Polybius: Video Game of Death
Did a 1981 video arcade game sicken players while government agents collected the data?
by Brian Dunning
May 14, 2013
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 362, May 14, 2013
Today we're going to delve into the urban legend files, and dig back to the year 1981. Popular tales on today's Internet hold that there was a mysterious video game, introduced into only one or two video arcades in the Portland, Oregon area. It was called Polybius, and the legend says that players reported nausea, headaches, nightmares, and an aversion to video games. The most ominous part of the story is that men in black suits would come to the arcades and download the data. Later, some who played are said to have committed suicide or mysteriously disappeared. Soon the games were removed, never to be seen again. The story of Polybius has all the markings of a made-up urban legend, but as dedicated gamers are a social bunch, the tale has persisted to the point that many people today are not so sure. Could this urban legend have grown from a seed of fact?
One of the first things I'd normally do with a case like this is to search news archives, first to see if there were actually any reports of sickened gamers in Portland (or anywhere else) about that time, and second to see when and where the name first starts to appear in publications (assuming it's a myth and we want to see when the myth started). But it's difficult to track down the name Polybius, because it's not a unique word. Polybius was a Greek historian born about 200 years BCE. He's best known for two things: a 40-volume book about the history of Rome called The Histories, and perhaps more intriguingly, for a little ciphering scheme called a Polybius square. In a Polybius square, the letters of the alphabet are arranged in a grid, numbered five across and five high (the Greek alphabet had only 24 letters, so it fit). His idea was that this would make it easier to send messages by flag or drum or fire, having only five characters to worry about instead of a whole alphabet. But rearrange the letters within the grid, and you have a simple ciphering system. Is it this reference that prompted the originator of Polybius lore to choose the Greek name as an homage? Who knows.
If these game consoles were ever actually in Oregon, they must have gone somewhere. Many owners of rare and classic arcade games are members of the Vintage Arcade Preservation Society, which lists exactly one person as the owner of an original Polybius: Robb Sherwin, who lives in Colorado, and owns a dozen or so classic video games. However, Robb's listing there is really just a placeholder for his website, Jolt Country with the Polybius Home Page. He lists most of what seems to be known about the urban legend, including a few photos of unknown origin, and a joke YouTube video he made where they find a Polybius game in a garage, turn it on, and — well, you can guess the rest.
But the bottom line is that there is nobody in the vintage arcade community who openly claims to have, or to have ever seen, an actual Polybius. All the issues of Electronic Games magazine from 1981 through 1984 are available online, and contain not a single mention of the game. In fact, I could find no print references to the game at all prior to 2003, when the urban legend was described in GamePro magazine. This essentially nails the lid on the coffin on the suggestion that Polybius ever actually existed. It did not.
However, saying that is one thing, and concluding that it's therefore just an Internet hoax is another. It turns out that the story of Polybius may indeed have an eerily similar basis in fact.
We do know that at least two people fell sick from playing arcade games in Portland, Oregon in 1981. The Eugene Register newspaper reported on November 29, 1981 that 12-year-old Brian Mauro played Asteroids for more than 28 hours, trying to break the record, as local television crews watched. He finally bowed out with stomach discomfort, attributed to anxiety and all the Coke he drank. Researcher Catherine DeSpira, writing in a 2012 edition of online vintage gaming publication Retrocade, discovered that a Michael Lopez developed a migraine headache while playing Tempest on the same day and in the same arcade where Brian Mauro was going for his record. Lopez was reported to the police when he collapsed in pain on someone's lawn. Two players knocked out in the same arcade on the same day. Stories spread like wildfire in the local middle schools: video games were freaking kids out, possibly even trying to take over their minds.
Anyone looking for corroborating evidence would have found even more frightening facts. Throughout the early 1980s, at least nine cases were reported of epileptic seizures being triggered by video games in the United States. It's called photosensitive epilepsy. It's rare and unpredictable, but very real.
Not only that, but there were, in fact, government agents poking around Portland area video arcades at that very same time. Just ten days after Mauro and Lopez crashed, state, local, and federal agents raided video arcades throughout the region. It turned out that some arcade operators illegally used their video games for gambling, by modifying them with counters that allowed owners to pay out cash to players based on how many points they made in their game, and thus increasing business. In preparation for this raid, FBI agents had been going around to arcades and taking photographs of player initials on high-score screens, hoping to identify potential witnesses. And officers had gone into every business in the city that had video games, and poked and prodded around the back of the machine, looking for these illegal counters.
Arcades had also become a popular place for the sale of stolen goods and drugs, and as a hangout for truants. In fact authorities even set up at least one fake arcade in Portland and filled the game consoles with hidden cameras, similar to today's automated teller machines, hoping to catch criminals in the act.
How much more raw material was needed for teenagers to see a pattern? Games were physically harming players, giving them headaches and nausea; and government agents actually were lurking in every arcade shadow. The Polybius urban legend was hardly fiction; it was nearly a docudrama.
And there's even more evidence that bolsters its validity. The US government did (and still does) use versions of commercial video games. Battlezone, a tank simulator game considered to be the first first-person virtual reality game, was modified with controls that mimicked those of an M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle in 1980, and sold to the military as The Bradley Trainer. It was intended to train Bradley gunners. One still survives in a private collection.
Most famously, in 1996 the US Marines ordered a modified version of the first-person shooter game Doom II and used it to train ground troops on specific missions. The version has since been made available to the public for download. Today the distinction between games sold to the public and games used by the military has been blurred into virtual non-existence.
Put all the pieces together, and we're left with virtually no reason to suspect anything implausible about the Polybius legend. Indeed the urban legend must have been sufficiently established by 1984, as it seems obvious that the writers of the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter found inspiration in pop culture for their story of a teen recruited by a strange "Man in Black" for his skills at a covertly developed and monitored arcade game. In fact, the only thing differentiating the popular legend from the real historical record is the name of the specific game Polybius. And this brings us back to our search through the archives of printed history.
I've searched all the Polybius urban legend books and websites I could find, and even exhausted my own resources to find the earliest known mention — if you find something earlier, please let me know. I tracked down a page on Coinop.org, an Internet resource founded in 1994 that's something of a Wikipedia for every coin-operated arcade game known. It does have an entry for Polybius, and that entry was created on August 3, 1998. Suspiciously, every fill-in-the-blank fact about the game is unknown; no information about the console, the display, the case, the controls — what you might expect if the author had never seen or played the game. It recounts only the popular version of the urban legend given at the beginning of this episode, and the name of the publisher, Sinneslöschen. That's not-quite-idiomatic German for sense delete, or sensory deprivation; likely what a non-German speaker would come up with if they tried to create a new word using an English-to-German dictionary. The author of the Coinop page was anonymous and remains unknown. About a year and a half later, in 2000, someone linked to the page in a Usenet forum, and together those two posts form the trunk of the tree from which all resulting Internet lore has sprouted.
Interestingly, there's one more German connection to the Polybius story. In 1985, East German publisher VEB Polytechnik produced an arcade console game called Poly Play — notice the similarity in names. It was a collection of eight games, including a Pac Man clone. The Poly Play consoles were based on pirated Russian CPUs and were not outstanding examples of engineering finesse. Something over 1000 examples were built and distributed throughout Eastern Europe, but after only a couple of years, all were recalled by the factory and destroyed. Very few survive. Proposed reasons include that they were too often in need of repair and cost too much to operate, and that after the Berlin wall came down there were concerns of license and copyright violations.
Combine the story of the Portland teenagers being knocked out by video games, the government agents in Portland arcades, and the game whose name started with Poly being mysteriously removed from arcades, and it's not surprising that the story of Polybius exists. Indeed it might be more surprising if it didn't exist. At the very least, whoever first posted it to Coinop.org needed a lot less creativity than the creators of most urban legends. The lesson learned from Polybius is that the closer you can stick to truth, the longer legs your urban legend will grow.
© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Anonymous. "Polybius." coinop.org. Minimalist, 3 Aug. 1998. Web. 9 May. 2013. <http://www.coinop.org/g.aspx/103223/Polybius.html>
Associated Press. "Tummy Derails Asteroids Champ." Eugene Register-Guard. 29 Nov. 1981, Newspaper: 11.
Bureau, M., Hirsch, E., Vigevano, F. "Epilepsy and Videogames." Epilepsia. 1 Jan. 2004, Volume 45, Supplement 1: 24-26.
DeSpira, C. "Reinvestigating Polybius." Retrocade. 1 Apr. 2012, Volume 1, Number 2: 141-148.
Elektro, D. "Secrets & Lies." GamePro. 9 Oct. 2003, October 2003 edition.
Staff. "Video Games Gambling Count Admitted." The Oregonian. 9 Dec. 1981, Newspaper.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Polybius: Video Game of Death." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 14 May 2013. Web. 20 Aug 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4362>