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.