The story of Polybius is one of the
most horrifying mysteries in video games.
It started as one of the Internet’s earliest urban legends
and despite not having much evidence,
the Polybius story lives on.
It goes like this:
in 1981, the United States government
commissioned an addictive arcade game.
Gameplay was similar to Tempest,
and incorporated puzzles and subliminal messages.
It has horrible physical and mental effects
on anyone who played it.
It caused seizures,
In extreme cases, the game caused suicide
and even sudden death.
The Polybius arcade cabinets
were unmarked black boxes
and they only appeared in Portland, Oregon
and the surrounding suburbs.
Men in black suits visited the arcades
to download data the game generated
on each of its players.
Some say that the mental and physical toll
the game took on its players
was the government’s method
of finding highly qualified soldiers.
Others say that Polybius was designed for mind control.
It was published by a company called Sinneslöschen,
which in English very roughly
translates to “sensory deprivation.”
It created chaos and forever
impacted the children who played it.
Then, as quickly and mysteriously
as Polybius entered the market,
For years, Polybius tales were relatively quiet,
but that changed in 2006
when someone who identified himself as Steven Roach
posted on a Coinop.org forum.
He claimed that he set up
the company that made Polybius,
and that he and his fellow
programmers were commissioned
to do so by a southern American company.
He say they knew they were creating an addictive game
but panicked when Polybius gave
an Oregon child an epileptic fit.
He said they disbanded the company
shortly after Polybius was pulled from the market.
For some people,
Steven Roach’s post was as
validating as it was alarming.
It corroborated a lot of what people
thought they knew about Polybius.
For them, his post was proof that Polybius existed,
that it addicted and hurt its players,
and that the game really was
quietly pulled from the market.
So that’s the story but…
is any of it actually true?
Let’s start with the public record,
and let’s just assume that Polybius really existed
and that it did hurt its players.
Mainstream news sources
would have definitely covered
such a controversial game.
In the early ’80s, arcades were condsidered
pretty seedy establishments.
Such a scandalous story
would have made national news.
On top of that, there were publications
that focused solely on the gaming industry.
But when Polybius supposedly
hit the market in the early ’80s,
it was never mentioned.
In fact, the earliest references to Polybius
only appeared several years after
the game was allegedly released,
and were written in the context of
it being a mysterious urban legend.
But just because it didn’t appear in the media
doesn’t mean that Polybius never existed.
What about those kids who got sick in arcades?
And what about the men in black suits?
This was all pretty intriguing to journalist Cat DeSpira.
She grew up in Portland.
She moved there when she was a young teen
and she actually hung out at the arcade
where Polybius supposedly tormented its players.
She spent a good portion of her adolescence there
and remembers that Portland was
a test market for new video games.
She says that sometimes
unmarked cabinets would appear in local arcades.
They’d be labeled simply “New Game.”
Or they’d have a name,
but that name could change
by the time it was officially released.
Despite spending a lot of time in Portland-area arcades,
Cat didn’t hear about the Polybius
story until she was an adult.
But instead of writing Polybius
off as an odd urban legend,
Cat looked into it.
In fact, she spent months researching the story.
And what she and other researchers have found
is that there are kernels of truth
to the Polybius story.
One bit of truth is that kids got sick at arcades.
Around the time that Polybius was allegedly released,
12-year-old Brian Mauro developed
an upset stomach while playing a video game.
It made the news.
Brian had been playing for 28 hours straight.
He was going for a record
but a stomach ache brought on by too many Coca-Colas
took him out of the running.
Here’s the thing though:
he was playing Asteroids, not Polybius.
Later, at the same arcade and on the same day,
a 14-year-old named Michael Lopez
developed his first migraine.
But he was playing Tempest.
A year later in Illinois,
an 18-year-old named Peter Burkowski
died from a heart attack while playing Berzerk.
So people have gotten sick while playing video games.
And some have even died playing video games.
It’s true that flashing lights in the right pattern
can cause seizures.
Some people probably have gotten
seizures while playing video games,
but none of these incidents
have been traced back to Polybius.
In all likelihood, they just helped
build the rumors about Polybius
and make the story seem more credible.
But what about the men in black suits
who came to download data
from the Polybius machines?
Well, there’s a kernel of truth there, too.
In an interview with Eurogamer,
Todd Luoto, who was working
on a documentary about Polybius,
explained that the FBI did
hang around Portland arcades.
That’s because back in the early ’80s,
arcades didn’t exactly have a family-friendly reputation.
Arcades were sometimes seen as havens
for gambling or drug abuse.
In early December of 1981,
right around the time that Polybius was on the market,
and not long after the Portland boys got sick
playing Asteroids and Tempest,
the FBI concluded a year-long investigation
into a Portland-area arcade owner
who was accused of rigging
his arcade cabinets for gambling.
Then in 1982,
after a seven-month undercover sting operation,
federal agents arrested 25 suspects
in Games People Play arcade in Seattle, Washington
on charges of racketeering.
And then there’s Steven Roach,
the man who claimed to help create Polybius.
While some believe him, his story seems
sketchy at best.
In his long, rambling post,
he makes several grammatical errors.
He even misspells the name of the
company he claimed to help set up.
A lot of people have raised doubts
about the name of the company,
which in English translates to “sensory deprivation,”
but apparently is an awkward word combination
that a fluent German speaker probably wouldn’t use.
Cat DeSpira, one of the journalists
who investigated this issue,
believes she tracked down the
Steven Roach who wrote the post.
Her conclusions are unsettling.
In her article, she writes that he and his wife
ran horrific behavioral modification schools for children,
where the kids were subjected
to physical and sexual abuse.
It’s a disturbing story,
but it’s hard to know whether the
person who wrote the Coinop post
was even really named Steven Roach,
let alone whether he was the same Steven Roach
that Cat discovered.
Either way, the Steven Roach post
adds to the Polybius mystery.
A mystery with some kernels of truth
but not much evidence to back it up.
Whether you think Polybius is real or not,
we can probably all agree that the story
isn’t going to die out anytime soon.
It’s one of gamings biggest urban legends.
It was a joke on The Simpsons.
And last month, a Polybius game
was even added to the PlayStation store.
I don’t believe Polybius was ever a real game.
But it does make for a good story.
That’s all for this episode of The Gaming Historian.
Thanks for watching!
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