Polybius (urban legend)
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''Polybius'' is an
urban legend An urban legend or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the tradition A tradition is a belief A belief is an attitude Attitud ...
concerning a fictitious 1981
arcade game An arcade game or coin-op game is a coin-operated entertainment machine typically installed in public businesses such as restaurants, bars and amusement arcades. Most arcade games are presented as primarily game of skill, games of skill and in ...

arcade game
. The legend describes the game as part of a government-run
crowdsourced Crowdsourcing is a procurement, sourcing model in which individuals or organizations obtain goods and services, goods or services—including ideas, voting, micro-tasks, and finances—from a large, relatively open, and often rapidly evolving ...

crowdsourced
psychology experiment based in
Portland, Oregon Portland (, ) is the list of cities in Oregon, largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon, and the county seat, seat of Multnomah County, Oregon, Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacif ...

Portland, Oregon
. Gameplay supposedly produced intense
psychoactive A psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, psychoactive agent, or psychotropic drug, is a chemical substance A chemical substance is a form of matter In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and t ...
and addictive effects in the player. These few publicly staged arcade machines were said to have been visited periodically by
men in black In popular culture and UFO conspiracy theories, men in black (MIB) are supposed men dressed in black suits who claim to be quasi- government agents who harass, threaten or sometimes even assassinate UFO witnesses to keep them quiet about what ...
for the purpose of data-mining the machines and analyzing these effects. Allegedly, all of these ''Polybius'' arcade machines disappeared from the arcade market. The urban legend has persisted as a topic of interest for video games journalism and through continued interest, it has served as inspiration for free and commercial
video games#REDIRECT Video game#REDIRECT Video game A video game is an electronic game that involves interaction with a user interface or input device such as a joystick, game controller, controller, computer keyboard, keyboard, or motion sensing device ...

video games
by the same name.


Legend

The story tells of an unheard-of new arcade game appearing in several suburbs of
Portland, Oregon Portland (, ) is the list of cities in Oregon, largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon, and the county seat, seat of Multnomah County, Oregon, Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacif ...

Portland, Oregon
, in 1981; this would have been something of a rarity at the time. The game is described as proving popular to the point of
addiction Addiction is a biopsychosocial The biopsychosocial model is an interdisciplinary model that looks at the interconnection between biology Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their anatomy ...
, with lines forming around the machines often resulting in fights over who would play next. The legend describes how the machines were visited by
men in black In popular culture and UFO conspiracy theories, men in black (MIB) are supposed men dressed in black suits who claim to be quasi- government agents who harass, threaten or sometimes even assassinate UFO witnesses to keep them quiet about what ...
, who collected unknown data from the machines, allegedly testing responses to the game's
psychoactive A psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, psychoactive agent, or psychotropic drug, is a chemical substance A chemical substance is a form of matter In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and t ...
effects. Players supposedly suffered from a series of unpleasant side effects, including
seizures An epileptic seizure, formally known as a seizure, is a period of symptom Signs and symptoms are the observed or detectable signs, and experienced symptoms of an illness, injury, or condition. A sign for example may be a higher or lower tem ...
,
amnesia Amnesia is a deficit in memory Memory is the faculty of the by which or is , stored, and retrieved when needed. It is the retention of information over time for the purpose of influencing future action. If s could not be remembered, ...

amnesia
,
insomnia Insomnia, also known as sleeplessness, is a sleep disorder A sleep disorder, or somnipathy, is a medical disorder of an individual's sleep patterns. Some sleep disorders are severe enough to interfere with normal physical, mental, social and ...

insomnia
,
night terrors Night terror, also called sleep terror, is a sleep disorder A sleep disorder, or somnipathy, is a medical disorder A disease is a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure A structure is an arrangement ...
and
hallucination A hallucination is a perception Perception (from the Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rom ...

hallucination
s. Approximately one month after its supposed release in 1981, ''Polybius'' is said to have disappeared without a trace. The company named in most accounts of the game is ''Sinneslöschen''. The word is described by writer Brian Dunning as "not-quite-idiomatic German" (a word constructed outside the norms of German-language usage and grammar) meaning "sense delete" or "sensory deprivation"; if it were a German term of actual use, "Sinneslöschen" would be pronounced like . The word's meanings are derived from the German words '''', "senses" and '''', "to extinguish" or "to delete", though the way they are combined is not standard German. Historians and journalists studying the urban legend note further that the name of the purported arcade game itself, "Polybius", is also the name of born in
Arcadia Arcadia may refer to: Places Australia * Arcadia, New South Wales Arcadia is a semi-rural suburb of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, Australia 42 kilometres north-west of the Sydney central business district in the Local government in ...
and known for his assertion that historians should never report what they cannot verify through interviews with eyewitnesses.


Origins

Due to the viral and anecdotal nature of the legend, an exact origin is unclear. Some anecdotal accounts claim that the legend originated on
Usenet Usenet () is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. It was developed from the general-purpose Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) dial-up Dial-up Internet access is a form of Internet access Internet access is the ability of ...
circa 1994, or earlier through offline word of mouth, though no recorded evidence exists for either claim. The earliest confirmed record of the legend is an entry for the title added to arcade game resource coinop.org on February 6, 2000; although coinop.org lists the page as originating in 1998, journalist Stuart Brown states that it appears to have defaulted to that time due to a database error caused by a lack of input. The entry mentions the name ''Polybius'' and a copyright date of 1981, although no such copyright has ever been registered. The author of the entry claims in the description to be in possession of a
ROM image A ROM image, or ROM file, is a computer file A computer file is a computer resource for recording data Data (; ) are individual facts, statistics, or items of information, often numeric. In a more technical sense, data are a set of val ...
of the game, and to have extracted fragments of text from it, including "1981 Sinneslöschen". The remainder of the information about the game is listed as "unknown", and its "About the game" section describes the "bizarre rumors" that make up the legend. Some time prior to September 2003, Kurt Koller, owner of coinop.org, submitted a message to the American video game magazine ''
GamePro ''GamePro'' was an American multiplatform video game magazine media company that published online and print content covering the video game industry The video game industry is the industry Industry may refer to: Economics * Industry (eco ...
'' about ''Polybius''. ''Polybius'' then appeared in the September 2003 issue of ''GamePro'', as part of a feature story on video games called "Secrets and Lies". This is the first known printed mention of the game, exposing the legend to a mass-market audience. The article declared the existence of the game to be "inconclusive", helping to both spark curiosity and spread the story. Following the appearance in ''GamePro'' magazine, a number of people claimed to have some involvement with ''Polybius''. In 2006, a man named Steven Roach claimed he had been one of its original programmers and that his company developed a game with very intense and cutting-edge graphics. However, according to Roach, a boy experienced an epileptic seizure while playing, and the cabinets were withdrawn by the company in a panic. Although Roach offered no proof for his claims, his story added details on gameplay that later inspired Rogue Synapse's game based on the legend.


Analysis

The alleged original ''Polybius'' arcade game has not been proven to exist.
Snopes.com Snopes , formerly known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is a fact-checking Fact-checking is a process that seeks to verify sometimes factual information, in order to promote the veracity and correctness of reporting. Fact-checking ca ...
, a popular website cataloguing urban legends, concludes the game is a modern-day version of 1980s rumors of "
men in black In popular culture and UFO conspiracy theories, men in black (MIB) are supposed men dressed in black suits who claim to be quasi- government agents who harass, threaten or sometimes even assassinate UFO witnesses to keep them quiet about what ...
"—in this case, visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games. This led to the hypothesis that the government was hosting some sort of experiment and sending
subliminal message Subliminal stimuli (; the prefix ' literally means "below" or "less than") are any sensory stimuli A stimulus is something that causes a physiological response. It may refer to: *Stimulation Stimulation is the encouragement of development or ...
s to the players. Magazines of the time period dedicated to electronic gaming make no mention of ''Polybius'', and mainstream news also fails to note such a game. While a number of mockup cabinets and games inspired by the myth do exist, no authentic cabinets or
ROM Rom, or ROM may refer to: Biomechanics and medicine * Risk of mortality The risk of mortality (ROM) provides a medical classification to estimate the likelihood of inhospital death for a patient. The ROM classes are minor, moderate, major, and ex ...
dumps have ever been documented. Ben Silverman of
Yahoo! Games Yahoo! Games was a section of the Yahoo! Yahoo (, styled as yahoo''!'') is an American web services The term Web service (WS) is either: * a service offered by an electronic device to another electronic device, communicating with each oth ...
remarked: "Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the game ever existed, no less turned its users into babbling lunatics ... Still, ''Polybius'' has enjoyed cult-like status as a throwback to a more technologically paranoid era." Skeptics and researchers have differing ideas on how and why the story of ''Polybius'' came about. American producer and author Brian Dunning believes ''Polybius'' to be an
urban legend An urban legend or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the tradition A tradition is a belief A belief is an attitude Attitud ...
that grew out of a mixture of influences in the 1980s. He notes that two players fell ill in Portland on the same day in 1981, one collapsing with a
migraine A migraine (, ) is a primary headache disorder characterized by recurrent headaches that are moderate to severe. Typically, episodes affect one side of the head, are pulsating in nature, and last from a few hours to three days. Associated sympt ...

migraine
headache after playing ''
Tempest TEMPEST is a U.S. National Security Agency specification and a NATO certification referring to spying on information systems through leaking emanations, including unintentional radio or electrical signals, sounds, and vibrations. TEMPEST covers both ...
'', and another suffering from stomach pain after playing ''
Asteroids An asteroid is a minor planet A minor planet is an astronomical object in direct orbit around the Sun (or more broadly, any star with a planetary system) that is neither a planet nor exclusively classified as a comet. Before 2006, the Int ...
'' for 28 hours in a filmed attempt to break a world record at the same arcade. Dunning records that the
Federal Bureau of Investigation The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic intelligence Intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for abstraction Abstraction in its main sense is a conceptual process where general rules and concept Conce ...

Federal Bureau of Investigation
raided several video arcades in the area just ten days later, where the owners were suspected of using the machines for gambling, and the lead-up to the raid involved FBI agents monitoring arcade cabinets for signs of tampering and recording high scores. Dunning suggests that these two events were combined in an urban legend about government-monitored arcade machines making players ill. He believes that such a myth must have been established by 1984, and that it influenced the plot of the film ''
The Last Starfighter ''The Last Starfighter'' is a 1984 American space opera film directed by Nick Castle. The film tells the story of Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a teenager recruited by an alien defense force to fight in an interstellar war. It also features Robert ...
'', in which a teenager is recruited by aliens who monitor him playing a covertly-developed arcade game. Dunning considers "Sinneslöschen" to be the kind of name that a non-German speaker would generate if they tried to create a compound word using an English-to-German dictionary. Internet writer Patrick Kellogg believes that players claiming to remember having played or seen ''Polybius'' as early as the 1980s may actually be recalling the video game '' Cube Quest''. ''Cube Quest'', released in arcades in 1983, is a shooting game which played from a . Kellogg describes its visuals as "revolutionary" and far ahead of typical games of the time. He states that the game would be frequently visited for maintenance (because of frequent breakdowns of laserdisc players in arcade games) and was often removed from arcades after a short time for the same reason. British filmmaker and video game journalist Stuart Brown concludes that the ''Polybius'' legend began no earlier than 2000, arguing against the purported 1980s origin for the myth. In his review of the legend's history, Brown states his conclusion that the ''Polybius'' story began as an intentional hoax in 2000 by Kurt Koller, owner of coinop.org, in order to drive traffic to his site. Brown states that he did not find any evidence of the ''Polybius'' myth existing until the year 2000, the same year Brown concludes marked the first appearance of the ''Polybius'' article on Koller's site. In Brown's view, the frequently-cited 1980s origin of the myth was an invented aspect written into the coinop.org description of the "legend" to make Koller's hoax more convincing. Brown further theorizes that people recalling discussion of ''Polybius'' on Usenet in 1994 were misremembering articles on the
Pink Floyd Pink Floyd were an English rock Rock most often refers to: * Rock (geology) A rock is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its Chemical compo ...
-related Publius Enigma puzzle. Per Brown, the ''Polybius'' hoax capitalized on the popularity of conspiracy theories and the highly viral nature of other Internet hoaxes in, or just before, the year 2000. Brown also notes striking similarities between the fonts used on the supposed title screen, provided by the image on coinop.org in 2000, and those used for two
Williams Electronics WMS Industries, Inc. is an American electronic gaming and amusement manufacturer in Enterprise, Nevada. It was merged into Scientific Games in 2016. WMS's predecessor was the Williams Manufacturing Company, founded in 1943 by Harry E. Williams. ...
arcade video games Arcade most often refers to: * Arcade (architecture) An arcade is a succession of contiguous arch An arch is a vertical curved structure A structure is an arrangement and organization of interrelated elements in a material object or syst ...
: '' Bubbles'' and ''
Robotron: 2084 ''Robotron: 2084'' (also referred to as ''Robotron'') is a multidirectional shooter developed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar of Vid Kidz and released in arcades by WMS Industries, Williams Electronics in 1982. The game is set in the year 2084 i ...
''. He concludes that the 5-pixel text used for the credit counter is similar to that of ''Robotron: 2084'' and that the font that reads "Sinneslöschen" is almost identical to that of ''Bubbles'', with the only differences the appearance of the "O" and the mirror-image reversal of the "H" along a central vertical axis. Brown states that this could be the work of a copycat fan of
Williams Electronics WMS Industries, Inc. is an American electronic gaming and amusement manufacturer in Enterprise, Nevada. It was merged into Scientific Games in 2016. WMS's predecessor was the Williams Manufacturing Company, founded in 1943 by Harry E. Williams. ...
; both ''Bubbles'' and ''Robotron: 2084'' were made by Williams and both were released only a year later than when ''Polybius'' was said to first appear.


Video games inspired by the urban legend


''Polybius'' for PC (2007)

In 2007, PC
freeware Freeware is software Software is a collection of Instruction (computer science), instructions that tell a computer how to work. This is in contrast to Computer hardware, hardware, from which the system is built and actually performs the work ...

freeware
developers and arcade constructors Rogue Synapse registered the domain "sinnesloschen.com" and offered a free downloadable game titled ''Polybius'' for PC. The game's design is partly based on a contested description of the ''Polybius'' arcade machine posted on a forum by an individual named Steven Roach who had claimed to have worked on the original. Rogue Synapse's ''Polybius'' is a 2D shooter resembling ''
Star Castle ''Star Castle'' is a vector graphics multidirectional shooter released in arcades by Cinematronics in 1980. The game involves obliterating a series of defenses orbiting a stationary turret in the center of the screen. The display is black and ...
''. To complete the illusion, Rogue Synapse's owner Dr. Estil Vance founded a Texas-based corporation bearing the name ''Sinnesloschen'' (without umlaut) in 2007. He transferred to it the "Rogue Synapse" trademark and a newly registered trademark on "Polybius". The author does not make any claim that his version of ''Polybius'' is the authentic original, stating clearly on its page that it is an "attempt to recreate the ''Polybius'' game as it might have existed in 1981".


''Polybius'' for PlayStation 4 (2017)

In 2016, Llamasoft announced a game called ''Polybius'' for the
PlayStation 4 The PlayStation 4 (PS4) is a home video game console A home video game console is a video game console A video game console is an electronic device that output Output may refer to: * The information produced by a computer, see Inpu ...

PlayStation 4
with support for the
PlayStation VR The PlayStation VR (PS VR, known by its code name A code name, call sign or cryptonym is a Code word (figure of speech), code word or name used, sometimes clandestinely, to refer to another name, word, project, or person. Code names are often ...
. ''Polybius'' was added on the PlayStation store on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. In early marketing, co-author
Jeff Minter Jeff Minter (born 22 April 1962) is an independent Independent or Independents may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Artist groups * Independents (artist group), a group of modernist painters based in the New Hope, Pennsylvania, area ...
claimed to have been permitted to play the original ''Polybius'' arcade machine in a warehouse in
Basingstoke Basingstoke ( ) is the largest town in the county of Hampshire Hampshire (, ; abbreviated to Hants) is a Counties of England, county in South East England on the coast of the English Channel. The county town is Winchester, but the county ...
, England. He later acknowledged that the game was inspired by the urban legend but does not attempt to reproduce its alleged gameplay.


In popular culture

The 2006 ''
Simpsons ''The Simpsons'' is an American animated sitcom An animated sitcom is a subgenre of the sitcom that is animation, animated instead of live action. History Early history ''The Flintstones'', which debuted in 1960, is considered the first e ...
'' episode "
Please Homer, Don't Hammer 'Em "Please Homer, Don't Hammer 'Em..." is the third episode of ''The Simpsons''’ The Simpsons (season 18), eighteenth season. It first aired on the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox network in the United States on September 24, 2006. In this episode, Ma ...
" features an arcade with a ''Polybius'' game machine. RocketJump's 2015 anthology series, ''Dimension 404'', features an episode based on the ''Polybius'' urban legend. Nine Inch Nails' music video for their 2017 single "Less Than (song), Less Than" features visuals from a ''Polybius'' video game throughout; the game visuals featured in the video were designed by Llamasoft's
Jeff Minter Jeff Minter (born 22 April 1962) is an independent Independent or Independents may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Artist groups * Independents (artist group), a group of modernist painters based in the New Hope, Pennsylvania, area ...
. ''Polybius'' was also featured in the episode "Journey into Mystery (Loki), Journey into Mystery" of the 2021 Disney+ series ''Loki (TV series), Loki'', which is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2015 novel ''Armada (novel), Armada'' by Ernest Cline was heavily based on ''Polybius'' and similar urban legends. ''Polybius'' serves as the subject of a five-episode horror miniseries within the 2017 season of ''The Angry Video Game Nerd'' by James Rolfe, in which a supposedly-real ''Polybius'' cabinet traps "the Nerd" within an arcade cabinet reseller's store room and forces him to play and experience its psychological effects. Public Radio Exchange, PRX's Radiotopia featured a pseudo-documentary series about the game and surrounding mythology titled ''The Polybius Conspiracy'' in Fall 2017. The series, produced by Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto, was originally distributed as part of PRX's Showcase (podcast), ''Showcase'' program before being released as its own standalone series. Musician Neil Cicierega has stated that his song "Cabinet Man" was "slightly inspired" by ''Polybius''. YouTube personality Stuart Ashen released the film Stuart Ashen#Ashens and the Polybius Heist, Ashens and the Polybius Heist in which he attempts to track down the cabinet.


See also

*List of urban legends


References


External links


The game's entry on coinop.org
* , includes alleged cabinet photograph
7 Greatest Video Game Legends



Article about the game in ''Atlas Obscura''

Eight minute documentary by the BBC
* Stuart Ashen#Ashens_and_the_Polybius_Heist, Ashens and the Polybius Heist {{Italics title Arcade video games Creepypasta Fictional video games Hoaxes Science and technology-related conspiracy theories Urban legends