information at all back then.
The legend of Polybius as we know it seems to date back to 2006. A man named Stephen Roach posted a story on a website called coinop.org. In the post, he said he was the man behind creating the company that made Polybius.
He claims that he and his partners were commissioned to create the game by a southern American company. The game was meant to be addictive — and that’s what they were created. The story goes that when one kid “supposedly” suffered an epileptic fit — they freaked out, and they pulled the game from the market.
There are a lot of questions here. Why did this post come out of nowhere, 15 years later? Who was Steven Roach? If his story was true, was the intent of the southern company to build an addicting game — or was Roach and his team used as patsies to create a mind-altering arcade game for the US government without knowing it?
Was this guy for real, or was he just one of those kids who knew of the urban legend and was bringing it back from the dead?
The interesting thing, however, is that his story backed up what some people in the Portland area experienced in 1981…
What’s the Real Story Behind This Game?
There are some pictures of Polybius arcade game cabinets, but they are just mock-ups. There’s no visual proof they existed.
Kids were getting sick from video games — but these are a few isolated events. One involved a kid who was playing an arcade game for 28 hours straight trying to beat a record on Asteroids when he keeled over from stomach pain.
I should point out he didn’t die but had severe stomach cramps from drinking nothing but Coke for 28 hours.
There are also no reports about anything to do with a “mysterious new arcade game” in the news. Video games were still a relatively new thing, and many were worried about the effect they had on kids.
The news would have jumped all over a story of an arcade game giving kids amnesia and hallucinations.
There was also never any mention of this new game in any video game magazine. But — and let’s just assume this is real — it would have been easy to keep quiet if it was only being used in a test market.
And this is another problem that made the legend interesting: Portland was considered a test market for new video games — so make of that what you will.
Who Was Cat DeSpira?
This is where it gets interesting. DeSpira is a reporter, and not only grew up in Portland, but she spent a big part of her youth at the arcade where Polybius was supposedly released.
She notes that there were constantly black arcade cabinets coming into the arcade. Since this was a test market, none of the designs or graphics for the cabinets had been created — they were there simply for the game to be tested.
These cabinets would often be titled “new game.” Sometimes they had a name but then would reappear with a different one. This is the whole point of a test market, after all.
Does this mean Polybius could have easily been one of those unmarked, black cabinets?
The problem is, she had never heard of Polybius until she was an adult, despite being right in the middle of it all.
After she dove deeper into this mystery, she found some nuggets of truth — especially about the kids getting sick. But it was more about them being unhealthy slobs.
On the same day that one kid was on a 28-hour Coca-Cola/video game bender, another 14-year-old — at the same arcade — developed a migraine while playing Tempest. This is interesting because of Polybius supposedly being a recreation of Tempest.
And then there was the actual death of a kid in an arcade. An 18-year-old died of a heart attack while playing the game Berzerk. This was in Illinois, though.
These stories definitely made national news — as people were trying to show how harmful games were — so were they included in developing this myth?
What About the Men in Black?
There’s actually some truth to this one, too — and no, it’s not the awful Will Smith movies.
It has been revealed through various interviews that the FBI had actually been hanging around arcades in Portland. It doesn’t seem that they were there to download data from the cabinets, though.
I’m not sure how old you are — or if you ever set foot in an arcade in the 80s — but these places were not exactly a family environment.
In my town, our downtown had “Ace Arcade” and you couldn’t pay me to go in there. I was already pretty young, but this place terrified me. Only the worst kids hung out there, and it felt like you took your life into your own hands when you went into it.
It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it had developed enough a reputation to make me scared of it. And the same thing was going on in Portland, it turns out.
Since arcades were places where illegal activities were happening — such as drug deals and gambling — by minors no less, it made sense that the authorities would scope them out.
It turns out that in 1981; the FBI had been investigating the Portland arcade the entire time. It seems the owner had been running a gambling ring out of it — which was the style at the time.
There were also police busts in arcades in Seattle a few months later for similar issues.
Is the story of the Polybius arcade game based on any facts at all, or was it contrived because of a bunch of incidents that all took place around the same time, at the same place?
It’s a classic urban legend that has continued to hang around. Polybius has been referenced on the Simpsons, there is a game on the Playstation store, and it’s also been included in the new Loki series for Disney Plus.
It’s interesting how the myth never really became a thing until 2006, but some still claim this game really existed. It’s impossible to verify if anyone actually played this arcade game, or even saw it in person.
But were people playing this game and never knew it? The name Polybius wasn’t connected to it till much later. With dozens of test cabinets coming and going out of a Portland arcade, who’s to say what they exposed the kids to.
Maybe it was a genuine video game, but it sucked, and they retooled it into something else. Or was the government trying to recruit soldiers, control minds, or extract data from children? People like to think so, but we will never know.
If the Polybius arcade game actually existed, they could now be stored in their ideal resting spot next to the Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse somewhere in Area 51…
If you like more content from the 1980s, head over to everything80spodcast.com to look back at the greatest decade