The 13th Floor

Video Game Mind Control: The Wild Legend & Real Story of the Game POLYBIUS

POLYBIUS is one of the greatest legends to come out of the 1980s. It has everything a great 80s story needs: console arcade games, mind control, subliminal messages, men in black from the government, and enough amnesia-inducing triangle-shaped graphics to make an entire generation of gamers forget they ever played it. A few weeks back, Blumhouse.com ran a story of several supposedly cursed video games featuring the notorious POLYBIUS on the list (read it here). Let’s take a closer look at the game, the mysterious legend, and the real story.

The Background and Legend:

Around the late 1990s, someone on a gamer discussion board brought up a game they recalled from the early 80s supposedly called POLYBIUS. The gamer remembered playing this in the Portland area. Then it disappeared shortly thereafter. Someone even claimed to have a ROM image from the original game (though they were never posted or seen). This person also asserted that the game was made by a company called Sinneslöschen in 1981. And so the urban legend began. Other folks recalled seeing lines around the blocks to play this game. People would stand in line for hours with fights breaking out over who could go next. Players became addicted and obsessed.

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Many experienced medical problems after gameplay including vomiting, severe headaches, and seizures. Some complained of lost time or even blacking out during game play, forgetting that they even played the game. Then as the hype started to spread about the addictive properties of POLYBIUS and the severe side effects of playing it, even stranger things started to happen. Some arcades reported men in black suits showing up and taking data from the game. Eventually, the men in black came back and hauled the games away. They were never seen again, and an entire group of gamers were left vaguely remembering POLYBIUS.

According to the legend, the game was actually made by the government as part of a conspiracy to gauge mind control and mind-erasing capabilities in electronics. When the public started to get wise, the government swooped in and erased the experiment. All of the console machines were supposedly destroyed.

Most discussion about the supposed conspiracy also includes an argument over what the actual game was like. Most folks agreed that it was a series of geometric shape-based puzzles not unlike Tetris, but with more triangles. Yet, I also found reports that said it was a space fighter game as well as some that claimed it was a POV maze game. Most people linked the consoles to the Portland area, though some claimed they played it elsewhere too.

As the legend grew on the internet with many investigating the story themselves, trying to prove the existence of the game, news stories began covering it, no one ever substantiating that the game even existed. Eventually, POLYBIUS jokes made their way into pop culture like THE SIMPSONS, THE GOLDBERGS, and the comic HACK/SLASH as “wink, wink” inside joke for gamers.

And for a long time, various theories and “true” stories about POLYBIUS circulated. I even found an article in a BATHROOM READER fact book from 2006 which stated that POLYLBIUS was in fact a real game that actually did cause seizures. The book cited a 13-year-old boy as the victim of POLYBIUS, stating that his seizure caused the company to recall all games which is why it vanished so quickly.

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POLYBIUS reference on THE SIMPSONS

The Truth Behind the Legend:

Though it makes for a hell of a story, the POLYBIUS tale is not quite the hard-hitting truth bomb of government conspiracy that it seems to be. No one has ever been able to prove the game’s existence. What seems to have happened is a series of real life events got mixed together over time and changed a bit, thus resulting in this one amazing legend.

  • Some believe the game in question is in fact TEMPEST, which is a real game. It actually caused some motion sickness in a handful of players.
  • Additionally, (and this may be the Portland connection), two gamers fell ill on the same day in Portland back in 1981. But not due to playing the mysterious POLYBIUS. One was playing TEMPEST, and the other was trying to break the world record for the longest time spent playing ASTEROIDS and got nausea after 28 hours of straight game play.
  • Around the same time, some of the arcades in Portland were reportedly being investigated for gambling. Somehow, it was believed that the arcade owners had been rigging machines so others could gamble on them. The FBI had been closely monitoring the arcades, the machines, and specifically the high scores records as part of their investigations.
  • The mysterious men-in-black who allegedly traversed the Portland arcades collecting POLYBIUS data and removing the machines were likely just either the manufacturers recalling the TEMPEST game or the FBI investigating the video game gambling ring.
  • I also found some unsubstantiated claims that someone named Ed Rottberg, who many claimed created POLYBIUS, actually was the creator of a game called BATTLEZONE which really was used to train US troops. This is unverified but could further demonstrate a link between the legend and the US government conspiracy claims.
  • Additionally, the names of the alleged companies seem a little too obvious, even for the US Government. The name POLYBIUS comes from the Greek philosopher who wrote many books, most of which are lost. One of his core tenets was the belief that history is subjective and can only be verified by those who actually experienced the events. Additionally, the name of the company that supposedly created the game, Sinneslöschen, is apparently a broken German phrase meaning “sensory depravation”. This all sounds a little too obvious even for the US Government. If they were trying to fool masses, I doubt they would choose names that point to conspiracy and mind control.
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Greek Philosopher Polybius
  • This legend also falls in line with a lot of video game themed entertainment that was coming out around the same time. The film THE LAST STARFIGHTER features a character who is trained to fight through a video game, and the final segment of anthology horror film NIGHTMARES comes to mind as well.
  • This legend also coincides with the endless other 1980s lore about fears of technology, mind control, and US the government, Russians, or even Satanists using subliminal messages to make us do their bidding.

The Legacy:

To date, no one has been able to prove the existence of POLYBIUS. There are endless fan versions of the game now available online. Though some claim to be the real thing, there are always plenty of gaming fans ready to debunk all claims. Regardless, it has generated some amazing stories and CreepyPasta threads, all making for one amazing contemporary legend!

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