When someone says, “Government mind control,” you might think of programs like MK Ultra. The last thing you’d expect to brainwash you and control your mind is an arcade game aimed at teenagers, but according to the urban legend of Polybius, that’s exactly what happened in several arcades in Portland Oregon in the 1980’s.
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The Legend of Polybius
In the 1980s Portland served as a test market for new arcade games. It was common to go into an arcade and see new games without a title or with a working title that would later be changed. Back then arcades were thought to be seedy places where a lot of drug use took place and where illegal gambling rings were operated. It’s in this setting that our story takes place.
As the legend goes, a new arcade game by the name of Polybius popped up in several arcades across Portland. This new game was like nothing anyone had seen before, and when people played it they quickly became addicted. There’s even a thread over on Reddit where one person claims to have played the game back in 1981.
Video game addiction is nothing new. What was worrisome about the game was that when people played it, they suffered from migraines, seizures, nausea, high levels of stress, and even nightmares. Some even reported feeling as though they could no longer control their own thoughts.
People also reported that the Polybius machines were serviced frequently by men dressed all in black. The men seemed uninterested in collecting the change from the machines and only wanted to collect data that the machines had collected.
The game was only released in two arcades, and only for a limited time before it disappeared altogether, never to be seen again. The tale of Polybius first appeared in an online forum in 1998 on Usenet, the predecessor to the modern internet. Since then the tale has been circulating online, in articles, and even in documentaries. Popular TV shows like the Simpsons have even made reference to Polybius.
Below is a brief video that gives an excellent history of the urban legend of Polybius.
Fact or Myth?
While some maintain to this day that Polybius was a real game in 1981 that attempted to modify the behavior of those who played it, others are certain it’s only a myth. The best and most believable myths are those rooted in reality.
Many arcades in the 1980s were under suspicion of running illegal gambling rings, and government officials were a common sight in arcades as they investigated these rings. The tales of people getting physically ill from playing video games are also true, with reports of migraines and seizures, as well as of people dying after playing video games for days on end because of video game addiction. There’s also the fact that the US government really did experiment with mind control with the MK Ultra project as late as 1973. It’s easy to see where such an urban legend could get it’s roots.
The tale of Polybius has inspired many stories and even video games. Recently a game under the same title came out on the PS4, and is scheduled to come out on Steam in late 2018. Though no one has been able to recount exactly what the original Polybius game was about or was like, (was it a shooter, or a puzzle game or a side-scroller), people have taken inspiration from it and will likely continue to do so.
What do you think? Is the urban legend of Polybius true? If you believe it’s true, what are your reasons? Or do you think it’s just a good myth that should be kept alive? Tag a friend that would want to hear the urban legend of Polybius, the game that wanted to take over the hearts and minds of Portland’s youth in the 1980’s.