POLYBIUS – Part Four: East Germany’s Legacy

Mario falls down a bottomless pit, the chaotic mass of Tetrominoes overfills the display, Pac-Man falls victim to the all-devouring deathless wights infesting his home, any way you spin it, it’s game over! Game over, man!


*weeooh wooh wooh wooh wokwok*

Polybius turned out to have a lot more going on than I thought it did. What I thought was a mere urban legend actually had some meat to it, and I found that classic arcade games and cybernetics alike are a hell of a lot more fascinating than I’d ever thought. But if I don’t unplug this damn video game I’ll play it forever, so we need to wrap this up. We’ll do so, as always, with the Wet Blanket Revue, giving a token nod to the sceptical approach, and the Venusian Conclusion, putting a more interesting but less realistic finale on this weird trip. Stay tuned after the bibliography for some deleted scenes.


We discussed in section 1 some of the more prosaic solutions to this puzzle. Specifically, the possibility of photosensitive epileptic seizures seems to be the most likely candidate. Tempest, as we saw, did in fact cause at least one of these seizures during its test phase in Portland, Oregon; the timing is right, the symptoms are right, the place is right, it’s all so damned transparent and by-the-book it makes me want to puke. But it gets worse.

It turns out that right around the same time, another kid in Portland suffered another video game malady. Brian Mauro, trying to beat the record for the longest time spent playing Asteroids, collapsed after twelve hours (he was fine, once they rehydrated him and whatnot). The next week, two different kids also had health trouble during a competitive Berserk tournament. It would seem that Portland just had a statistically massive number of weird game-related medical emergencies during the time period we’re looking at, and the surrounding paranoia eventually worked its way into the collective American memory as Polybius. Hooray.

But what about the ‘men in black’? Sadly, there’s a reasonable explanation for that, too. In those early days of arcade gaming, many of the machines were managed by companies that produced other kinds of ‘gaming machines’, and apparently they found that arcade games, properly programmed, could serve as a useful loophole for avoiding some of the more stringent federal regulations regarding the aforementioned one-armed bandits. Somewhere along the line it appears the authorities caught on to this little ploy, and were conducting investigations into it right around the same time as the Great Gaming Plague of 1981. Agents (probably plain-clothes cops or maybe FBI) were indeed sniffing around arcades at the time, apparently physically examining machines and jotting down high scores, which, the story goes, had some connection with illegal gambling.


Every good conspiracy has a boring mafia-related excuse and I hate it.

So there you have it; a little hankey-pankey on the part of gambling companies, a spate of weirdly coincidentally-timed game-related ailments, and Polybius is born. It’s tidy and reasonable and no fun at all. I just don’t understand why people like the “truth” so much. Let’s move on to something more interesting.


I really do think that Poly Play has at least a chance of being the real origin of Polybius, but there’s still a problem; there wasn’t exactly a principle of free trade at work between the USA and East Germany at the time. If Poly Play was secured behind the iron curtain, why does the Polybius mythos always mention Portland, Oregon?

Maybe the whole thing really happened in East Germany, and the identification of the area was an error, transmitted so frequently that it’s now become the only known home of the legend. Maybe, for instance, somebody who was living in East Germany in the 80’s moved to Portland after the wall came down, posted about Poly Play on a Usenet forum populated primarily by fellow Oregonians, and thereby unwittingly transferred the story from his troubled homeland to his new abode. Maybe he even did it on purpose, in an attempt to avoid harassment by whatever lingering elements of the old regime might still be keeping tabs on him.

Or, maybe (and this is really spitballing) some of the cabinets found their way to the US through less above-board means. A US government agency, like the CIA, could have stolen a couple Polybius cabinets in the confusion during the shift of power behind the wall. The Polybius cabinet looks an awful lot like a Poly Play cabinet, if you just painted it black:


Maybe somebody was already onto what was happening with Poly Play and took the chance to scoop up a machine and get some first-hand observations. They snuck into a warehouse or an arcade, grabbed a cabinet, and threw it in a truck. Delivered to a secret rendezvous point, the cabinet made a journey over the Pacific to Oregon. Somebody made the necessary arrangements with a local arcade, slapped a coat of black paint on the machine to cover up the distinctive wood grain, changed the name (or maybe they didn’t even bother), and hey presto, kids are lining up around the block for bad trips and night terrors.

That’s all speculation, obviously, but it makes for a better story, I think. If you’ve got a better hypothesis, I’d love to hear it; get at me in the comments and I’ll post updates as necessary. Until then, watch out for soft black stinky plastic, and if you see the men in black, keep a tight grip on your quarters.

Thanks for reading! And you’ve collected enough coins, so don’t forget to stick around for a BONUS SECTION!


Atlas Obscura: The Urban Legend of the Government’s Mind-Controlling Arcade Game

My full correspondence with Christian Windler

The Logologie Homepage

Andy’s Arcade: Poly Play (has pictures of the inside of the cabinet, some discussion of the different games, etc. This website was a big help.)

I’d like to thank Christian Windler for taking the time to respond to me, and also my friend / old Quake II clanmate George Spanos of the nameless arcade for some technical insight.



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