Polybius (video game)

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A mocked-up Polybius cabinet made by Rogue Synapse

Polybius is an arcade game described in an urban legend,[1] which is said to have induced various psychological effects on players. The story describes players suffering from amnesia, night terrors, and a tendency to stop playing all video games. Around a month after its supposed release in 1981, Polybius is said to have disappeared without a trace.[2] There is no evidence that such a game has ever existed.[3]

Polybius is thought to take its name from the Greek historian of the same name[1] who was known for his assertion that historians should never report what they cannot verify through interviews with witnesses.


The first documented reference to the game was an anonymously authored entry added to the site coinop.org on August 3, 1998.[1] The entry mentions the name Polybius and a copyright date of 1981.[4] The author of the entry claims in the description to be in possession of a ROM image of the game, and to have extracted fragments of text from it, including " 1981 Sinneslöschen".[4] The remainder of the information about the game is listed as "unknown",[1] and its "About the game" section describes the "bizarre rumours" that make up the legend.[4]

The story tells of an unheard-of new arcade game appearing in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game is described as proving popular to the point of addiction,[1] with lines forming around the machines often resulting in fighting over who would play next. The urban legend describes how the machines were visited by men in black, who collected unknown data from the machines,[1] allegedly testing responses to the game's psychoactive effects. Players supposedly suffered from a series of unpleasant side effects, including amnesia, insomnia, stress, nightmares and night terrors.[citation needed] The story tells of how Polybius players stopped playing video games, while one became an anti-gaming activist.

The company named in most accounts of the game is Sinneslöschen,[1] described by writer Brian Dunning as "not-quite-idiomatic German" meaning "sense delete" or "sensory deprivation" (derived from Sinne, 'senses' and löschen, 'to extinguish' or 'to delete').[1]


American skeptic producer and author Brian Dunning believes Polybius to be an urban legend that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy, motion sickness, and vertigo.[1] He notes that two players fell ill in Portland on the same day in 1981, one collapsing with a migraine headache after playing Tempest,[1] and another suffering from stomach pain after playing Asteroids for 28 hours in a filmed attempt to break a world record at the same arcade.[5] Dunning records that the FBI raided several video arcades in the area just ten days later, where the owners were suspected of using the machines for gambling, and the lead-up to the raid involved FBI agents monitoring arcade cabinets for signs of tampering and recording high scores. Dunning suggests that these two events were combined in an urban legend about government-monitored arcade machines making players ill, and believes that such a myth must have been established by 1984, as it was referenced in the plot of the film The Last Starfighter, in which a teenager is recruited by a man in black who monitors him playing a covertly-developed arcade game.[1]

Dunning considers "Sinneslöschen" to be the kind of name that a non-German speaker would generate if they tried to create a compound word using an English-to-German dictionary.[1]


Polybius received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video games called "Secrets and Lies".[6] The magazine declared the existence of the game to be "inconclusive".[7] Snopes.com claims to have debunked the existence of the game as a modern-day version of 1980s rumors of "Men in Black" visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games. This led to the hypothesis that the government was hosting some sort of experiment and sending subliminal messages to the players.[8]

Other formats[edit]

On October 5, 2013, at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, a limited run of 30 homebrew Polybius games was marketed for use with the Atari 2600, by author Chris Trimiew, owner of Lost Classics. Gameplay is DIY and not claimed to be based on the original ROM, and the author expressed doubt that the Atari 2600 hardware would be able to emulate anything close to the claimed original arcade game.[9]

In 2016, Jeff Minter announced a game called Polybius for the PlayStation VR.[10]

Popular culture[edit]

Polybius machines have appeared in the background of arcade scenes on television shows and in other media. In the 2006 episode of The Simpsons, titled "Please Homer, Don't Hammer 'Em", a Polybius cabinet appears in an arcade full of outdated arcade machines from the 1970s and 1980s, bearing a single button and printed with the words "property of US Government". The game also appears in the background of two episodes of the 2014 television show The Goldbergs and a poster advertising the game is present in the local theater, in the comic Batman Inc. No. 1 (2012), and on a T-shirt in Vertigo's 2008 House of Mystery series.

The short-lived G4 TV series Blister had a story arc centered on the search for Polybius (although the final installment was never filmed due to the series' cancellation).

The Polybius legend is an integral part of the plot[clarification needed] of Doomsday Arcade, a video series hosted by Escapist.[11] It is also used as part of the plot setup in Armada: A Novel by Ernest Cline.[12]

In the comic book series Hack/Slash, a slasher by the name "Grin Face McGee" was jointly inspired by Polybius and Splatterhouse, according to writer Tim Seeley. A modern-day sequel to Polybius is the central plot point of short story "Out of Order" in the 2016 Portland-themed weird tales anthology City of Weird.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Polybius: Video Game of Death". Skeptoid. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Polybius Entry at coinop.org". September 28, 2014. 
  3. ^ Silverman, Ben (January 25, 2008). "Video Game Myths: Fact or Fiction? – Video Game Feature". Yahoo! Video Games. p. 2. Archived from the original on January 28, 2008. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the game ever existed, no less turned its users into babbling lunatics. No machines have ever been found and no ROMS have ever been produced. 
  4. ^ a b c Anonymous. "Polybius at The Clickto Network". Clickto. Archived from the original on March 3, 2000. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Eugene Register-Guard – Google News Archive oSearch". Retrieved October 13, 2014. 
  6. ^ Elektro, D. "Secrets and Lies", GamePro magazine, September 2003, page 41
  7. ^ "Secrets & Lies (page 2) Feature". GamePro.com. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. 
  8. ^ "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Hoax Round-Up". Snopes.com. November 29, 2007.
  9. ^ Cottell, Pete (October 20, 2013). "Pac From the Grave: 128 bytes and 35 years later, people are still making new games for the Atari 2600". Willamette Week. Archived from the original on October 2, 2013. 
  10. ^ http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/10/a-video-game-called-polybius-is-actually-coming-out-will-it-kill-you/
  11. ^ "Episode One – Doomsday Arcade Video Gallery – The Escapist". The Escapist. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 
  12. ^ "8 Reasons Ernest Cline's Armada Is Nothing Like Ready Player One (and Why That's Not a Bad Thing) – The Robot's Voice". therobotsvoice.com. July 24, 2015. 

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