The arcade legend of Polybius (and where it might really have started)

Admittedly this post isn’t going to be for everyone but if you’re old enough to remember a time when there were arcades all around the country and video games in every 7-11 and drug store, then you might find the story of this urban legend interesting.

Long ago in some dark arcade there appeared a solitary video game in a non-descript black cabinet. It was called Polybius and it wasn’t just the latest game from the normal manufactuerers attempting to drain quarters from players. Polybius was a real-world experiment built by the military or possibly the CIA. They tested it’s impact on unsuspecting teens and the game was allegedly so addictive that people who played it had serious side effects. Polybius wasn’t just a game, it was a game that could control your mind. And then, not long after it appeared, the men in black took it away and it was never seen again. Right now it’s sitting in a crate inside a massive government warehouse between the wreckage from the Roswell incident and the Lost Ark.

Did any of this happen? Not really but the legend persists, especially among the relatively small number of weirdos who still care about 80s arcade games. If there’s a Barcade in your town, the owner has almost certainly heard the legend of Polybius.

Today the BBC released a video today about this legend. According to their version of the story, the legend first arose in Portland, Oregon based on an arcade in a specific mall. There’s a lot of hand-waving at this point to suggest some of the elements of the story could be true.

I have to say that I don’t find this version of events very convincing. First of all, Cat DeSpira, the woman who claims that Polybius (or some elements of the story) happened in Portland, only heard the story years later. And in a blog post about the BBC clip, she admits it’s ultimately just a myth: “The game never existed. It’s a hoax.”

As for Kevin Mannis, who claims in the clip above that he helped launch the Polybius myth, I’m not convinced of that either. Mannis did create a similar story called the The Dybbuk Box which had some similar elements, i.e. a box haunted by a malicious spirit. That story eventually became the basis of a 2012 horror movie called The Possession. Did Mannis help spread the Polybius myth? Maybe, but it’s also possible that it has been around for a long time and he simply came across it like everyone else. The best evidence suggests the myth probably started in the early 2000s though it may have been circulating by word of mouth before then.

My own theory, and that’s all it is, is that the story of Polybius may have started with a real game that was actually built in the early 1980s by Atari. It was called Bradley Trainer and it was a heavily revised version of the arcade game Battlezone. But Bradley Trainer was commissioned by the Army which wanted to see if video games could be used to actually train people in the use of the Bradley vehicle.

The story goes that after the release of Battlezone, a think tank made up of a group of retired Army officers, approached Atari with a proposition; could Atari adapt the Battlezone code to make it suitable for training new recruits? Specifically those who would be stationed within an Infantry Fighting Vehicle (later renamed the Bradley Fighting Vehicle after Omar Bradley, a distinguished Army General who died in 1981).

The decision to work on the game was controversial among the team that worked on it. Some of them didn’t like the idea that Atari was essentially working for the Army, albeit indirectly. Eventually only a few prototype games were produced and the Army decided it wasn’t interested. Like Polybius, Bradley Trainer disappeared and was largely forgotten.

Two copies of the machine were allegedly built and some claim that both survive to this day. I believe the real number that still exists is one. That lone game is probably the most valuable single arcade game in existence. I know the current owner and he’s told me the incredible amount of money he has been offered and turned down by people wanting to buy it.

Bradley Trainer never was placed in an arcade and it never controlled anyone’s mind but the connection between video games and the Army is one that may have been in the mind of whoever first launched the myth of Polybius. You can watch a 1981 ABC News story about the creation of Bradley Trainer at this link.