Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

The Electronic Legend of Polybius

Title page

Think about it this way, our ancient myths were once urban legends. Mondters, dragons even ghostly airships stories all started by people getting together and sharing a ‘good story’ and somehow that tall tale is still being told thousands of years later. So it is very possible that centuries later people will look at a book (or the future’s equivalent of a book) and read about the twentieth and twenty-first century myths and it will include things like Nessie, Grey aliens, The Men in Black and Polybius.

What is Polybius? You ask. Well pull up a chair young pilgrim let’s explore one of the first urban legends of the information age. Simply put Polybius was supposed to be an arcade style video game released in 1981. The story says it was really a government project and caused a portion of the game’s users to have seizures and night terrors. It is a great irony that the game is supposed to be named after a Greek philosopher/code-breaker, who wrote that historians shouldn’t be writing things down unless they can prove it. Could it be that even when the story began that it was meant to be unban legend?

And of course it had to originate here in Portland. The town where rival gangs once had what was called the “Pinball wars.” Where they stole each other’s pinball machines that they used for gambling. The story goes that in 1981 a select group of arcades in the Portland area got this awesome videogame called Polybius. It was like nothing gamers of the early eighties had seen before. Kids would line up around the building to drop their quarters in to the game. There were even rumors of fistfights starting over who would play next. But soon after the players began to suffer physical side effects.


Players began to report, stomach aches, nausea, vertigo, seizures, amnesia and in some cases death. The games was said to turn kids who were addicted to video games, in to opponents of the hobby. Mysterious Men in Black were seen retrieving data from the games, and rumors ran rampant that it was a government mind control project in the guise of a game.

What really happened in Portland arcades during the Regan Revolution? Some people think it actually started out as an attempt to make an early net legends. Jokers sharing a story to their gullible friends to get them to pass on the myth. That would make the name of using a man who was a proponent of verification in the title of a hoax a colossal in joke. Others feel that it was a snowballing of the story of the early arcade game Tempest causing epileptic seizures.

People have claimed to come across a ROM of the game or in at least one case the game itself. But no one has ever been demonstratively been able to prove that it was what they claimed it to be. A copy of the physical arcade game reportedly found in an abandoned storage facility mysteriously disappeared before it could be authenticated. People who said they have a copy of the program claimed that despite being made in 1981 the encryption on the ROM’s is too hard to crack past the open sequence.

As an urban legends it warns of the Pied Piper power of video games and plays upon the new wave decade’s parents’ concern and confusion about the games. And governmental mind control projects always make for a good legend. And though I am not a proponent of conspiracy theories there are some very real incidents such as the Tuskegee experiment (where the government gave black men placebos to for their syphilis to see how long it took for soldiers to die of the disease) and Cicada 3031 recruiting hackers in cryptograms. So from a story teller’s point of view it would be natural to link the Polybius legend with some sort of shadow government.

Like most legends it stayed the purview of just a few for a longtime, until in 2003 GamePro Magazine did a feature article on the legend bring the story to a larger audience. Though the rumor had existed in 1981, and some have felt it inspired the video game plot device in the movie, The Last Starfighter.

The legend has defiantly drifted into pop culture territory appearing in the back ground of an episode of The Simpsons and an issue of Batman Inc. Cementing Polybius’ legend and status as a pop icon. But in reality I believe that like the stories about Sadam Hussain using PS2 controllers to launch missiles, and Laura Croft appearing nude in Tom Raider it just a legend.

Simpsons poly

I will not use internet legends as a sight gag…. I will not use internet legends as a sight gag… I will not….


Don’t look at her legs look at the game in the back ground

7 comments on “The Electronic Legend of Polybius

  1. gamesthatiplay
    January 22, 2015

    Oh how I have studied this legend for 15 years since seeing it on a rerun of Unsolved Mysteries. See I used to believe it all. Now I kinda think differently. Now I just don’t believe it all.

    I’m more interested in the Pinball Wars you spoke of 🙂

    • davekheath
      January 22, 2015

      Have to write about that someday. Thanks for comment.

  2. I second that! Pinball wars sound amazing!

  3. aaforringer
    January 23, 2015

    I am much more interested in the legend that Pac Man inspired the movie Ghost Busters, or was it the other way around. I can never get that one straight. 🙂

  4. PorterGirl
    January 23, 2015

    This is a very interesting way to start my friday, thanks muchly 🙂

    • davekheath
      January 23, 2015

      Your welcome lot of interesting and weird things in Portland’s history.

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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