If there’s one thing gamers and horror fans can’t get enough of, it’s an urban legend draped in deceit and delusion. Just take a look at the layered and mysterious past of the fictitious arcade video game, Polybius. In the years since it spread across schoolyards and throughout countless internet forums, the game has been attached to everything from aliens to the U.S. government.
The most common takeaways of the game include it being a governmental secret study and means of finding potential soldiers with the mental chops to meet their demands; another involves it being a tool of the C.I.A. to brainwash its unsuspecting players. There’s even some supposed connection between Polybius and the MK-Ultra program. Of course, what would an urban legend if it wasn’t all these things and potentially none of them.
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Polybius’s origins can be traced to 1981 and the “keep it weird” city of Portland, Oregon. Reports surrounding gamers frequenting arcades, particularly Jeff Dailey, who had a heart attack while attempting to achieve the world record in Berserk and 12-year-old Brian Mauro, who fell ill after also chasing a world record in Asteroids. These reports stood alone as cases that could be explained due to prolonged physical exhaustion. However, it was enough to fuel the fires online and among kids, the fodder for things to come.
Sometimes all you need is happenstance and the illusion of a deadly menace to spark uncontrolled rumors. In this case, it was arcades and the games within. Add in the aspect involving U.S. government involvement and you've got a bonanza. Much like the series of gamers undergoing health conditions after marathon gaming, the arcade scene in Portland during the 80s underwent some of its own heinous drug busts. FBI agents held stakeouts at arcades, often using gamer high score names to keep track of people frequenting the different locations, seeking out who and where the drug deals were being made.
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The arcades weren’t safe; they were often a dark and hidden place full of loud noises to conceal whatever might be happening in the shadows. It makes sense that the F.B.I. was spun into the burgeoning legend of Polybius, the game aimed to mess with gamers’ minds. Certainly, seeing the authorities hanging around arcades is fuel for suspicion.
You have an arcade machine being intentionally installed into arcades, supposedly by the F.B.I., for potentially nefarious reasons, and the game itself could be dangerous, capable of causing players to get addicted to the game or maybe even hallucinate. The very loose threads weaved into something still spoken about today.
Another thread found its way into the legend of Polybius. The aforementioned mind-altering properties of the game were theorized by the internet as being the product of the C.I.A., with the psychoactive technology coming from the work surrounding the MK-Ultra program, particularly Operation Paperclip, the U.S. government recruitment effort of Nazi scientists giving them sanctuary if they worked on government technology.
It’s the last thread needed to give Polybius its origin story and therefore the right amount of curiosity to turn heads while also containing a source to blame (the government) for the theorists online picking everything apart in search for Polybius location tests.
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This was all documented first online by user Cyberyogi on CoinOp, an arcade gaming appreciation and collecting site. The user was a troll, often posting a bunch of hoaxes and dealt in lies. Of course, creepypasta works this way—a fiction based around collective fears shared online. Polybius fits the bill.
In 2006, someone by the name of Steven Roach posted in the CoinOp forums. He claimed that he had been commissioned to design and develop the game. His employer, “Sinneslöschen” was reportedly a South American company interested in having the game put out in small doses. Roach said that he completed the project, and the game was shipped to arcades only to be recalled after people all got sick from it.
Enamored by Roach’s claims, forum members and people interested in the myth of Polybius jumped on this information for it was the latest raw material since the blossoming of the urban legend. It was discovered that there was a real Steven Roach. An expert in the legend and a video game historian, Cat DeSpira traced the facts and discovered that he had run a behavioral modification program via a company he founded in Mexico.
Roach’s programs were designed around behavioral modification and after an undetermined amount of time, the company and associated programs were closed for possible malpractice and Roach was believed to be in hiding from possible legal action and recompense. Apparently, the behavioral programs were far more destructive and horrifying, involving mind control and brainwashing.
Whether this user claiming to be Steven Roach was legit or simply someone using the anonymity of the internet to pose as the Polybius “developer”, it remains an unknown, just like everything else about the game’s existence.
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Still, Polybius exists somewhere in the mix of heinous theories and men in black, a game that began as schoolyard rumors and scary stories based around odd occurrences at Portland arcades, into a game that has been created by fans of the urban legend, including a 2017 rendition by Jeff Minter, creator of Tempest.
The game was published for digital download on PlayStation 4 under his studio, Llamasoft, with Minter leaning into the legend by stating that he gained access to one of the infamous Polybius arcade cabinets in Basingstoke, England, which allowed him to accurately reproduced the gameplay. Of course, Minter later denied the claims, stating it was part of the continued elaborate hoax that is Polybius.
On YouTube, Polybius is the subject of countless vlogs, documentaries, and discussions. The Angry Video Game Nerd filmed his own rendition of the game, including a dramatization of playing it, including all the supposed mind-altering effects.
Polybius may seem like a stand-in for Tempest, Asteroids, or any of the old shoot-em-up style arcade games of the 80s but it manages to find its references across popular culture. The Simpsons referenced the urban legend during an unsuspecting scene where Bart peruses the local arcade, stopping by Triangle Wars, which just so happened to sit side-by-side with Polybius, complete with the arcade cabinet sporting a “property of the US Government” label.
The game has permeated the collective consciousness. It’s an urban legend as disturbing as you’d like it to be, and in the end, it does what legends do: Looks like anything we might encounter on a daily basis—harmless and familiar—but underneath, it just might warp your mind and inform your nightmares.