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Polybius


A computer-generated title screen for an old-style video game called "Polybius". Black background; the word "Polybius" is in large type and green.

In 1981, an arcade machine appeared in several suburbs throughout Portland, Oregon. The so-called "golden age" of arcade video games had only started a few years earlier, and so excitement and interest were high for any and all new video games that came onto the scene, and this game, Polybius, was no exception. To quite a scary degree, in fact. Polybius turned out to be insanely popular, with long queues forming as people waited to play the game, and fights would break out over who would play it next. The game wasn't just ridiculously addictive, however - players started to report side effects from playing the game, including seizures, amnesia, insomnia, night terrors, and hallucinations, although even these things weren't enough to stop people from playing.


Then there were the reports of the mysterious "men in black" who were seen collecting data from the Polybius arcade machines at the end of the day. Finally, and very abruptly, after about a month, all of the Polybius machines disappeared from the arcades, never to be seen again.


...That's how the story goes, at least. Polybius, as it turned out, was one of - if not the - earliest gaming-related urban legends, and in the decades since has become part of gaming and media pop culture.


For a long time, the earliest mention of Polybius was thought to have been in a September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, in an article titled "Secrets and Lies". The article details the history of Polybius as mentioned above, but in the end classes it as "inconclusive", pointing out the lack of physical proof or first-hand accounts... but still finishes with:

But still... what if it's true?

A CGI image of an arcade gaming cabinet, with the title screen for the game "Polybius" on the screen. The image is coloured mainly in teals and black

The actual earliest mention of Polybius has been traced all the way back to February 6, 2000, when a page about it was created on the arcade gaming website CoinOp. The page claimed that Polybius was copyrighted in 1981, (but no such copyright exists on any database) and it gives the same basic details of the story that we all know. The last update to the CoinOp page appears to have been on May 16, 2009, stating that:

...one of us is flying to the Kyiv, Ukraine area tomorrow and yes the trip is related to this information. Stay tuned.

The last update also makes reference to "Steven Roach", who according to CoinOp was "full of himself and knows nothing about the game." "Steven Roach is the username of someone who claimed to have been involved in Polybius' development. Some of the claims Roach made included:

  • programmer Marek Vachousek came up with the name "Polybius" because it sounded "bold and mysterious";

  • the game was playtested "for hours and hours" and found to be "addictive" and "well-loved professionally and recreationally by all that played it";

  • the new type of graphics were then found to be an "unknown quantity" compared to the standard graphics of the time, which caused problems;

  • no ROMs or anything similar exist as the game was withdrawn without nationwide or international distribution.

In 2017, the gaming channel Ahoy tracked down "Steven Roach" for their documentary Polybius: The Video Game That Doesn't Exist, and confirmed that his story was indeed false.


Really though, it should have been a lot easier for people to have realised that the whole Polybius story was not as it seemed. The game, after all, shares its name with the Greek philosopher Polybius, who (a) was born in Arcadia; and (b) was known for his assertion that historians should never report what they cannot verify through interviews with eyewitnesses.


Well played.


The actor Richard E Grant is dressed as Loki from his early comics appearances, in green and yellow with a golden helmet with two long curved horns. He is sitting in a leather chair, and behind him is a Polybius arcade console

In the Skeptoid podcast episode on Polybius, Brian Dunning goes further into how several separate events all came together to create the "evidence that gave the legend of Polybius its plausibility. For example, in 1981 two players in Portland fell ill on the same day after playing video games in arcades - one developed a migraine and collapsed after playing the video game Tempest, while another player became sick after playing Asteroids for 28 hours straight and drinking a large amount of Coca-Cola. (Two other gamers had actually died after allegedly playing the game Bezerk, although these deaths did not happen in Portland.) Then, ten days after the two games had fallen ill, the FBI raided several Portland arcades, suspecting that illegal gambling was going on there involving the video games. In the days leading up to the raids, the FBI monitored machines for any signs of tampering, and recorded the high scores from them for later cross-referencing.


If a person was to hear of these events, all happening in the same area in a two-three week time period, but wasn't aware of the full context of them... It's easy to see how a rumour could get started, and then gradually gather momentum until it became the urban legend we all know today, complete with added details such as those who played Polybius becoming strongly anti-videogames afterward, to fit a narrative that someone was trying to brainwash or influence minds for their own sinister purposes. Or to recruit them to fight in intergalactic space battles.


Over the years, interest in the legend of Polybius has not waned. In 2007, developers Rogue Synapse released a free downloadable game called Polybius for Microsoft Windows, partly based on the description "Steven Roach" had given of the game. In 2017, Llamasoft released Polybius for the PlayStation 4, even going so far as to claim that one of the creators had played the original in a warehouse in Basingstoke, England. Polybius has also been spotted in several TV shows, including The Simpsons, Paper Girls, and Loki. We've almost certainly not heard the last of one of the most famous games that never existed.


Sources:

Polybius (CoinOp)

"Secrets and Lies" (page 2) (GamePro, August 2003, via the Wayback Machine)

"'Polybius' is real" (Input; part of Inverse)




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