Welcome to the first entry in my series “Gaming For Official Use Only (FOUO),” and that’s pronounced “Foo-Yo” like a crappy martial arts flick, if you’re wondering. I’m Derik Moore and in this series I’ll explore conspiracy theories and conspiracies both in video games and in the real world surrounding video games. Whenever possible, I’ll tie any conspiracy from fiction, into a real life conspiracy theory that it may connect to. I tend to be of a skeptical mindset, so expect me to not spare any theorist’s feelings when I mention how blindly stupid most “theories” are. Even though I don’t believe in them whatsoever, I find them fascinating, and nobody has approached the topic from a gaming standpoint.
Today, I’ll be talking about the urban legend arcade game Polybius. The basics of the legend are simple. In 1981 an arcade in Portland, Oregon received a new game called Polybius. The name carries a bit of irony when dealing with conspiracy theorists, as Polybius was a Greek historian who believed that historians should only report on what could be verified, and he also invented the Polybius Square (more on this later). Anyway, the game was being playtested in this arcade, but instead of the normal data collection by geeky programmers, it often was serviced by men in black – because of course they would.
Supposedly, Polybius became a hit in the arcade, and seemingly addicted players. The problems started as dedicated players began suffering from psychological problems such as amnesia, insomnia, and even night terrors. These problems drove many players to give up gaming altogether, and turned one into a pure monster: an anti-gaming activist. As it turns out, the game was actually a secret government experiment in mind alteration. Don your tinfoil hats before you play, kids.
The game itself doesn’t have a lot of description to it. There is no ROM file anywhere on the Internet that wasn’t made by homebrewers for fun. The fact that something isn’t available on the Internet should be the first sign that this is just a fun fictional story. The only pic we have of the “actual” machine is a grainy black and white photo:
The Polybius arcade machine in all her glory–because it’s not mysterious unless the only pictures are crappy, hard to make out, and useless (looking right at you, Bigfoot!).
As you can see, the machine itself is nothing interesting. It was 1981, so a simple one button and joystick layout isn’t out of the question. What’s interesting to me, and keep in mind that I am likely wrong, is that it might be based on a Nintendo cabinet. The rounded shape looks familiar, as does the coin door. Again, this is just conjecture. If anyone who reads this actually knows anything about arcade machines, feel free to point out my errors. All in all, it’s a really bland-looking cabinet with nothing that stands out. The conspiracy theorists might say “that’s what the government would want,” and I would actually agree that that would make sense. (Yes, just typing that sentence made me feel dirty.)
There is no definite statement on what the game itself was like, but there are two competing descriptions. The first describes the game as a 3D game, which I assume for the early 80s means vector graphics with puzzles and maze chase sections. Now, this was just a few months after the release of Pac-Man, so a maze chase game is certainly plausible and would be quite common.
The other option is a ripoff of Tempest where you fly through a maze shooting at enemies. Supposedly, flashing lights would get more intense as the game went on, but as an epileptic, I’d say, “to hell with this!” Again, vector graphics were popular at the time, and Tempest did release in 1981, so the pieces could fit. The alleged title screen is shown below.
There is nothing spectacular here, either. The font for the game resembles the font for Pinball on the NES as Rizzard Core pointed out to me. Considering that all of the “information” for the game points to it being a vector-based game, there are no vector graphics in the title. Interestingly, according to the Wikipedia article on the game, the name of the development company is apparently German for roughly “delete sense.” Sinnes means senses and loschen can mean delete, clear, put out, unload, or wipe out. Sensory deprivation?
The closest that we have to an actual account of the game came from a post on an arcade forum by a man calling himself Stephen Roach, who claimed to have been a contractor for a Czech gaming company that created the game using a new graphics system, but the game caused epileptic fits, motion sickness, and the like, so it was never released and the company disbanded shortly thereafter.
It was later found that the same IP address was posting as Roach and a few others, so it’s very possible Roach was just extending the story further, or attempting to ground the game more in reality. Now, Czechoslovakia was controlled by the
dirty commies Communists at this point, so I don’t know if there would actually be a private company trying to make games for export. As popular as the story has gotten with gamers, of course there have been releases of the game, including a limited edition version for the Atari 2600 that was only printed to 30 cartridges.
There is a Polybius game out there that someone put a lot of research and effort into making. It adheres to many aspects of the legend, and it is probably the closest we’ll ever come to playing the actual Polybius if it ever existed. You can watch the video by clicking on the pic below or download the game here and play it for yourself.
WARNING: This game contains special effects that may be seizure-inducing, click the image below to watch the video.
Thanks to the excellent research of my Gaming Rebellion cohort Lumpz the Clown, I have a fantastic analysis of a game purporting to be of Polybius gameplay.
The game starts off with the warning shown in the image above. It then loads a rom, “higher functions,” and a “cognitive interface.”
Higher functions? Cognitive interface? What is this, Hal 9000?
In order to gain access to the higher functions, you must first enter a code. As I stated before, the Ancient Greek Polybius invented the Polybius Square, a very elementary method of encryption. This is of interest because the numbers on the input screen actually spell out a message using the Polybius Square shown below. I will leave it for the reader to decode the message.
Polybius requires an input code from the user before accessing its “higher functions” menu.
The game crashed on us several times after entering the code, but it is allegedly supposed to boots into a credits screen that shows the text, “POLYBIUS; VERSION 6-0; 1981 C4815162342; PROGRAM LEADER; YGOR EUSPANES PHD” with Polybius in flashing rainbow letters. Do these guys just hate us epileptics?! The readme file states that the user can cycle through various options including “game autonomy” and a number of options whose “exact functions remain unclear. Experiment with these at your own peril.”
The Polybius credits screen is very…colorful.
It takes a whole 2 minutes to get to the actual game which starts with a flash of colors into a vector starscape with “a sound like an echo scratch” in the background. The actual game starts with what Lumpz describes as “ominous string sounds” introducing a 3D vector morphing hexagon that constantly changes into various shapes (that look like Spirograph) that the player’s ship must shoot at.
Polybius begins by flying you through a starfield until you encounter your hexagonal nemesis.
The actual gameplay is fairly typical. You use the space button to fire, the left and right arrow keys to move the playing field to get a better shot at the hexagon, and the up and down arrow keys to move closer to and further away from the center of the screen. The hexagon shoots random small objects at you that only take one shot to destroy, and once in a while it will shoot a tiny solid figure at you with a number on it as in the image below. If you can successfully shoot the solid figure, it will be deflected back to the hexagon and the numbers on the hexagon’s vertices will decrease according to the number on the solid shot at it. When the hexagon’s numbers go to zero, it is destroyed, and you move on to the next level.
Polybius gameplay is fairly straight-forward: shoot debris, and shoot the numbered solid to attack the hexagon.
What’s also pretty cool about this game is that there are subliminal messages flashed throughout, such as, NO IDEAS, CONFORM, STAY ASLEEP, SURRENDER, DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY, SUBMIT, CONSUME, HONOR APATHY, and GAMES CORRUPT. The readme file also mentions “poltergeists,” such as the game starting up at will, whispered voices, and faint images of faces.
Every gamer knows that sleep is for the weak.
Every once in a while Polybius throws creepy faces at you subliminally.
Submit to government mind control, Polybius style!
Once you destroy the first hexagon, you move on to level 2, which you may or may not be able to tolerate due to the colorful flashing, rotation, and 3D special effects. The above warnings should be considered seriously before playing this level.
Level 2 can be a nightmare on the eyes.
At any rate, Polybius is a pretty fun game, and lovers of Golden Age arcade games will probably enjoy it. It is also interesting (and some might argue important) from a historical perspective, as it provides a document of the Polybius legend.
MIND CONTROL IN REAL LIFE
Now, I know you’re asking just what the shadowy government officials hoped to learn about psychology or mind control from a video game. Perhaps you’re wondering if the idea was to use outside influences to control how someone acted. The weird thing is that the US government actually did experiment with such an idea. This is the infamous Project MK-ULTRA.
No, it’s not a new Mortal Kombat, although that would be a kickass name for a new MK game.
MK-ULTRA was a huge program initiated by the US government during the Cold War to find any way to control human behavior or influence their thoughts. Now, when I say “any,” I mean damn-near any. The experiments included efforts to control minds via chemicals, biological agents, radioactive items, and various forms of torture. The project lasted from the early 50s until being completely shut down in 1974, although its scope was limited multiple times.
Through MK-ULTRA, the US Government was researching mind control efforts…oh joy of joys!
At its height, it used 80 or so different facilities including hospitals, colleges, and even pharmaceutical companies. Good information on this experiment is somewhat sketchy, as the CIA director at the time, Richard Helms, ordered much of the paperwork destroyed. Really? The US government “lost” information about shit they shouldn’t have done and then lied about it? Some things never change.
The very goals of the program were somewhat murky. Some have claimed the idea was to create an individual who could be normal until given a trigger that would cause them to do something like assassination, while others claimed the mind control was covering up the CIA’s search for more effective means of interrogation and torture.
Could the CIA have used MK-ULTRA to improve torture methods?
The sheer breadth of the experiments is mind blowing. LSD was a common basis for experimentation, as part of their plans included how to induce selective amnesia, among other things. Electronic control of brain tissues was attempted, but I never found any reliable information on whether or not that worked. I’m inclined to believe it did not. Extreme stress was inflicted upon test subjects to see how they would respond, and if their responses could be predicted or even controlled. It was horrific that these methods existed, and so many officials tried everything they could to cover it up.
LSD was commonly used in experiments under MK-ULTRA.
One major item that gets mentioned a lot is that one of the more infamous test subjects was a bright young Harvard undergrad who was supposedly subjected to very severe stress testing that apparently messed with his sanity. Later on he would become one of the most feared and hated domestic terrorists in American history. His name was Theodore Kaczynski.
Theodore Kaczynski, also known as The Unabomber, was allegedly an MK-ULTRA lab rat.
Among conspiracy theorists, it has become a de facto argument for any number of things from Jonestown being a test site, to Robert Kennedy’s assassin being under MK-ULTRA hypnosis at the time of the shooting. The fact that a large-scale, deeply disturbing project like this existed AND featured a dedicated coverup is like throwing jet fuel on a fire at a fireworks factory for conspiracy theorists. Of course, many of the things attached to MK-ULTRA now are guesses at best, and at worst, the deluded fever dreams of borderline psychotics who see some form of sinister deep government actions behind every blade of grass.
One of the most common theories is that MK-ULTRA’s discovery was planned, as its discovery would draw attention away from other, more sinister programs that continue to the current day. Of course there’s no evidence, but the theorists will throw out the standard, “that’s what they want you to think.” God forbid that a single scrap of hard evidence exists, but I’ve been accused before of being hard on the “theorists” by expecting them to listen to reason or logic.
With some conspiracy theorists, absence of evidence is “proof” of their “theory.”
So it’s undeniably true that the government had experimented with mind control by various means. Both “versions” of Polybius are quite plausible for the time period mentioned. The best urban legends have details that fit perfectly with the setting of when the story takes place. Video games were becoming huge hits as the Golden Age of Arcades was beginning, and Pac-Man fever was about to become the epidemic plague we all know. It wouldn’t be hard to find a team to make a game and put a few machines in out-of-the-way areas. This is actually how many American companies tested their games before ordering full production runs. Everything about the story has an anchor in the truth. So why do I believe that it’s just fiction?
Pac-Man fever was spreading wild in the early 80s — perfect breeding ground for an urban legend.
The problem we have is that nothing about this comes together in any provable way. The fact that with the rapid explosion of game collecting that not one machine or even ROM of a one-of-a-kind game has surfaced, makes me have serious doubts. The sheer amount of money that would be thrown towards anyone who possessed a full board of the game is tremendous. A copy of the legendary Nintendo World Championships gold cartridge, of which more than one exist (26, to be precise), typically sells for between $15,000 and $20,000, and can even go as high as six figures. The fact that arcade games are normally much more expensive than console games logically leads to the fact that a true cabinet of Polybius would be one of the most expensive games in existence. I therefore state that I think it’s just another urban legend, likely based off stories like early Tempest machines causing motion sickness and seizures, that got exaggerated in the telephone game of gossip to become what it is today.
The coveted Nintendo World Championship Gold cartridge: only a few copies exist and they are worth quite a pretty penny, but even this gem wouldn’t be as rare or valuable as Polybius.
However, just for my readers, I am going to play Devil’s Advocate of sorts. I am going to assume one of the “theories” about the game is true. So which one? I seriously doubt that the government could have learned anything from testing a strobe light of a game other than seizures are bad. I could have saved them billions if they asked me first! Also, the fact that some quit playing games entirely in one story is logical if it caused the sort of mental problems that it was accused of. That could be something related to epilepsy as the disease takes myriad forms. One of the two forms of seizure is called petit mal. This is essentially “zoning out,” but when the victim regains their senses, they often have no recollection whatsoever that anything had happened. Could this cause night terrors, etc.? I don’t really know, but I can see a connection.
The more plausible theory, and the one I’d put my money on if one theory had to be true, is the Roach story. Now, his use of sock puppets proves him to be a gold standard asshat. However, the mere fact of someone’s asshattery does not preclude them from being truthful. A small company hidden behind the Iron Curtain that tries to make an arcade game, but only makes a superb seizure inducer, is easily plausible. The prototype getting to America for testing before said bugs are found stretches credulity, but if the company got the support of a government official, it’s possible. Communist officials were notorious for doing things that would grease their palms, and getting a simple arcade machine sent over to the “Western devils” is very low on the list of Things You Shouldn’t Do In Communist Europe.
In Soviet Union, Tetris beats you!
The portion of the story about the game either getting shipped back or destroyed is also logical. Recall how Steve Roach claimed it was a Czech company that created the game. Everyone knows of the chaos that came a few years after 1981 when Communism finally fell in Europe. Follow that up with the horrible wars that engulfed that area in the 1990s, and you have a perfect storm of excellent reasons why no example of the game exists currently. So if I must accept one of the conspiracy theories put forward, I will put my support behind Roach’s theory.
A good conspiracy theory requires that most elements of the tale be firmly rooted in fact. The Polybius legend is interesting because of the fact that the government had only recently quit researching mind control, and the arcade game industry was in its infancy. Everyone loves a good mystery, and the scant information that exists is just too juicy a fruit for some to resist. Every so often, a blurry video purports to show the game, usually ending with the filmers being discovered by someone who doesn’t want them there before the game gets past the title screen. This will likely continue as more people find out about it and release homebrew “ports” of the game. This urban legend is going nowhere. Until next time.