Was the Polybius Arcade Game More Than an Urban Legend?

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We all love an urban legend, but the legend of the Polybius arcade game may have some facts behind it to back it up. This might be a new story for you, but it’s a legend from the early 80s that only grew over time.

The Polybius arcade game supposedly came out in 1981 in Portland, Oregon. The urban legend is it being used by the government for mind control, and to recruit kids to be soldiers. It was said to be addicting and made its user sick–but no evidence for it exists. 

This is a classic urban legend and tailor-made for kids growing up in the 1980s. But We didn’t have any access to social networks, Reddit threads, or anything like that–so it was all word of mouth. This is a legend similar to 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. But the difference with the Polybius arcade game legend is that there is some 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. But some say they were there as early as 1979. The mysterious game only showed up in Portland and 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 translate 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 the hell was Polybius? Was it real? Was it a myth? And what was the legend that went along with it?

How Did the Urban Legend of the Polybius Arcade Game Begin?

The mythos behind the Polybius 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 gameplay to Tempest.

The game included a lot of subliminal messages and was filled with puzzles–which we’ll get to more in a moment. 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 in some cases: death. 

Men in back suits were also reported to download data from the cabinets to get specific insights on the people who played it. One of the theories was that Polybius was created by the government to find qualified soldiers and advanced thinkers who I assume would be recruited during the cold war.

There are some comparisons here to the alleged CIA mind experiments that the character of Eleven from Stranger Things was based on. Just research Montauk, New York, and see what you make of this story.

Who is Steven Steven Roach and What is His involvement in This Story?

As I mentioned, the stories behind the Polybius arcade game 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. 

There were a few mentions of it on Usenet (the earlier form of the internet) in 1994. There is then a mention of a coin operated arcade game called Polybius back in 2000.

This was on coinop.org and the creator of the post claims to have had a ROM image of the game and extracted fragments of text from it that showed it to be created in 1981 by Sinnesloschen. But there’s nothing to back this up.

The legend of Polybius as we know it seems to date back to 2006. A man named Steven Roach also posted a story on 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. When one kid suffered an epileptic fit, they freaked out and that’s when the game was pulled 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 this 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?

The interesting thing, however, is that his story backed up what a lot of people in the Portland area experienced in 1981: kids were getting sick, men in black were seen hanging around the arcade, and it disappeared quickly.

Or was he just one of those kids who knew of the legend and was bringing it back from the dead…

What’s the Real Story Behind This Game?

a mock cabinet: pic courtesy of vrfocus.com

There are pictures of Polybius arcade game cabinets, but they are just mock ups, and there’s no visual proof of the ones from 1981. 

The truth is, kids were getting sick from video games at the time–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 pretty much keeled over from stomach pain. Drinking nothing but Coke for 28 hours will do that to you…

There are also no reports about anything to do with a “mysterious new arcade game” that was reported in the news. Video games were still a relatively new thing, and many were worried about the effect they had on kids. A story about this would have been jumped all over.

But if you think about it; this was a small area where these games were being used and they weren’t on a national level where more incidents could happen. So it would have been easier to keep quiet. 

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. But this is another problem: Portland was considered a test market for new video games–so make of that what you will. 

A reporter from Portland named Cat DeSpira dove deeper into the issue of Polybius. 

What Did Cat Find?

This is where it gets interesting as DeSpira not only grew up in Portland, but she spent a big part of her youth at the arcade where Polybius was supposedly released.

A very interesting thing 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 to simply test the game.

These cabinets would simply be titled “new game,” or it might have had a title, but these could change several times. This is the whole point of a test market, afterall. 

Does this mean Polybius could have easily been one of those unmarked, black cabinets?

One of the biggest takeaways from her research is not only was she from Portland, into video games, and at the actual arcade where Polybius was meant to have been–but she had never heard of this whole thing until she was an adult.

After she dove deeper into this mystery, she did find some nuggets of truth–but these are related to kids getting sick like the 28-hour, Coke kid. 

But what’s interesting is that on the same day–at the same arcade–another 14 year old kid named Michael Lopez 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? 

Who Were the Men in Black?

There’s actually some truth to this one, too–and no it’s not the awful Will Smith movies. I’m sorry, but I think the Men in Black movies are extremely overrated. 

It has been revealed through various interviews that the FBI had actually been hanging around arcades in Portland. It doesn’t seem that this was to download data from the cabinets, though. But there is probably a more logical explanation to this.

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 a place that made you take 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. 

So it turns out that during the year of Polybius supposedly appeared, the FBI had been investigating the Portland arcade for the entire time. It turns out that the owner had been running a gambling ring out of it. There were also police busts in arcades in Seattle a few months later for similar issues. 

So What Are We to Believe About the Polybius Arcade Game?

Let’s go back to the man that started this whole myth as we know it: Steven Roach. In his now-famous post, we find some issues. There are spelling mistakes (not a big deal), and then the name of his company is spelled wrong (more of a big deal).

But some people do believe him. 

There’s another issue: no one is even sure who this guy is. There are obviously a lot of Steven Roaches out there including the famous American economist. 

Cat DeSpira thinks that she tracked down the actual Stephen Roach who wrote the post. But she found some disturbing things. If this is indeed the same guy, he apparently ran behavioral modification schools for children.

It gets worse from there so it’s hard to tell if this is indeed the same person who wrote the post. The behavioral modification issue seems like it would be connected to a video game trying to accomplish the same thing–if that was the intention of the government.

Final Thoughts

Is the story of the Polybius arcade game based in 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. 

The legend of it seems to be growing.  It’s interesting how it never really became a thing until 2006, but some claim this game really existed. It’s impossible to verify if anyone actually played this arcade game. We would have to take them at their word. There is absolutely no proof. 

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 a Portland arcade, who’s to say what the kids were exposed to.

Maybe it was a genuine video game, but it sucked, and it was retooled 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 1980s video games, here are a few more posts to keep you going: