In a nondescript warehouse somewhere in Portland, Oregon sits a darkened screen inside a rare and one-of-a-kind arcade game. A game that is said to have been released to the public for a short period in Portland gaming arcades and used by the FBI to send subliminal messaging to whoever played it. A game that could also make you commit suicide, go insane, cause amnesia or make you very sick should you play it. This game is Polybius. Developed by Sinneslöschen in 1981, this game is said to be very addictive and invoke psychoactive effects in the player and secret government officials, "the men in black", would monitor and data-mine the information created by those that played it.
Or so they want you to believe.
This game was said to be a rarity with lines and lines of people waiting to play and fighting with each other to have their go but alas, this is an urban myth. A legend of video gaming. The story behind it is fascinating and curious but there has been no actual proof that this game has ever existed. There are Polybius games that are fan made creations both as ROMs and even physical cabinets that have been created to further the myth and the legend that is Polybius.
Polybius, of whom the name of this game was derived, was a greek historian of the Hellenistic period. He was known mainly due to recording his first hand anecdotal accounts of those he interviewed. He firmly believed that history should only be written by those people he could actually talk to and thus was one of the first who championed factual integrity and "checking your sources" by confirming accounts based on geographical information and his political experience. What is interesting about the choice of name of the game title is the translation. "Poly" which means "many" and "bios" which means "lives". Many Lives. The irony that Polybius was born in Megalopolis, Arcadia, isn't lost on me.
The developer Sinnesloschen translates from German to English as "Sense-Delete" which could loosely translate to "delete senses" - Sensory Deprivation. From all of my research I've not been able to find any information that this company actually exists and there are no other games attributed to this developer. There is a Twitter group purporting to be the official Twitter for Sinneslöschen, INC but upon reading many of the posts from this account it's nothing more than a parody. Playing up to the myth, this Twitter account states that they will not be releasing the game again due to the negative effects it had on people that played it including nausea, headaches and mind control.
Whilst there is evidence that there were some arcade games in this era that did make teenagers sick after playing them, this was mainly due to excessive hours of game play along with vast amounts of caffeine consumption (and games making gamers ill is still, albeit uncommon, an occurrence that happens to this day). Also, those susceptible to epilepsy succumbed to the effects of some games that had bright flashing lights. This is known as photosensitive epilepsy and whilst is not a common condition it can happen randomly and is a condition that exists.
When you look at the validity of a government run operation using video games and teenagers as experiments you wouldn't be hard pressed to think that this is laughable, and you're probably right. However, there is a slight grain of truth to this. The armed forces (and possibly other government agencies) consistently use video games in training for battle. DOOM II was one such game used by armed forces before it was released to the public.
Whilst there are a few indie games out there which pay homage to Polybius, these are all certainly fan made creations. There have been websites that have claimed to have found the missing ROM but there was no evidence that they actually had it. Scouring YouTube there are countless videos of purported game play and even people playing Polybius on a physical machine, in before "weird things" start happening and the video ends in a jump scare.
As far as any pictures of actual physical machines go, the only picture that is rumoured to be legitimate is a sketchy black and white photo of origins unknown. Whilst this picture is mysterious and adds to the enigma, there are plenty of photo's on the internet of apparent sightings of Big Foot which shrouds the imagination in the thought of "could this really exist?".
It is fun to believe that there is a game that exists that could take your mind and make you spew which was as a result of government tax funded experiments. What also adds to the allure is the thought of "could I handle it?" The fact that this game is wrapped in so much mystery makes everyone hope that it could exist and old school arcade game fans would love to play it even though they don't know anything about the game play itself. Perhaps this is what adds to the legend.
This game is also depicted in pop culture where it made an appearance in The Simpsons. Polybius appeared in the background of an episode where Bart was walking through an arcade with a "Property of US Government" stamp on the front of the machine.
Whilst it is fun to try to connect dots that don't seemingly exist and to believe a game like this was a secret government experiment, there is again no real evidence this game ever existed. This doesn't bother me in the slightest. It is a myth and legend that is both imaginative and provoking and while it does take some liberties and the story is embellished by old school arcade fans, it also picks out some grains of truth which is what makes the story at least slightly believable.