The Haunting Of 'Polybius,' An '80s Arcade Urban Legend

The early 1980s are frequently referred to as the golden age of arcade video games, as titles like Pac-ManGalaga, and Donkey Kong were hot on the scene. The public flocked relentlessly to video arcades in search of face-paced, computerized fun. With so much going on, it was easy for some gamers to miss Polybius, an unassuming cabinet that allegedly had a very limited release. In fact, the game vanished so quickly, many people believe it's nothing more than a creepy internet legend. However, according to those who claimed to play it, the experience was unforgettable. 

Shortly after Polybius appeared in a series of arcades around Portland, OR, reports of rowdy crowds eager to play started coming in, and there were more than a few stories of Polybius-related altercations. As time passed, more players spoke out about the adverse effects the game seemingly caused, ranging from insomnia and hallucinations to dangerous thoughts and amnesia. Then, about a month after it all began, men in black suits showed up and took all the machines away. 

Did Polybius ever really exist? If it did, why don't fans mention it when they talk about other famous arcade games? The deeper one looks into this mystery, the more the threads unravel. While there's no concrete evidence proving the game's authenticity, the first-hand accounts, fan-made recreations, and generally bizarre aura that surrounds the Polybius myth suggests something sinister went on behind the scenes. 

  • The Game Allegedly Affected Players' Bodies And Minds

    The Game Allegedly Affected Players' Bodies And Minds
    Photo: NewSilver95 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    By all accounts, Polybius appeared out of thin air. Most players report trying the game within the span of about a month around November 1981, and every witness claimed to encounter the cabinet in or near Portland, OR. No one is sure where the game came from, and it disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived. 

    While the arcade cabinet was supposedly a flash in the pan, its purported effects were much more permanent. Some accounts claim younger players experienced permanent cases of amnesia and couldn't remember their own names or addresses. While other players managed to retain their sense of self, many still suffered a slew of unpleasantries.

    Tales of players experiencing violent dreams or night terrors were alarmingly common, as were recollections involving insomnia, hallucinations, and even loss of bodily functions. Certain players allegedly experienced seizures, and others passed out during play sessions. Allegedly, Polybius induced at least one self-immolation.

  • Shadowy Men In Black Suits Allegedly Serviced The Machines

    According to pretty much all accounts about '81 Polybius, a group of mysterious men dressed in all black were in charge of the sinister cabinets. Allegedly, these men routinely went to Portland, OR, arcades, inspected the machines, removed unidentifiable components from the games' interiors, then vanished promptly. Some witnesses claimed the men never touched the coin acceptor, so whatever they collected had nothing to do with money. 

    Sometimes the men loaded Polybius machines onto trucks to take them to other arcades. Roughly four to six weeks after the machines were first spotted, the shadowy crew retrieved every single Polybius machine and carted them off to an unknown location. It makes sense, however, why arcade proprietors were not shaken by the sight of potential government agents confiscating their merchandise.

    In the '80s, arcades were major social hubs that experienced a fair amount of criminal outbursts. Between 1981 and 1982, for example, there were at least two confirmed instances when government agents confiscated specific cabinets. In both cases, the games were used as evidence for offenses that took place in arcades. When less serious transgressions occurred in arcades, authorities often examined high score leaderboards to determine potential witnesses. 

    Even if an arcade's customer base remained civil, there was always the chance the owners might modify their machines to cheat players. To combat this, government workers inspected cabinet interiors for unidentifiable or illegal parts. With all this going on, it would have been easy for one more agency to enter the fray, as their actions perfectly mirrored those of their officially recognized counterparts. 

  • Numerous People Claimed To Play The Game, But No Official Record Of It Exists

    Officially speaking, Polybius never existed. The first print mention of the game didn't happen until the early 2000s, so it wasn't on the radar of enthusiast press publications like Electronic Games magazine. What's more, as of 2019, no arcade collector has ever produced an original Polybius cabinet for public scrutiny. 

    Despite this, it's difficult to account for the vast number of individuals who claim to have first-hand experiences with the machine. All 1981-related accounts happened near Portland, OR, so it makes sense why the majority of experts never encountered a cabinet. Moreover, if the CIA planted Polybius, the agency could have wiped all traces of the sinister machine from the annals of history. 

  • The Game's Title Screen Claims Sinneslöschen Inc. Holds The Copyright

    Details vary greatly from account to account, but pretty much all Polybius-related stories say German developer Sinneslöschen created the game. Despite this uniformity, there's no evidence Sinneslöschen ever existed; they never made another game and have no financial records. 

    In an attempt to debunk the Polybius myth, enthusiast press journalist Cat DeSpira contacted Gewerbeamt (the German Trade Office) and found no record of Sinneslöschen as an officially licensed business. While DeSpira concluded the company was never in operation, she also recognized the possibility that Sinneslöschen worked illegally. Her investigative work seems top-notch, but another possibility could combine her two conclusions. Sinneslöschen could be an unlawful operation fabricated by the US government to further their mind control experiments. 

    In fact, many sources note Sinneslöschen roughly translates to "sensory deprivation" or "memory erasure," but they do note the awkwardness of this translation. While the company's name is close to a common German idiom, the phrasing suggests an English-speaking person may have translated the words.

    Some forum users believe Sinneslöschen is an umbrella term meant to denote a series of CIA-run mind control experiments including MK-Ultra, viral videos, and songs that could cause mental instability or an addictive reaction. If this is true, it makes sense why the CIA would choose Germany as the site for their dummy corporation. In the wake of the Berlin Wall's fall in 1991, thousands of illicit arcade cabinets were confiscated from Germany and destroyed for fear of copyright lawsuits. Consequently, an original game or perhaps even the company's official records could have been lost in the shuffle. 

  • Reports Claim The Game Was Exceedingly Popular, Almost Addicting

    The Polybius cabinet was not particularly flashy, but that didn't stop it from being an alleged cult success. Some sources claimed there was always a line to play Polybius, and players desperately wanted to get their hands on the game's joystick. Once you played Polybius, rumors suggested you stopped caring about other video games. The puzzle-solving rush was too great to match. 

    Assuming Polybius really existed, it was almost certainly addicting. While enthusiast press journalist Cat DeSpira ultimately rejected the Polybius myth, her analysis recognized accounts of crazed teenagers fighting for control of the cabinet as though it were something they needed desperately. 

  • Some Think 'Polybius' Was A Government Experiment, Others Believe It Came From Germany

    While it's easy to pass off Polybius as yet another internet-era conspiracy theory, skeptics may fail to recognize a far more sinister option - the game was planted in Portland, OR by a malicious organization, then extracted four to six weeks later at which point all evidence was erased from the books. This explains why there's no record of the game's creation, and why all accounts can be tied to 1981 Portland, but what shadowy figures would want to drop a harmful video game amidst the suburban Oregon sprawl? 

    The most widely-accepted theory states Polybius was created by a US government agency, possibly the CIA. There are numerous accounts of men in black suits coming to collect data from the Polybius machines; while these men routinely extracted information from the cabinets, they always left the quarters behind, so it's unlikely they were interested in benefitting from Polybius financially. 

    Theorists have tied Polybius back to behavior modification experiments conducted by the CIA in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, the agency staged MK-Ultra - a clandestine scheme meant to instill "American values" in subjects via hypnosis, radiation exposure, dosing experimental substances, and a variety of other shady methods. Many of the people experimented on had no idea what was happening, so is it really that much of a stretch to belive the government did something similar a few decades later? 

    Another popular explanation involves Sinneslöschen, the game's supposed developer. Based in Germany, there's no official record of a company by that name turning a profit, so it's possible the developer was working on something off the books. Perhaps Sinneslöschen was developing some sort of mind control software (the company name roughly translates to "sensory deprivation," though the German is imperfect) and used Portland, OR as a live test site.