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Polybius: Video Game of Death

by Brian Dunning, Mar 05 2009
Polybius

Polybius

Every once in a while I stumble upon an urban legend that I’m surprised I’d never heard about before. This week I had such a discovery when a listener wrote me about the 80′s video arcade game Polybius.

According to the story, this game was installed in just a few arcades in Oregon. Every week some Men in Black would come in and download logs from the games — they didn’t care about the quarters; just the player data. And then came the stories about kids who had tried Polybius going insane, even committing suicide. After only a few short weeks, the Polybius consoles all disappeared, never to be seen again.

Polybius tends to pop up over and over again. It’s the kind of story where once you’ve heard it, you notice references all over the place (Polybius even made an appearance on The Simpsons).

One possible suggestion for the origin of the Polybius story is an alleged case of the real game Tempest causing photosensitive epilepsy, like the woman scientist in The Andromeda Strain. Flashing lights might indeed strike just the right note with a susceptible epileptic and send them into a seizure, but this is a far cry from such a display causing healthy people to go into much more serious conditions. You may recognize this theme from the Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash or even the movie Serenity (both of which are way cool). From our friend “Anonymous” who seems to post a lot on the web:

The game was weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements, the kids who played it stopped playing games entirely, one of them became a big anti videogame crusader or something. We’ve contacted one person who met him, and he claims the machines disappeared after a month or so and no one ever heard about them again.

And, of course, the implication of government agents using video games to search for talented youths was given a thorough shakedown in the movie The Last Startfighter. Could Polybius have been an actual case of the government doing some kind of test on American youths?

In case you’re still wondering, there has never been any reason to think Polybius actually existed or was anything more than just a goofy legend. Lots of people on the web have claimed to know someone who has the original ROMs, or they’ve made a YouTube video showing the game in play, or they’ve made a fake web site for the game’s designer, the (fictitious) company Sinneslöschen (German for “sense delete”, or so I’ve read).

For more information, the web site Jolt Country has a Polybius Home Page that’s probably the most comprehensive archive of urban legends, screenshots, and videos pertaining to Polybius, and it’s a fun read. Check it out.

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24 Responses to “Polybius: Video Game of Death”

  1. Paul Caggegi says:

    No friggin way! I LOVED the Last Starfighter as a kid! Now it’s got its own urban legend! SWEET!

    *fellow Reilans…*

  2. Ranson says:

    Hmm. As a video-game nerd, I had never even heard of this legend, and that surprises me. I’ll have to do some more looking.

  3. llewelly says:

    Looking over the polybius home page – it seems to me that the black-and-white pic and the color pic depict different cabinets. Note particularly the position of the coin slots.
    If a collector really has a cabinet, it’s surprising that no ROM has ever turned up.

  4. llewelly says:

    On further examination, I realized I had run into this legend ages ago and forgotten about it. I even found some old emails a friend and I exchanged about it years ago. We concluded it was more likely a joke rather than a conspiracy theory. Most of our discussion, as it happens, focused on the Simpsons depiction of the cabinet. Making a fun game which used only a single button posed an interesting challenge for the game designer, we felt.

  5. catgirl says:

    I had also never heard of this urban legend. I will be watching the Simpsons even more closely now. The Simpsons is an amazing show; no matter how many times I watch it, there is always a knew subtle joke to find.

  6. CJ says:

    It’s a fun story. I’ve got a Polybius t-shirt from GameSetWatch. ^_^

  7. Have you seen the graphics of Polybius? Have you seen the gameplay? It’s no wonder one of these kids became anti-video games!

  8. SeanJJordan says:

    Polybius is one of my favorite urban legends, ever, because it’s so sinister, and yet so goofy. This is from that era when video games had a mystical aura about them because they required imagination and because they had to be tracked down in laundromats, restaurants, and arcades.

    Incidentally, anyhow who follows the MAME project knows that there are a lot of prototype games that never made it to release, but which have resurfaced as ROMs for download and play. One of my favorites is Tattoo Assassins, a Mortal Kombat clone that was developed by a bunch of people at Data East Pinball who had no business making a video game, but who were strung along by the promises of massive bonuses. When they took their prototype to an arcade show, they were dismayed to discover that the game could be easily beaten by repeatedly pressing the same button. It never actually made its way into release, but you can play it on MAME!

  9. Todd says:

    I graduated from high school in 1979, in Portland Oregon and spent way too much of my following years in “backwater” arcades. I cannot recall ever seeing this game. Granted that was nearly thirty years ago so it doesn’t really doesn’t mean much. One thing I find really odd about the game is the fact the joystick is on the left hand side. Most of the games at the time would have joystick in the center, with button on both sides to accomodate right and left handed player. Putting the joystick on the left hand side would have been annoying to many right handed players. Maybe this is part of the evil plot.

    Considering what was state of the art back in 1981, I have a hard time believing that anybody could do anything mind bending with hardware available at the time.

  10. Max says:

    I spent a lot of time playing Polybius, and I turned out Polybius.

  11. Sully says:

    This reminds me of the furor over the arcade game “Death Race” back around 1979 or so, when I too graduated from high school.

    DR was an actual machine, a very primitive black-and-white driving game where you ran over pedestrians who were randomly roaming around the screen. Whenever you hit one, it would chirp and a tombstone would pop up. Parents groups had a fit. This is the first negative press I can recall over a videogame.

    I played it once. It was lame. “Asteroids” was my game, and thirty years later I’m still convinced that I was the best ‘Stroids jockey to ever to bash a button … :-)

  12. nergvol says:

    Put handful of quarters in original Pong machine, later men in dark suits follow me and helicopter over home. Found out dark suit men were Amway salesmen looking for another mark and aircraft were involved in forestry logging. Or were they?

  13. Daniel says:

    All the colors of the rendition on youtube could not happen unless this game had a laserdisk playing in the background (which could have worked with mirrors). Other than that color vector graphics (if they even were color) could hardly mess with people too bad… maybe spell out stuff. Hell if I were the gov’t I’d do it haha… and make you all pay more taxes- just like…. we are… now. *_* Obaaaamaaaa *_* Obaaamaaaa

  14. romano says:

    why this urban legends never proven?
    is this really true?
    if it’s true, who is the creator?
    why this game can make people insane?

    in my opinion
    the game is covered with KABBALLAH
    a demonic rituals combining technology
    so the game POLYBIUS is just a test during that time

    KABBALLAH is used by POWERFULL SECRET SOCIETIES
    such us ILLUMINATI or a.k.a the NEW WORLD ORDER

    the game developer never appears
    because i think he is one of them
    using KABBALLAH

  15. Jason says:

    Do u know the creeaters of the game are from Germany and that the men in black where the germans that made the game and took the game out of the arcade.

  16. mariana says:

    hey i need the gameee!!!! please send me the website please!

  17. video games can be very addicting that is why sometimes i limit myself from playing too much of it ..

  18. when it comes to video games, i enjoy playing those that have very nice graphics and story like Plantz and Zombies :-:

  19. Lavender says:

    Well, since there are no real proofs that the video game actually existed and the people who actually played it cannot give us straight answers, what does that mean? It means the polybius never existed! I think…

  20. Tron says:

    It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that government testing happened in this fashion. Doubt any had such dire effects, but never know. If there is anything that has been proven in the last thirty years, It is that nothing can be proven. have we or haven’t we gone to the moon, Roswell: ship or balloon, 9-11: Terrorist attack or war hungry government looking for excuses. Remember this, Wherever there is fact, there is a doubt to muddle that fact.

  21. The first time I read about this a couple of years ago, it seemed like the web was teeming with testimonials, of varying believability, from people who said they had played the game, and I remember wondering if it was a case of false group memory.

    Now I can’t find any of the testimonials. Double Thunderbird Effect?

  22. Warren says:

    @Todd

    I actually remember the reverse, i.e. a surprising number of video games of that era having the joystick on the left, which struck me as odd at the time. Ones that I remembered (and double-checked on Google to make sure I wasn’t insane) include Donkey Kong, Galaxian, Galaga, Joust, and Defender but I’m sure there’s many more.

  23. Ashe says:

    Polybius is still in the world to this date. There are numerous videos of humans playing it in public areas. The cabinet, I mean. You know, anyway, the point is it exists and I cannot wait to play it.

    Evidently I have only heard of one last remaining Polybius in existence. I think it was in Kansas.

  24. Dennis Wray says:

    http://www.retrocademagazine.com/

    There is an article in an online Gaming magazine called Retrocade that has an in depth article on Polybius written by Catherine DeSpira that is heavily researched and incredible. This woman obviously conducted massive research into not only the legend, its origins and players but covers FBI files and even investigated Steven Roach. The article is fascinating and very well written. I can’t believe it! I read it 4 times. You have to READ THIS ARTICLE.