Here are the facts, as we know them. In 1981, Bobby Feldstein was abducted from his Portland home and reappeared, a day later, 60 miles away, deep in the Tillamook State Forest. He was dirty and barefoot, his clothes torn, and had clearly spent some time stranded in the woods. Who abducted Bobby and why has never been discovered, but Bobby has spent years claiming it was thanks to an arcade game, called Polybius.
The Polybius Conspiracy, from Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto tackles Feldstein’s story while examining the phenomenon of urban legends and how they can take on a different meaning via a seven-episode miniseries from Radiotopia’s Showcase. At heart, Feldstein’s story is about horrors we experience and how we try to piece together a way to live with them. But the legend behind Polybius is worth exploring on its own, not least because it turns out to be real — in its own way.
Video games have always had urban legends, but the Polybius story is different. It wasn’t about hidden nude images or secret game modes: Polybius was out to kill you. Supposedly appearing in Portland arcades in 1981, it was allegedly addictive to the point violence broke out, and those who did play it couldn’t sleep, wracked with night terrors and insomnia. It was a powerful legend that lurked in arcades, whispered between kids, for decades. “There were a number of people — ranging from gaming historians and journalists to famous authors — who first heard about a ‘sinister unnamed arcade game’ as teenagers, beginning all the way back in 1981 and extending to the early 1990s — well before initial online reports. In all of these tales, the game didn’t have a name, yet it shared many similarities with what would eventually become the Polybius legend,” Luoto tells us.
Polybius would become one of the first urban legends to spread through the internet. Back in 2000, the website CoinOp.org attempted to catalog the thousands of arcade games that came and went between Pong and the present. It wasn’t uncommon for volunteers to add obscure games to the database. So, at first, nobody noticed the addition of Polybius . But the description, which is stored on the Internet Archive, quickly caught the attention of users:
The bizarre rumors about this game are that it was supposedly developed by some kind of weird military tech offshoot group, used some kind of proprietary behavior modification algorithms developed for the CIA or something, kids who played it woke up at night screaming, having horrible nightmares.
According to an operator who ran an arcade with one of these games, guys in black coats would come to collect “records” from the machines. They’re not interested in quarters or anything, they just collected information about how the game was played.
And, even more tantalizing? This contributor claimed they had the source code of the game.
This isn’t to say the arcade gaming community fell for it. Even in 2000, people knew about the internet’s near-bottomless capacity for pranks, and if you know your classics, the name of the game literally gives it away. “What’s most chuckle-worthy was realizing that Polybius — the Greek historian — was known as someone who actively sought first-hand evidence in order to verify a historical account, which essentially means that the legend is a thinly-disguised meta-joke about society’s propensity to believe in urban legends without any factual evidence,” Luoto explains.
Still, the idea of an extremely rare arcade game caught attention. As bizarre as it sounds, even the biggest names in the industry have let some classic arcade games slip into obscurity, and unearthing one is the Holy Grail for video game historians. Nor is there a shortage of real games with strange conspiracy theories and ideas attached to them. “It’s quite possible that there was a game — maybe even one with graphics that could cause migraines or feelings of nausea — that was test-marketed in arcades and then withdrawn; one of our most credible subjects speaks to the fact that there is a smattering of lost, presumed-mythic games that actually did turn out to be real,” Luoto notes.