The Urban Legend of The Arcade Game (That Melted Kids' Brains)
When it comes to conspiracy theories, there's a special, gonzo category of those that could only even be considered because we're (rightly) preconditioned to believe that our government is capable of the shadiest, most diabolical machinations. This is one of those conspiracies -- this is the urban legend of Polybius, and how a whole bunch of people became convinced that the government was using an arcade machine to melt people's minds.
Insert Coin to Play
Like all modern urban legends, this begins the same as just about every other opening to The X-Files. It's 1981 and the arcade business is booming. Kids and adults alike are gathering around the popular cabinets of the time. Forget what it's like today when the latest shooter drops and we're unfazed by the ability to blow some dude's dick clean off and hang it from our gun as some newly unlocked charm in photorealistic glory. This was a time when one extra damn square on the screen could draw lines around the block. These were bustling, vibrant, important cultural spaces and one innovative new game was said to be drawing quite the crowd: Polybius.
At an arcade on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, this lone machine apparently popped up out of nowhere. While there's no concrete descriptions of what Polybius' gameplay was actually like, or basically anything about the cabinet from this time, let's just assume it's every game from that era. You're a space guy walking around on a 2D plane shooting at space bugs while avoiding space obstacles on your way to the next space, uh, space.
I'd do a lot to be a fly on the wall for a pitch meeting for an 80s arcade game. Imagine: some enthusiastic young programmer walks in with a briefcase full of old sci-fi comics. He plops them on the table and turns to the executive that's puffing a cigarette and has no fucking clue what goes into making games. He points at the comic's vibrant, illustrated hero and his battle with an alien force. "You guys see this?" the programmer exclaims. "What if we make a game that's like this? You're out there in space, going around, shooting aliens or whatever." The executive takes a long drag and looks at the programmer. "Great, but what's the hook?" The programmer shrugs. "Instead of this super elaborate and detailed style you see before us, your spaceman is a square, the aliens are triangles, and you shoot CIRCLES." After a long pause and another puff, the exec screams, "LOVE IT!" and busts out his checkbook before asking, "What do we call it?" The programmer stumbles -- he never got this far. "Uh, Zoopz Zapperz?" (The board room then bellows, borderline feral.)
For our purposes here, let's take this idea of the Zoopz Zapperz meeting and put it somewhere deep in the cellars of the CIA, and you'll have a good start for how this Polybius legend really gets out of hand.
A Mindblowing Game
Right away, players were supposedly drawn to the cabinet. Lines would form around the machine and players would have to be pulled away from the joysticks. The legend goes on to say that many would experience far more extreme physical side effects. Simply playing Polybius was causing everything from nausea and seizures, to nightmares and attempted suicide.
Like any good yarn about clandestine government operations, there have to be the suited men hanging around. The story goes that men in black suits would visit the Polybius machines every week to record data. Even more shady? THEY DIDN'T EVEN COLLECT ANY COINS. No government conspiracy is complete without the silent suited stooge. If I'm at the grocery store buying frozen taquitos and a stoic sunglassed man in a black suit pushes a cart behind me, I'm instantly quitting everything and becoming a conspiracy theory podcast host that screams exclusively about how the global elite is coming for our Jose Ole's.
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Fact from Fiction
So the legend of Polybius must have really took off in the 1980s with all these kids dropping like flies, right? Well, no. There's actually no seriously verifiable mentions of anything surrounding this game until years later. The only loose connection is a series of stories of people getting sick at Portland-area arcades around the same time. One kid got a migraine from Tempest and another felt shitty after playing Asteroids for 28 hours straight. Weird!
The legend may have spawned out of two more serious incidents where a pair of young gamers died of heart attacks while going after a world record. (It's such bullshit that a couple young kids had to go out like that and yet the King of Kong guy's balls didn't explode the second he touched a joystick.) Though there were these handful of stories around the time of kids getting sick from other games, there are absolutely no mentions of anyone falling ill playing Polybius, or even a game under that name to begin with. It wasn't until the early days of the internet when these legends started popping back up, nearly twenty years later.
In an article on early internet arcade site, Coinop, a poster claimed to have details about a sinister machine in 1980s Portland that was making kids lose their shit. Beyond detailing the stuff about the physical side effects of the game and the men in black suits, the post also lists a company behind the machine: Sinnesloschen. (What happens when you break down the German words in that name? You get some form of "sense delete.")
(Sidebar: I love the idea of this company being so detestable that they just flat out put jam their absurdly evil intentions into their name. That's like Facebook's original title being Racistaunts or Amazon being a bit more honest with Wegenuinelydonotvaluehumanlife.)
Though the Coinop site did a lot to bring this legend out into the public, it was a GamePro piece in 2003 when it hit another level. While the story never outright says whether or not they believe the tale to be true, they leave the door open just enough to start letting even more crazy walk in. And a man named Steven Roach was ready to walk right through the crazy door.
More than a Myth?
Steven Roach took to the Coinop forums in 2006 to tell his side of the twisty Polybius story. He claimed to be one of the game's original programmers and that they did indeed release a game in a super limited run. In Roach's rambling post filled with misspellings of his own employer's name and essentially no real proof of anything, he goes on to say that his machine was quickly pulled from arcades after a boy had a seizure and that the men in black were "company directors" taking stock of the situation. This would make us believe that Roach is either A) an internet troll simply trying to have his name connected to this legend; or B) actually a programmer who made a game so bad that it was melting people's brains.
In Roach's post, he throws in the fact that he was based out of the Czech Republic. In 1998, a man named Steven Roach and his wife were arrested after the school they operated was found to be doing horrific things to kids, specifically behavior modification by way of total brainwashing. Naturally, the connection was easily made between the two, and it's a damn wild link between a very real Steven Roach (who was extremely interested in mind control) and a dude on a forum posting about a game said to do the same thing. Though the real Steven Roach is on the run and we may never know if they're one in the same, this little wrinkle in the story added that tiny kernel of plausibility that a story like this needs to grow and keep legs for so many years.
The Truth is (Probably Not) Out There
The truth of Polybius is that there really isn't much to begin with. This story is so full of anecdotal "evidence" and early internet bullshit that it's entirely impossible to take as total fact. But there's also a reason it's gained so much traction and has never died after all of these years. Partly, that's due to the fact that we can believe it.
We can believe that our government might be up to something like this. We have no real issue saying to ourselves, "Eh, yeah, I mean I could see the CIA getting into the video game business just to melt brains for the hell of it." What's most scary is how quick we are to accept and move on from those kinds of thoughts, that we've been preconditioned so well to shrug and throw up what are you gonna do hands into the air. I'm not sure we'll ever know the true story behind Polybius, but I'm damn certain that there's a very real Polybius 2 out there, and perhaps we're living in it right now.
Top image: Inked Pixels/Shutterstock