Legend, or Urban Legend? The Tale of Polybius


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” – The Usual Suspects, 1995

A peculiar and addictive arcade game rumored to make players ill, and worse. Government men retrieving data from the cabinet, without ever saying a word to anyone. The game abruptly vanishes without any explanation. Elaborate hoax, paranoid conspiracy theory, or terrifying example of government utilization of an entertainment industry in order to study mind control tactics? This is what documentarians Jon Frechette, Todd Luoto, and Dylan Reiff are hoping to find out.

Accounts tell the story of a plain black cabinet appearing in select arcades in and around Portland, Oregon in 1981, marked only by the blue lettering spelling out the word POLYBIUS. Thought to be named for the Greek historian known for his assertion that historians should not report what they cannot verify through witnesses, Polybius has been described as an extremely addictive combination of 3D style mazes and a space shooter, with spinning graphics and bright colors that increase in intensity as the game progresses. Comparisons have been made to Atari’s 1980 title Tempest.

According to internet retellings, men dressed in black would visit the machines, retrieve data from them, and leave without ever speaking a word. Allegedly, many players of the game ended up addicted, sick, and plagued by nightmares. More drastic accounts include tales of amnesia, hallucinations, and even suicide. One day, shortly after its release, Polybius vanished just as mysteriously and silently as it appeared, with no official record of the game’s existence anywhere.

The first documented reference to the game was in an anonymously authored entry on the site coinop.org in 2003 (links citing a 1998 reference lead to an unresponsive page and are unable to be verified.) The entry mentions the name Polybius and a copyright date of 1981. The author of the entry claims to be in possession of a ROM image of the game, and to have extracted fragments of text from it – most interestingly “© 1981 Sinneslöschen”. The remainder of the information about the game is listed as “unknown”. Sinneslöschen roughly translates to “sense deletion.”

Many publications, when discussing the tale of Polybius, write the story off as a hoax due to the lack of evidence of the game’s existence; but as the American astronomer Carl Sagan once said “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Nearly five years ago, Jon Frechette was approached by his friend and longtime collaborator Todd Luoto with the idea of creating a narrative film about the Polybius legend. “It was through the process of doing research for this screenplay that, slowly, we began to unravel the bizarre true stories that may have inspired the Polybius legend, and eventually arrived at the realization that the truth was stranger and more compelling than what we’d been cooking up in isolation.”

After more than a year of intense research, investigation, and interviews, the team is confident in their ability to capture Polybius in the documentary The Polybius Conspiracy. As of the time of this writing, the team’s kickstarter fundraiser has raised more than $23,000 of their $100,000 goal.

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Frechette says he has always, and continues to, operate from a place of skepticism. This is not, however, to be confused with disbelief.

“If Polybius were real, I’d be less concerned about the negative effects of the game itself and far more concerned about the people behind it” Frechette told me in an email interview. “We live in a world where there’s an incredible mistrust of the government in certain spheres. There’s indisputable proof that the CIA had a secret mind-control program (MK-Ultra). Is it so farfetched that they might try to impose that technology on popular entertainment?”

In order to determine the likelihood of Polybius existing, it’s wise to evaluate whether each of the individual claims have a basis in reality.

An Arcade Game Caused Kids In Oregon To Get Sick

This claim has, in fact, been confirmed – just not as the reaction to one specific game.

In Oregon in November 1981, 12 year old Brian Mauro fell ill after playing Asteroids for 28 straight hours, during an attempt to break the world record. Researcher Catherine DeSpira reported in a 2012 edition of online vintage gaming publication Retrocade that a Michael Lopez developed a severe migraine headache while playing Tempest on the same day and in the same arcade as Brian Mauro. Lopez was reported to the police when he was found collapsed on someone’s lawn. Reports of other children in the surrounding weeks also becoming sick at arcades were unable to be appropriately verified; however two sick children in the same arcade, on the same day, is the perfect seed for paranoia.

Government’s Intentional Brainwashing Attempts

In the 1950’s, the Unites States Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) recruited more than 1,500 scientists, technicians, and engineers from Nazi Germany as part of a program called Operation Paperclip. The most shocking series of experiments to arise from this operation was called Project MK-ULTRA, the name given to a program that consisted of a series of experiments on human subjects, many without their knowledge. The goal of this project was to develop methods of interrogation and torture though the development of certain drugs and procedures, with the intention of forcing confessions through mind control.


MK-ULTRA scientists and doctors used many drugs, most commonly LSD, as well as sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, and various forms of torture with the intention of manipulating people’s mental states and to alter their brain functions. In addition to directly administering drugs in controlled areas – such as hospitals, prisons, and universities – documents have shown that scientists were exploring the potential of aerosol distribution of certain drugs in order achieve the same goals.

The program was officially halted in 1973 and the records ordered to be destroyed by CIA Director Richard Helms. Although the mis-filing of many of the included reports led to thousands of them surviving and being released, it’s proved impossible to gain full understanding of the more than 150 sub-projects of MK-ULTRA. While it is also impossible to estimate the number of deaths that resulted, one name has become nearly synonymous with the project as a whole: Frank Olson.

Olson was a U.S. Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher, who was allegedly given LSD as part of a CIA experiment without his knowledge in 1953. One week later, Olson was found dead, said to have committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window. Days earlier, Olson quit his job for a “severe moral crisis” involving his biological chemicals research, as well as the CIA’s use of LSD and cooperation with former Nazi soldiers. In 1994, the body of Frank Olson was exhumed, revealing that he was knocked unconscious prior to exiting the window, and has since been treated as a homicide. Olson’s family insists that Olson was murdered out of fear that he would divulge information about the secretive projects.


Use of Video Games by the U.S. Military

While some have speculated that Polybius was used as an experiment with the same intentions of MK-ULTRA, others have introduced the theory that the game, if it existed, was possibly used as a training tool by the United States military.

In late 1980, Atari released BattleZone.BattleZone was the second game I did for Atari” former Atari programmer Edward Rotberg told me via email. “This was a 3 month project. BattleZone was defined to use the vector generator hardware system designed by Howard Delman and used in games like Asteroids. And, for the first time, it was to be a true 3-D game. It also incorporated a bit-slice system to do the mathematics, making the full-3-D possible. For me it was a chance to start with hardware that was purpose-built, and break some ground at the same time. It was my most successful game, and had a huge impact on the rest of my career, for both good and bad.”

Shortly after BattleZone’s release, Rotberg says Atari was approached by a group of “retired, upper echelon, military people to create a simulator/game based on one of the new Infantry Fighting Vehicles in use by the U.S. Military.” The project was given only three months, requiring those working on it to work 14-18 hour days, and included modifying the existing BattleZone title. While Rotberg has no regrets about agreeing to work on the title – he agreed only with the stipulation that he be exempt from all future military projects for Atari – Rotberg does regret losing three months of his life to work on it. “I would only see my wife when I got home and go and went to bed, and again in the morning before I left. It was not a happy time for me.”

In 1996, DOOM II was also modified for use by the U.S. military. The Marine Combat Development Command was given the task of developing and approving computer-based wargames to train U.S. Marines for “decision making skills,” particularly when live training options were limited.

The Sum of its Parts

“Through our research and interviews, much of the focus has been on establishing what is blatant fiction and what might have been possible,” Frechette says of the upcoming documentary. In addition to interviews and investigation, Frechette says that one of the most interesting questions to Polybius, in the event it was not real, is whether it’s a true “urban legend” or an elaborate hoax. “…one of our sources, Joe Streckert, talks about how legends have to emerge organically, as sort of a shared cultural experience, whereas hoaxes are perpetrated by a single person with the explicit intent of fooling other people.”

There were children in Oregon in 1981, getting sick while playing video games. There was a rumored police and federal presence in and around arcades in the early 80s to monitor for drugs and illegal gambling. The U.S. government has a confirmed history of performing gruesome tests and experiments on citizens without their knowledge in a program that ended less than 10 years before Polybius’ rumored appearance. The military has used video games for both training and recruitment. Each individual speculation about the game Polybius has a basis in reality.

While stressing no personal knowledge of the game, Rotberg says “As for the truth of these rumors, I have no informed opinion… pure speculation says that there could be a tiny grain of truth somewhere in all of the many, varied rumors. I seriously doubt it, but cannot completely discount the possibility either.”

The best hoaxes are often based off truth, and the most frightening truths often appear to be hoaxes.

“When we began this journey, we were open-minded about what we might find — and we still are today. This has been a strange and surprising journey, and I think it’s going to translate into a film that people aren’t expecting. There will be some familiar history, but there will also be new revelations. And some of them are pretty creepy.” – Jon Frechette, The Polybius Conspiracy

For more information on The Polybius Conspiracy, you can view the team’s kickstarter fundraising page here.

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