Down the Rabbit Hole: Polybius
The year is 1981. You make your way to the neighborhood arcade, shoulders hunched under the perpetual Portland drizzle, quarters clinking in the pocket of your Levi’s with each step. Neon lights and electronic beeps herald your entrance, as a tinny rendition of Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ blares through the arcade’s speakers. You weave through rows of game cabinets, ignoring the colorful beckoning of old favorites like Space Invaders and Tempest. Tonight, you’re here to play something new, something a friend of a friend told you about in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Polybius. The rapid-paced, puzzle-like game is said to be as weird as it is addictive, even dangerous. But when you reach the back of the room where the Polybius cabinet is supposed to be located, all you find is an empty patch of carpet, a square dented in the fibers the only clue to its former occupant.
Polybius? The arcade operator shrugs. Whatever game was back there got carted out by a couple of sharp-dressed men a few days ago, and it won’t be coming back. And so you’re left to wonder if Polybius ever existed in the first place, or was just another story - an urban legend - passed from gamer to gamer.
Polybius is quite possibly the most well-known game that no one’s ever played (actually, that dubious honor might go to Star Citizen, but that’s a different article). On August 3, 1998 (or perhaps February 6, 2000 - sources differ), an entry for Polybius was added to coinop.org, a user-maintained repository for coin-operated arcade games. The entry, whose original author is unknown, states that Polybius was an abstract, puzzle-based game that was released in 1981 in two arcades located in suburbs of Portland, Oregon. It was purportedly made by “Sinneslöschen,” a German company no one’s ever heard of, and only remained in the aforementioned venues for a month or so before disappearing completely. This is almost certainly due to the following:
“...there were all kinds of strange stories about how kids who played it got amnesia afterwards, couldn't remember their name or where they lived, etc.
The bizarre rumors about this game are that it was supposedly developed by some kind of weird military tech offshoot group, used some kind of proprietary behavior modification algorithms developed for the CIA or something, kids who played it woke up at night screaming, having horrible nightmares.
According to an operator who ran an arcade with one of these games, guys in black coats would come to collect "records" from the machines. They're not interested in quarters or anything, they just collected information about how the game was played.”
Have you gotten your tinfoil out yet? If so, please fashion yourself a stylish hat and accompany me on this journey down the rabbit hole.
In 1981, at-home gaming was still in its infancy, while arcade gaming was wildly popular. Gaming touchstones like Donkey Kong and Galaga appeared in arcades in 1981, and Pac-Man had debuted the year prior. But amid these classic titles were scores of games that were unpopular and instantly forgettable, quickly pulled from arcade floors when they weren’t making the owners any money. Much like modern-day beta testing, it doesn’t sound all that unreasonable for a company to release just a few machines initially to gauge interest before investing in the costly mass-producing and mass-shipping of multiple cabinets.
While the ‘men in black’ descriptions sound decidedly Alex Jones, the idea of a company sending someone to gather user data is not far-fetched at all - in 2018, it’s almost impossible to find an app that doesn’t conduct data collection in some capacity. And, back in the heyday of the video game arcade, it wasn’t uncommon for outsiders to come in and shut down cabinets for repairs or maintenance. The Skeptoid podcast even alleges that arcades in Portland really were raided by the FBI and other law enforcement back in the 80s to gather evidence for a gambling investigation.
What about the reports that Polybius was addictive and caused players to suffer ill-effects like headaches and insomnia? Just this year, video game addiction was classified as a mental illness by the World Health Organization. Games may have become infinitely more sophisticated in the last forty years, but humans - and our capacity for addiction - have stayed the same. We also know that long, unbroken hours playing video games can have a wide range of negative effects on players’ health, from motion sickness to blood clots - and even death.
Ultimately, there’s no credible proof that Polybius ever existed, and its description on coinop.org reads like an early version of creepypasta. Nonetheless, it’s a fun urban legend whose key elements are just as relevant today as they were to gamers back in 1981. It plays on our collective fears of rapidly-evolving technology, of things the layperson doesn’t quite understand, of an uncertain future that’s as exciting as it is dangerous. We might not worry about the government coming in and confiscating our PlayStations, but we do wonder just how much our phones are listening and how exactly our consumer data is being aggregated and to what ends.
Perhaps the creepiest thing about the tale of Polybius is how oddly prescient it was.