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.
And dozens of grown-up gamers in Portland remembered something happening in 1981. Kids were getting sick in arcades, and the FBI showed up soon after. It was a whole thing. They couldn’t tell you the arcade, or who the kids were. But it definitely happened. Skeptics pointed to the unreliability of memory, or the notorious Mandela Effect. The Pacific Northwest is filled with legends, and Portland, in particular, is perfect for an urban legend about arcade games and as Luoto points out, “Portland was sandwiched between the headquarters of Atari and Nintendo, and has a long history of being a testing ground for arcade games, which makes a myth of this sort quite plausible.”
But it turns out, they weren’t wrong. Not entirely. They were mixing up two different events into one, and the legend of Polybius was born out of two very real chunks of video game culture.
The first is simple enough: Brian Mauro took a crack at the Asteroids world record in 1981 and, after 28 hours straight, got sick. Arcades were full of kids trying to break records and, for that matter, kids getting sick. Flashing lights, swooping cameras, and loud noises are the bane of many, giving them headaches, making them nauseous, and generally getting them sick. Video games are no exception. Journalist Cat DeSpira, the author of one of the most comprehensive articles on the legend, even found a gamer, Michael Lopez, who remembered getting sick in the same arcade right around the time Mauro was forced to give up.
The second is a little more complicated. In the 1970s and 1980s, authorities viewed video games and pinball with deep suspicion, believing they weren’t “games of skill” but thinly veiled platforms for gambling. Throughout the ’70s, the world’s best pinball players had to go to court to prove their machines were games of skill, not chance and arcades fought police harassment.
Amid all this, the podcast Skeptoid turned up that, in 1981, after several weeks of walking into arcades, noting down high scores and other data, and even looking at the backs of the games, the FBI conducted a massive raid of Portland arcades looking for gambling operations:
Just ten days after Mauro and Lopez crashed, state, local, and federal agents raided video arcades throughout the region. It turned out that some arcade operators illegally used their video games for gambling, by modifying them with counters that allowed owners to pay out cash to players based on how many points they made in their game, and thus increasing business. In preparation for this raid, FBI agents had been going around to arcades and taking photographs of player initials on high-score screens, hoping to identify potential witnesses. And officers had gone into every business in the city that had video games, and poked and prodded around the back of the machine, looking for these illegal counters.
So, for weeks, every kid in Portland saw mysterious adults, guys who clearly didn’t belong there, studying the machines, taking photos, looking to match initials with names. As far as these kids were concerned, these were mysterious adults, engaged in inexplicable behavior. It’s a small seed, but one we can water with just a simple question: “Didja hear about the game that made that kid sick?”
What kid doesn’t love the idea that he’s poised on the edge of a grand Hollywood-esque adventure of mind control and secret agents? This was the era of WarGames and The Last Starfighter. The truth is we want the world to be more magical than it is, for good or ill, and urban legends reflect what we most fear and most yearn for at our cores.
It helps the legend has caught attention. The ’80s-set sitcom The Goldbergs hid a Polybius cabinet in its arcade scenes, and even The Simpsons threw it a shout-out. Over the years, the legend has grown, despite the game never appearing. Luoto points out that as they assembled their documentary, it became clear that whether the game is truly real may be beside the point. “We thought it was a fun legend, and that’s probably why we were most interested in its reach from a purely fictional angle. But over the years, we’ve met a lot of folks who have an interesting point-of-view on the matter; and whatever the truth may be, they clearly believe that it’s real.”
In the case of Feldstein in particular, it becomes clear there are reasons for that. His story, only partially about the urban legend, is worth hearing, an example of how fact and fiction can be blurred and how one person’s personal trauma can become entwined with a story spawned by the darkest implications of a sweeping cultural phenomenon.