[Note: When I got started on this legend, I thought I’d need a bit of filler, given that every reputable source on the internet loudly proclaims that Polybius is a mere bugaboo, with no more foundation in reality than 9/11 truthiness or Donald Trump’s hair. It wasn’t until somewhat later in my research that I started looking into Poly Play, and I quickly realized it would require its own section. However, I’d already written the following, a brief essay outlining the ways in which Polybius fit into the general context of aimless paranoia that manifested in the wake of the cold war. I’m attaching it here as a sort of appendix.]
Cast your mind back to the sleek, sophisticated days of the mid-90’s. Bill Clinton is, more or less, the president. Smash Mouth is a thing, and not nearly as many people as you’d think find that to be as ridiculous as it seems in retrospect. The perennially-35-year-old Carson Daly is still on MTV, and people don’t think it’s weird to use their voices while communicating via telephone. Are you back there? Can you see the frosted tips? Can you taste the Code Red? Good.
Ugh. There’s a point to this, I promise.
Now ask yourself: what were we afraid of? It’s a legitimate question, if we want to get a sense for the time period. There’s a certain way in which different generations of humans can be identified in terms of their greatest collective fears. We can’t ever totally let our guard down; we’re still too much the furry ape in the night, ears twitching as we listen for the sounds of our predators. Even in times of relative calm, there’s always something out there in the wilderness, waiting to strike.
For many of the subjects discussed here on this blog, that spooky goblin in the distance was the USSR. The cold war, with its accompanying paranoia, and its rapid (and largely secret) advancements in the very strange new scientific world that was developing, gave rise to an uneasy culture, rife with tales of unexplained phenomena. The cold war made us a suspicious people, and we found, quite to our surprise, that there was more to be suspicious about than we had expected. It’s in this climate that two great twins were born: ufology and conspiracy theory.
But remember, we’re not talking about the cold war anymore at this point. The first tendrils of the Polybius mythos took hold on the internet in 1994-96, at least half a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were also, of course, ignorant of the far-reaching implications that would snake out from a certain dark day over the horizon in September of 2001. Looking back on it, the 90’s were a pretty tame period in American history. The commies were gone and the terrorists weren’t here yet. But we still needed something to be afraid of, and in a totally bizarre medieval twist that I will never understand until the day I die, we settled on THE DARK LORD OF HELL, PRINCE OF THE AIR, LUCIFER THE MORNINGSTAR.
Pictured: A realistic, credible threat to the only remaining global superpower.
Yes, in the closing years of the 80’s and culminating in the early-mid 90’s, American culture became weirdly obsessed with Satan; but he was only one of a huge number of different shadowy influences aimed at corrupting American kids. Along with fallen angels, the country’s youth contended with gangs, drugs, cults, rock music, and no-holds-barred pan-sexual bacchanals, all with varying degrees of reality mingled with a balance of intense, Oprah-driven parental paranoia.
While the dangers that threatened the innocence of a generation of American youth were numerous and omnipresent, evidence of them was never quite to be found on the surface. That, it was reasoned, would make it too easy for well-wishing citizens to find them and get rid of them. Rather, these shadowy spectres hid in plain sight, cloaking themselves with a kind of code or cipher that only the experienced could read. It was rather like a video game; a complicated web of instructions that only make sense to the initiate, but which have a complicated and interrelated effect, leading to the presentation of an object totally dependent upon that coding, but showing no clear signs of it. The final product (a game, a book, a social trend) lured the kids in, only spilling its satanic guts after the hook had already been sunk.
Aside from giving us a chance to find a seemingly-legitimate reason to object to anything at all that offended our sensibilities, this way of looking at the world also paid handsome salaries for hundreds of people who claimed to be able to read the code. “Police experts in satanism” earned their living travelling the country and lecturing to police departments and PTA’s to help them identify supposed “trappings of the occult.” Purported experts in “Satanic Ritual Abuse” offered their services to legal professionals, interpreting childhood flights of fancy and everyday scraped knees and bruises as the secret symbols of a satanic cult at work. With the fall of the USSR, America’s latent paranoia, now stripped of its object, manifested as an intense, generalized fear of the subliminal. And video games, a product of the times and therefore something obviously influenced by the omnipresent, corrupting conspiracy, drew a lot of fire.
The backlash against video games grew out of prior misgivings about tabletop gaming, especially Dungeons and Dragons. D&D was a constant target of the fundamentalist right practically since its inception. Critics argued that D&D drew kids into a fantasy world so intensely real that they became unable to tell the difference between reality and fiction. This angle was bolstered by the legend of the kid who went into his school’s steam tunnels, thinking he was playing in a D&D campaign, and committed suicide there (the real guy, James Egbert, really did go into the tunnels with an intent to commit suicide, though he was not motivated by D&D to do so, and he emerged shortly thereafter, before hiding for a month at a friend’s house). Moreover, D&D taught kids that magic was an effective force in the world, from whence it was only a short step to real theistic satanism. Many religious groups and individuals, including Jack “is this guy a parody?” Chick, actually argued that D&D games were, without exception, a kind of gateway drug to satanic worship; everybody who played D&D for long enough would become a satanist.
That son of a bitch!
When video games hit the stage, they were slipped neatly into the paranoia scene, quickly acquiring the numerous criticisms previously aimed at D&D. Particularly galling to the prevailing sentiment was the 1993 first-person-shooter game Doom. Boy oh boy, Christians hate them some Doom. Even now, twenty-three damn years after the game’s release, people are still writing articles about satanic influence in video games, and they still mention Doom. They mention the original Doom, apparently failing to even notice that it’s got several sequels by now. Google-searching “Doom satanic” yields better than half a million results, whereas “video games satanic” returns a bit better than 0.7 million, meaning that only about 29% of articles about satanic video games don’t mention Doom. And it’s true, Doom is full of overtly-satanic imagery, so much so in fact that it can only be an intentional ploy to piss off America’s satan-crazy parents. The same can be said of the absurd level of violence— playing the original Doom in 2016, it becomes immediately apparent that this game was nothing short of the first truly great exercise in trolling in the digital age, and practically everybody took the bait.
“This game is very subtly introducing my child to satanic imagery!”
As with D&D, the fear with Doom was that kids would lose touch with reality and start acting out the game, not realizing that their actions had real-world consequences. This was supposed to be the case with Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were into FPS games like Doom; after their rampage, the media claimed that the pair were “obsessed with video games” and that they had made a Doom map of their school (that turned out to be a myth, not that it really matters— after all, I really did make a map of my school for Quake II, and yet I’ve barely killed anybody).
While Doom may be an exception in that the satanism was overt, arguments were made against video games generally, suggesting that they operated largely by subconscious means. These typically involved a two-pronged danger; the first was subliminal messages, aimed at driving the impressionable young minds into Satan’s grip (in a send-up of this line of thinking, the new Doom game has a song on the soundtrack that renders ‘666’ when viewed on an audio spectrograph). The other was that the game itself caused psychological damage through carefully-designed visual effects which altered brain activity, presumably in the same way that a game can cause an epileptic seizure. Both of these views can be found in the article “Could Violent Video Games Destroy Human Empathy?” by Pao Chang on the website “EnergyFanatics” ([sic] on the entirety):
Video games also work similar to TV ads and shows since video games are played on TV and computer screen. The moment you turn on the TV or computer screen and start playing a violent video game. All it takes is a few minutes and the flicker rate of TV or computer screen will put your mind in a trance-like state. Once this occur, your mind is slowly being “reprogrammed” to accepting that violence is acceptable and even fun. As a result, violent video games can destroy human empathy to a certain degree…
Video games also contain a lot of subliminal messages, which are designed to manipulate your mind at the subconscious level. Because of this, subliminal messages are very effective at manipulating your mind without your knowledge.
Note the appearance of the ‘flicker rate’ mythic element here.
This should all start to sound very familiar when we consider the Polybius mythology. The game cabinets were installed by and monitored by some unknown agency, potentially the satanic conspiracy, which was believed to have infiltrated all levels of government and business. The game caused bizarre effects, both physically and psychologically; rumours flew around that the flicker rate of the screen had something to do with it, or at the very least that some detail of the game caused real physical or chemical effects upon the human brain. Polybius was said to have inspired suicides and other extreme behaviour, and to cause night terrors and other evidence of psychological trauma. Reading one author’s memories of Doom, one can almost sense the Polybius legend gaining steam in the background:
Then there were the playground spook stories claiming the game was “bad luck.” An older brother’s friend’s cousin downloaded it and broke his arm the same day, or saw a giant demon face when he booted it up — that sort of thing. Half those stories probably came from an older sibling that wanted us to steer clear of their PC.
Playing Doom felt dangerous. Your hands shook a little feeding in the disc. Starting a new game felt like chanting “Bloody Mary” into your monitor. Sure, the stories were fake (they were fake, right?) but the satanic threat seemed all too real when you played with the lights out. We feared the game because our parents, our churches, and television had taught us to fear it.
The secondary literature also describes certain Polybius players who had “sworn never to play another video game”, which makes the whole thing look like an after-school special, in which Our Hero has meddled with dark and subversive elements beyond his ken, and has at the end of the day decided to turn his back on that foul stuff and to truly enjoy the pleasures of a fine Dickens novel and an early bedtime. Part of the reason the Polybius mythos looks more like a legend than a real event is that it is so distinctively and specifically a 90’s thing. It wouldn’t have really made sense in the mid-80’s, when the USSR was still around and people had more serious things to worry about. Placed in the context of fear that existed during the cold war, Polybius is a weird outlier, but in the 90’s, when the reports started coming in, it made perfect sense.