The Legend of Polybius | Gaming Historian

The Legend of Polybius | Gaming Historian

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,
night terrors.
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,
it vanished.
For years, Polybius tales were relatively quiet,
but that changed in 2006
when someone who identified himself as Steven Roach
posted on a 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!
(“Gaming Historian” theme plays)
– [Woman] Funding for Gaming
Historian is provided in part
by supporters on Patreon.
Thank you.

100 thoughts on “The Legend of Polybius | Gaming Historian”

  1. Hi everyone,

    The Blu-ray is officially done, so it's back to our regularly scheduled programming! I thought it would be fun to get to the bottom of the Polybius mystery. What we discovered was pretty interesting, and I don't think this urban legend will go away anytime soon. If you enjoyed the video, give it a share. Thanks!

  2. Mind control wouldn't be surprising. Especially given what is now known about MK ULTRA, etc.
    It also would not be surprising for it not to get in the news if the government or some other powerful organization was behind it.

  3. I know I may have already asked this about a year ago, but does anyone know which episode of "The Simpsons" the screenshot was from? I'm curious to know because I'm in the mood to watch it right now. ;D

  4. It honestly sounds more like a test of whether video arcades could cause physical issues to it's customers. Along the lines of tests given after head injuries, suspected epilepsy etc.. except that it was interactive. For example early VR tests had people getting headaches, nausea, etc.. thus Sega despite advertising abruptly halted for good launch of their headset. If it existed this was probably simply the name of the test & transferred to the machine title. As to g-men remember at the time business casual hadn't taken root. So while now uncommon at the time formal attire even for simple data collection was then.

  5. when kevin was talked too about polybius on coinop he said "The wording is very word specific"This led a wild goose chase but what if its that simple..

    PO – Portland Oregon
    LY – LIE
    BI – BY
    US – US

  6. Fake or not we should never forget the fact that the US government experimented with mind control (mk ultra).
    That's 100% more fucked up than any Polybius legend.

  7. After watching several videos on this subject and reading about it. And always being intrigued by a good mystery and conspiracy. This is my ideal rare arcade cabinets go for big money even if they don't work. I think someone dealing in these rare cabinets heard a legend at a convention or online and made up the legend of Polybius. They even got a guy to write a story in Game Pro about it. It's simulator to the Chrystal Skull's that have been debunked. You take something ordinary build a legend around it and sell it for big money or at least try to. If someone did get suckered into buying a worthless Polybius cabinet we may never know out of sheer embarrassment. And that could be the reason the hoaxer still isn't talking. Not that I have any more information than anyone else but it's just my 2 cents.

  8. I know about test marketing games first hand. Around 2009-2010, there was a unique game at my local arcade in Largo, Florida called "Ballistic". It was a racing game of sorts, with flashy graphics and a rumble seat. It was addictive and easy to play. Years later, around 2015-2016, I returned to the arcade and asked about the now AWOL game. The people working there had no idea what I was talking about. It was eerie. Not long after, I went to a retro gaming store and a guy looked up Ballistic for me, and turns out it was an experimental game, only test marketed in like 10 arcades around the US. Yet nobody but me seems to remember playing it. So was Polybius an early test market game like Ballistic that actually gained noteriety? Who knows!

  9. if your intrigued by this tale go to Retro Ahoy's Documentary about this very topic it literally takes the lid off this myth and goes into more detail you wont be disappointed

  10. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. That game was a devious plot to experiment on innocent kids. What an outrage !

  11. I'd suggest watching the incredible documentary by AHOY. His documentary touches on a lot of other points not made here.

  12. Wait "he was playing tempest"
    is that was actually tempest?
    polybius WAS very simmilar to TEMPEST!
    * the X files theme *

  13. Maybe polybius wasn't a new arcade game but an added on program when a certain player beat a very difficult level maybe that is what the fbi agenst were loading into the arcade machines

  14. Native German here. Yes, Sinneslöschen makes no sense to be used as "sensory deprivation" and the way the words are stuck together does not work like this in German! Yes, to someone coming from an English background just translating the composite words it would look fine, but it isn't.

    Bare minimum would be to name it "Sinneslöschung" – which makes the whole thing a noun instead of a verb. But if someone wanted to name their company sensory deprivation in German, they'd either come up with a clever title or just use the actual German word for sensory deprivation, which is "Reizentzug" (Also a composite word. Reiz = Stimulus and Entzug = Deprivation).

  15. Honestly the Sinnesöchen name is one of the least believable parts of the legend. No one names a company “Sensory Deprivation.” It sounds like some something you’d hear in a scary story; because it is: the name was made up by someone to sound creepy, and then used it with the Polybius mystery. The weird word combination can be explained by the fact that the guy who came up with it likely wasn’t German.

  16. I don’t know who made this up or if it is possible that the game actually exited but either way it’s a huge legend for us gamers

  17. This urban legend was actually created by the site owner after 2000, to drive traffic to the site. It exaggerates several actual urban legends from 1980's arcades.

  18. I was born and lived in Portland Oregon for 4 years, and that was 7 years ago, now I really wish I still live there

  19. Sounds like a myth. Having said that though, a simple game called Phantom Slayer on the Tandy Color Computer and Dragon 32 is pretty terrifying if you play it by yourself with the lights out.

  20. Where did you get the idea that video arcades were seedy? Yes, those in bad areas maybe. But, they were great hangout places in the '80s.

  21. I found a reddit page of some one claiming to have created polybius. The link :

  22. I just saw a YouTube video about a modern imagining of Polybius, built as an arcade cabinet. There was a guy spreading the legend in the comments for the video, claiming he'd personally played the original and seen the men in black tinkering with it–but with the setting moved from Portland, Oregon to the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. Everyone else in the comments seemed completely credulous about this. I mentioned it to a friend of mine and he pointed out that the mall didn't even exist until 1991.

  23. …Wait, what was that??? … About the children getting sexually abused? Sounds like that story would take priority over the Polybius cabinet immediately.

  24. When I was around 5 years old, I would get sick just walking into an arcade. Something about the combination of heat, flashing lights, and loud out-of-sync music and sound effects. I probably puked in the middle of the floor at Putt-Putt a half dozen times, and I remember once telling my parents "I don't want to go in there, I'll throw up," which I promptly did not long after they took me in anyway.

    Joke's on them, though. I got over the nausea after a couple more years, and by the time I started college I was skipping classes to play games. Good times and bad grades.

  25. I think Polybius is better known in its Japanese name which translates to Transformers Mystery of Convoy.

  26. Your professional, thoughtful snd rational remarks did not allow my imagination to blow this all out of proportion. Booooooooo

    Jk, stellar work as always

  27. Maybe the Polybius graphics were on the side of an unmarked "black cabinet" to let people know this causes "sensory deprivation" and then someone started an urban legend by calling the arcade by this name.

  28. In the version I heard the men in black seemed to try to get rid of it and seemed not to be part of the government…

  29. it was never a "fun " game. it made me feel a bit sick. it was too loud!! way too loud. 1984-5. the video was very harsh to look at! it was not a regular cabinet. it was leaned back more like a golfing game.

  30. My dad showed me a documentary about this game when I was like 8. After that I couldn't sleep for days because I was extremely scared. I was convinced that video games where made to control my mind. 😂

  31. Polybius status is Safe according to the SCP Foundation. They have the only one and it is in their <redacted> facility in <redacted>

  32. Guys Polybius is a real arcade question if you think I’m lying go check out the angry video game nerd

  33. POLYBIUS is a game that makes you sick. Whenever I watch a POLYBIUS video my eyes hurt and I also get headache

  34. The Astonishing Legends podcast did a great in-depth episode on this and came to similar conclusions if folks are looking for more info.

  35. Why did the government made a game
    that has all these affects for us gamers
    the government wanted to test us players
    and did we know who played polybius…
    Braiden Sharp

  36. Steven says that He worked on Polybius and behavior modification in Czech Republic. I live in Czech Republic and all companies He mentions are not real, so i call his story bs

  37. I don't believe this 'conspiracy' story about "Men In Black" and other b.s. .

    people who come up with crap like this enjoy getting $1 a month from YouTube video revenue views from leftover commercial advirtisement coin.

  38. I do believe a kernel of this is true as there is precedent for this kind of thing. In Japan, Nintendo released a Pokemon title on the Gameboy that caused severe psychological problems in children. Nintendo changed the game before releasing it stateside. If a single track from a game that utilizes sound frequencies can cause ill effects then I have to believe visuals can as well.

    Speaking if sound, we also know that certain sound frequencies can immobilize or even cause people to lose the ability to speak. Given that our government has run tests on the civilian populace in the past to great harm this is very possible.

    Finally, you mention that this would have made headline news. No, you are talking about a different time. We did not have the media coverage back then like we do today. One boy getting epilepsy from playing a game is not national news in the 1980's. We know that the CIA funded a program called MKULTRA that was well hidden until the late 90's. People also called that a boogeyman story but now we know for a fact it happened. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch but to call it bunk is wrong…

  39. Cool I know AVGN also covered this but the best I've seen by far is Ahoy's video on the subject, over an hour long and goes in very deep.

    I heard about this many years ago on an old conspiracy forum – ATS I think ,can't remember. I was in my early to mid 20's at the time and really intrigued. You can dig all day but you'll just turn up the same stuff over and over, mostly all speculation.

    Ahoy's video was the first time in years I actually learnt something new, he goes as far as to track the lifecycle of the myth on the net, using the way back machine, contacting people who started threads and owned certain message boards and sites, it's a great film.

    This was still fun and interesting, though – I don't think Polybius really existed but it's a fun topic to speculate on.

  40. "1981" – People supposedly freak out about a video game being addictive

    2019 – People positively review mobile games as addictive

    We're fucked

  41. Govt runs the media (intel agencies ala deep state). Of course they'd keep it quiet and then plant evidence and take the arcades that had it out of commission via gambling crimes. Pretty typical actually.

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