Polybius (ca. 203–120 BC, Greek Πολύβιος) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his book called The Histories covering in detail the period of 220–146 BC. He is also renowned for his ideas of political balance in the government, which was later used in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the drafting of the United States Constitution.
Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress and horrific nightmares. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. No evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.
According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game, Polybius, proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, quickly followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side-effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend. Some players stopped playing video games, while it is reported that one became an anti-gaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for sense-deletion), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to Tempest (a shoot ’em up game utilizing vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.
The origin of the legend is unknown. Someone think it originated as a usenet hoax. Others people believe the story is a true urban legend – one that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy; the game was reported to have caused motion sickness and vertigo, and was therefore pulled.
Several people have claimed to have a ROM of the game, but none of them have made this ROM available for public scrutiny, a “lack of hard evidence” situation typical of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. Some sources claim it is a maze-style game while others describe it as an action space-fighter.
The Polybius legend received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video game urban legends called “Secrets and Lies.”The magazine determined the legend to be neither true nor false, but “inconclusive.”However, Snopes.com has apparently debunked the myth as a modern day version of 1980’s rumors of “Men in Black” visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games.
On March 20, 2006, a man under the name Steven Roach made a post on coinop.org telling the story of his involvement with Polybius, and how he hopes to “lay it to rest.”He claims to have been working for a South American company that wished to promote a “new approach” to computer graphics (probably vector graphics). The game was claimed to be very inventive and addictive, but the graphics, through mistake rather than design, were dangerous and prompted epileptic fits. The product was recalled, the subcontractors, Sinneslöschen, were disbanded and the program was lost.
On April 26, 2006 Duane Weatherall of Gamepulse.co.uk (now bitparade.co.uk) interviewed Steven Roach after Roach posted this message onto another forum.The Roach story contained a number of inconsistencies: some of it seems to be directly sourced from Wikipedia, such as the suggestion of Cyberyogi’s involvement, which was the product of extensive searching through Usenet archives on the part of a Wikipedia editor. The interview also included some of Roach’s background, including the revelation that he comes from Rhyl, Wales, and a possible recreation of the storyline.
On July 20, 2007a Sinneslöschen website went online, offering a freeware “Polybius” game for download, as well as artwork for the cabinet. The game (created with DarkBASIC and featuring gameplay and graphics based on the interview with Steven Roach) and the site were made by the same person who created and released other freeware games at the site RogueSynapse. In fact, both sinnesloschen.com and roguesynapse.com point at the same IP address, while the PC “Polybius” game can be seen running in a custom cabinet in a photograph at roguesynapse.com. Several videos of this game have been made and uploaded to Youtube, where it is often described as if it was the actual game the urban legend is about.
A Polybius machine was featured as a gag in the September 24, 2006 episode of The Simpsons, titled “Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em…“. In an arcade full of ’70s/’80s outdated arcade machines, Polybius can be seen in the background. On its panel only one button can be seen, presumably the start button. To further the spoof the front of the machine was printed with the words “property of US Government”
The short-lived TV series Blister had a story arc centered around the search for Polybius.