ROX-TV takes an in depth look at the arcade urban legend “Polybius”. We discuss the game, history of the myth, and much more.

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Welcome back to the ROX-TV website. We appreciate all the returning readers and say “hello” to anyone who has wandered into this digital space for a break from the harsh realities of the outside world. This is a safe port, whether you’re looking to spend ten minutes or a smoke-filled afternoon. Today I’m feeling a little adventurous and have decided to veer into a topic that is interesting, a little foggy, and just on the edge of the room. That’s right, I’m talking about urban legends. But not just any run of the mill story, no, today we are going to be looking at one of video games most bizarre stories….the “Polybius” incident.

If you’ve never heard about “Polybius” and the arcade myth than I suggest you pull up a chair to hear more about one of the strangest moments that may have never happened in American Arcade history. How can you talk about something that may have never happened? It’s really easy, especially in this case because the story has seeped into reality regardless of where people stand on the conception point. Could a game that never had existed at all rise to the level that it was featured on “The Simpsons” animated cartoon series? Are the dark rumors of the government’s involvement, specifically MK-ULTRA, real or just an easy way to create interest? What do we know? What remains slippery and unknown? And above all, where do we take it from here?

I was born in the 1980’s and remember arcades very well from my time as a child. They were places of magic and wonderment for a young kid growing up without technology in the home. Video games represented this amazing escape from reality and gave kids a chance to get lost in “virtual worlds” one quarter at a time. My family didn’t have a lot of resources in the 1980’s so you could say that when I made my way into an arcade, a lot of my time was going to be spent wandering around or watching others compete at the best games of the day. But it didn’t really matter. An arcade was like an autonomous space, where adults didn’t travel and kids ruled supreme. I remember there usually being one “adult” in charge of the actual arcades…mostly for maintenance or to keep the machines from getting trashed, but beyond one twenty something stoner, it was a kid’s world.

I remember a few different spots, where actual arcades were housed, usually in strip malls in the city or at the mall. I lived in a city, which didn’t house an arcade, but the local pharmacy had a pair of games near the door and obviously we had a few games at the 7-11 store just down the street. I also remember a few bars in Flint which had video games or pinball machines in the back somewhere and when my dad’s baseball team (GM league for shop workers) celebrated a victory, I usually wound up with a hand full of quarters to keep me busy.

I’m not an expert in the field of video game development and I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject, I only speak on things I have witnessed or observed firsthand growing up. By 1990, video games really seemed to be everywhere, but the tables were turning. First with the Atari system, and later with the Nintendo explosion of the mid to late 1980’s, the writing was on the wall for the future of the gaming industry. The arcades quickly emptied as more and more kids had access to game play at their homes. The technology always seemed to get better and before long, Sega Genesis would come out with the 16-bit system that seemed to shift the tide of dominance in the gaming world away from the giant NES, with Atari only being a distant memory by 1993 (Unless you were broke and kept your Atari in good working order).

I remember being a kid in the early 1990’s and I think that if you asked most kids of the time “where do you want to go hang out?”, the answer for many would have been “the arcade” or perhaps in the Flint area “Chucky Cheese” or “Huckleberry Junction”. These two arcade type funhouses were very successful for many years and held on long after the arcade craze died off. I can only explain this with my own theory, in which we return to places that brought us joy as kids, often times later in life and with families of our own. When my first daughter was a few years old, I would take her to Chucky Cheese in Flint to remember the “old ways”. Now I’m sure kids today are not impressed with the idea of arcades and might have a hard time understanding why these places were so important, considering the technology-soaked condition of America today. But people must remember that this wasn’t always the way things were.

Kids from 1980’s and 1990’s didn’t have the massive influx and intrusion of tech back in the day. Hell, my family didn’t even get a microwave until the mid-nineties. Before that, we popped popcorn in a large pan, and boiled our hotdogs in water. There was no internet, no cell phones, and basic cable was only for the ones that could afford it (unless you had a black box to get the shit for free). We had the radio and real life for entertainment, without much else to compete for the time. Time was “slow” in the 80’s but looking back from my position in life today, life was much more real. We had real friends, went to real physical locations, and just about everything happened outside of the home. Was it better? Perhaps but I leave that up to individuals to decide. Humans have a way of romancing their own history…and this type of thinking makes it hard for people who were not around at the time to really understand. Future generations reject things that came before, which is a bad idea, because without the history, the current state of things could not exist…but people just don’t like to go there for the most part and I think that is a shame.

When you forget the past, you cross into dangerous terrain because the people in charge can lie to you about who you really are and lead you around by your nose forever. The people in charge of the country and the world (perhaps one in the same) are very good at managing the masses and letting you know what is important and what is not. This is scary to me because so many people are willing to listen to “them”. The shocking part is that if you know your history, this system of “leading the masses” to thoughts and conclusions becomes ineffective. No matter where you stand on any issue…I encourage you to educate yourself on what really went down prior. The history of the world is a lot bigger than the last fifty years in this country, but for some reason in America we believe this, don’t get our facts straight, and assist the powers that be in a grand illusion almost too big to fail at this point. Division and hate sell like addictive drugs and the people in charge want you at odds with yourself, your neighbor, and everyone around you. I can only pray that this “thought process” will be defeated someday soon, because if enough times passes and the history confusers succeed, we will be hating each other for all eternity on this planet, while rich people laugh and watch the giant “play”.

Ok, that’s enough of that talk, it just needed to be said is all. Strangely the game and story behind “Polybius” could be seen as a direct link to the systems of control, which I despise so. But there are enough smoking mirrors to confuse the long view, so that’s what we come here today to chop up. The story of a dark and mysterious game, released to the public for a short amount of time, with lots of rumors swirling around in the wind is the kind of thing that makes for a great movie, but this time we are talking about real life. A game that was said to confuse and disorientate players, men in black who monitored the high scores and players of the game, and a hint of MK-ULTRA involvement. It’s like the beginning of a great Twilight Zone episode and what’s better is that it may have really happened.

Of course, we are just here for fun, looking at an arcade urban legend from the 1980’s. What we know for sure is “not much” in way of verifiable data but that could be accounted for by two factors: Number 1 is that if this was a government operation, I wouldn’t expect any data to really exist at all. People forget how powerful our government is and the resources they truly have. If something happened that the people in charge didn’t want the public to know, I’m sure most of the information we would need for this type of investigation “never existed”. Number 2 is that someone wanted this story or legend to get out…perhaps create it on their own for publicity…. it’s hard to know for sure but we will examine that side of it, because we do have a jumping off point in regard to “Polybius”. So, without further to do, let’s take a look at what is available to the public in terms of the legend.

Legend of POLYBIUS

Our story begins oddly enough on August 3rd, 1998, when an anonymous source posted about the game on The post was the first to toss out accusations of CIA/Government involvement and the odd type of health issues that surrounded people who played the game. The article on the site alleges that the game was developed and released in 1981, showing up in a few “backwater” arcades in Portland Oregon. The kids who played it began to suffer from amnesia and other horrors including night terrors.

The game was allegedly monitored by “men in black” who frequently examined or fiddled with the arcade game at certain intervals. The post claims that the ROM for the game “showed up” and is linked with a German company called “Sinnesloschen (C) 1981”. The article talks about the game and alludes to the type of game it was. Surprisingly, the website states “We’ve recently received new information about the game (May 16th, 2009)” and mentions that there was a trip planned to Kyiv Ukraine for further follow-up on tips about the game. The post was created on August 3rd, 1998, and was updated on May 16th, 2009, at 3:00am. I’ve put the link below. The last time the site was modified was in October of this year, when some ads and content were removed, so someone still visits or maintains the site. The site describes the game as “The game was weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements, the kids who played it stopped playing games entirely”.

Circular Story Telling?

The weird thing about this story is that the more you push into it, it appears that due to limited resources about the game’s origin and history, facts are hard to come by. There is a lot of interest into the subject but there also seems to be a large amount of regurgitating data, which at least on the outside only confuses the little-known facts we do have. As I read articles about the game and the legend, about the only thing that was really consistent was that the original story came from The article or post is cited frequently when you start to read more, but the dates relating to original posting seem to get blurry, which gets passed around, and only seems to add to the confusion.

Polybius vs. history

The weird thing for me is that I knew about this game and the urban legend that went along with it, but I can’t remember how or why. I think that’s really odd because for the most part, I have a good memory when it comes to things that I find interesting, which would explain how I knew about the game…the only thing lacking is a time frame. I can’t say for certain when it was introduced to me, all I know is that I “know about it” and today, for whatever reason I felt compelled to write about it. As more time comes down the line, the articles and references keep piling up, with varying degrees of similarity.

The name “Polybius” is interesting to me and so I decided to look up the background on it to see if it was associated with anything that could be relevant in this deep dive into the game that never was. Ironically, there was a “Polybius” from the history books. Polybius was born in around 200 B.C. in Arcadia (I know, what are the odds of the real-life Polybius being born and raised in Arcadia? Pretty fucking good I guess) and was the son of Lycortas (a wealthy land-owning politician and general in the Achaean League).

In 167 B.C. Polybius was one of a thousand Achaean Nobles taken into custody and housed in Rome for the next 17 years. This was done because Lycortas was suspected by the Romans of having sympathies they did not appreciate in regard to the war with Macedon. The hostages were released in 150 B.C. and Polybius returned home. Polybius is also known for writing “Histories” which documented Rome and events during his lifetime among other things.

“Polybius defines the historian’s job as the analysis of documentation, the review of relevant geographical information, and political experience. Polybius held that historians should only chronicle events whose participants the historian was able to interview” (Polybius wiki entry)

Polybius is also known for his work with the “Polybius Square” which was used for the transmission of secrets during war time. I find this to be very interesting because people who used or developed codes tended to be on that “other” level of thinking. This guy had his shit together and can still be read about two thousand plus years after he was alive. That’s no easy feat, these days some people are forgotten in a day, while others are never known, so to rise to that level of notoriety is remarkable today or two thousand years ago.

I find that whoever “named” the game that does or does not exist, had to have some basic or advanced knowledge of the known world history. The game shares a name with an historian from two thousand years ago, born in Arcadia, and who perfected the transmission of secrets using his magic square. I guess a better name for a secret game, perhaps instituted by the government during a strange time of MK-ULTRA, which is rumored to never have existed, yet continues to be talked about…a name like “Polybius” with all the connotations and history, is probably a perfect fit.

Going forward

Polybius is one of those rare things that can be celebrated, studied, ruled out, ruled in, and contains enough room in the known information to be called a hoax or legit, without affecting the game’s mythic status. The story seems to have gotten so interesting that it no longer matters how or why it got going in the first place and I don’t think that bothers too many people. I certainly enjoy talking about it, while at the same time, offer up no real path forward into debunking or confirming some or all of the story. It simply just “is” at this point.

What were the original motivations for the story to be leaked out? It’s hard to say. Knowing what I know about U.S. History, the story could just as easily been started and circulated by the government, as it could have developed organically by people claiming to have made or worked on the game. I can’t rule out the government, nor can I say with certainty that “people” involved with this story really exist, nor does it matter. When Nine Inch Nails and The Simpsons are using the game Polybius, for whatever reason, the legend has taken on a life of its own. What was that old saying again “Life imitates Art or was it Art imitates Life?”.

No matter what, I guess we are talking about it, so the story continues to be effective in spawning interest. For some reason I can’t help but think of Area 51 and UFO’s while chewing on this story. We all know that Area 51 was a real place and is so today. They tested cutting edge technology there and it just so happened to have some bizarre UFO stories floating around to muddy the waters. With the existence of “UFO’s” the government wouldn’t have to explain away all the dope technology they were testing in the desert. The only problem was that eventually the UFO sightings took on a life of their own, that the government has had to contend with ever since. Originally helpful to muddy the water, the UFOs became a headache at some point. (I’m not making any judgement on life outside of earth or even going there with this piece, I’m just highlighting a situation that surrounded our government, which may at one time been a nice smoke screen, but eventually became a nuisance. Could there be something similar to that going on in Portland in 1981? Maybe, but at this point, the story has snow balled into a living breathing thing, capable of moving under its own weight)

Well, that’s about all the time I have for this piece. I hope you enjoyed yourselves and that some of the material presented might inspire you to go on your own “Polybius” quest to find the truth. Beware, there are lots of pitfalls and rabbit holes to explore along the way. No matter what, always remember to keep an open mind, treat everyone with respect, and trust your eyes. Until next time…

Signing Off,

Mike Shepard

ROX-TV Head Writer

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