The legend of Polybius is arguably the most well known gaming urban legend. It was an urban legend that has become much more iconic in recent years, and is about an arcade game that has some dark secrets, including sensory deprivation, government methods and abduction. Of course, this was just an urban legend, but there are some interesting details about this mysterious 1980s video game. In this very special Halloween-themed guide, we discuss the legend of Polybius.
The year is 1981, which was 39 years ago. Over at the sleepy town of Portland, Oregon, a mysterious arcade cabinet was found. This cabinet was completely black, lacking all the fun and decorative details most arcade cabinets had back then. Only a single word was on the cabinet: Polybius, in bold and bright turquoise lettering. (Though some sources state that the cabinet was completely blank and Polybius was the nickname gamers gave it) Playing it would result in addiction, abnormal behavior, terrible nightmares, seizures, sleep deprivation, suicidal thoughts, mind control and an inability to stop playing. The game was made by a German company called Sinneslöschen, which is a combination of the German words for “Sense” and “To erase”, which meant that this game supposedly deleted people’s senses and heavily effected them. This company clearly did not exist, as there was little trace of their existence. People believed this game was tied to the government, as men in black suits would reportedly (Emphasis on “reportedly”) come in and collect data from the machine. Besides, agencies like the CIA were already experimenting with interrogation methods like MKUltra, a mind control program used to weaken the enemy. This game was also reportedly the reason 2 teenagers randomly vanished, but the game may not have been involved in their vanishing. The game only lasted 2 months, and was pulled out of the Portland arcade. The first real reference to it was on an arcade game-themed website called coinop.org in 1998.
Interviews And Alleged Reports
In 2006, a user on Coin Op named Steven Roach revealed that Sinneslöschen was a company that he and other amateur programmers set up. Roach noted that he and the other employees weren’t TOO great at coding, and weren’t aware about the effect it would have on players. Coin-Op then confirmed that Roach was wrong, full of himself and answered some rumors involving the game, saying that the game didn’t use vector graphics and wasn’t based on Tempest, a game released on the Atari.. At the end of 2017, a podcast called The Polybius Conspiracy was released, and had Bobby Feldstein as one of the guests. Feldstein claimed that he was allegedly abducted one afternoon when he was 14. In the podcast’s first episode, Feldstein talks about how he was led through a series of underground tunnels, and was found the next day 60 miles away from his house. Ernest Cline, author of 2011’s Ready Player One, recalled hearing about Polybius in central Ohio as a teenage gamer. Cline has also cited Polybius as inspiration for his gaming-themed works.
Obviously, to refer to the elephant in the room, Polybius was a Greek historian from the Hellenistic period who was famous for noting that “historians should not report on something they cannot verify”, which describes Polybius the legend perfectly well. A game that was reported despite unverified information about it being spread. Polybius (The Greek historian) also came up with the Polybius square, a grid where numbered coordinates are swapped for letters. But moving on from Greek historians, there’s a lot about Polybius that just makes no sense whatsoever, and decreases the chance it ever existed. Here are some reasons why:
- The first mention of the game was in 1998, which was 17 years after the urban legend took place. Why was there no prior news reports, or game catalogs referring to Polybius, and why do we have to refer to “witnesses” or Sinneslöschen “employees” for answers? And besides, Roach was most likely wrong, so who knows what we know about the game.
- Everything is way too on-the-nose. The name Polybius describes the legend, not the game, which means that the game was most likely just a tale some people made up. Another on-the-nose name is Sinneslöschen. Why would you name your company Senseerase in poor German, and if Roach (Who was most likely wrong about the game) claimed that he wasn’t aware about the sense-erasing abilities Polybius had, why would the company be named Sinneslöschen, which describes the abilities of the game?
- We have very little evidence to back it up. The only true screenshot we have is the title screen, and even so, who knows if it’s real or not? It’s pretty basic and could have easily been recreated for the myth. We also have no real idea about what the gameplay was like, and we can only refer to unreliable sources and debates.
- The idea of a government project in the form of a video game seems way too far-fetched. Gaming technology was pretty weak in the 1980s, even for big boys like Nintendo, so it makes no sense that an amateur game developer would be able to pack a video game with subliminal messages and evil intentions.
- Why would a random German developer develop a game for the CIA to test? If the CIA has such advanced technology, why couldn’t they make the game themselves? Perhaps Sinneslöschen was just a cover-up, or disguise, to make the game look legitimate instead of a government project? If so, why, and I said this already, why would they name their company Sinneslöschen? If Polybius was the creation of the government, why would their cover-up be so obvious?
As far-fetched as the legend of Polybius is, there is also a ton of fact involved. Yes, two kids did get knocked out in Portland, Oregon at an arcade. Yes, the government did come into said arcade. But then again, no reference to the game was ever found, which kind of supports the idea that Polybius never existed.
At the end of the day, no one can really verify what’s real or what’s not about Polybius, hence the what the Greek historian Polybius thinks. The best way to answer this is the mandela effect. The mandela effect is when people believe they experienced something that never happened. Polybius could’ve easily been confused with German game Poly Play, which, like Polybius, mysteriously vanished. But if people like Steven Roach were debunked as liars, who knows what’s true and what’s not about Polybius?