I recently was introduced to a story about a series of events that took place in Portland, Oregon in the early 80's. It was a fascinating story about something that was all the rage back then, video arcades. More specifically arcade games, (for those of you too young to know what that is you can still see them in old pizza parlors and places like Bullwinkles).
Back when I was coming up if you wanted to play a GOOD video game you'd have to leave your house to do it, and most of the time it included ponying up quarters for a crack at three lives, except for outliers like Wunderland, the nickle arcade and the dastardly, money hungry Dragon's Lair which would cost you no less than 30 quarters for one life and you would automatically lose whether you hit the single button control or not. Speaking of single button controlled games, the game in this story only had one button. It's hard to say what the button did in the game too, because as the legend goes the game was only in a select few arcades for a scant few weeks, in our very fair city of Portland. The legend says playing the game led players to experience psychotic episodes, hallucinations, insomnia and may have even led to hospitalization and suicide...
On top of this there is also the unsettling accounts of mysterious Men in Black, unbadged Government agents of some sort who were said to appear at the very arcades in which the incidents took place. Theories abound about why they were there but most people who know the story think that the game may have been part of a government program that was looking into possible mind control technology. It's also possible that this story in some small part became part of the inspiration for "The Last Starfighter", a movie that I loved as a kid and Mort hated so much that it almost made him vomix on his shirt. Adding to evidence of support for possible government involvement is the fact that Battlezone, the first 3D arcade game and contemporary of the game in question was actually modified and repurposed by our military as a tank control simulator. Since then the Pentagon and Military have used video game technology more and more as training tools and also as recruiting tools.
After spending a few weeks in the general public the games all disappeared as did the visits from government agents and slowly things went back to normal, for awhile. There are still those that claim some of the original ROM chips exist in private collections and a guy in Colorado who claims to have a fully functioning console of the game known as Polybius.
There have also been rumors of a rip off of the game being distributed in then Soviet Russia, which turns out was very commonplace back then. The game was said to be developed by a mysterious and now defunct video game maker which went by the ominous name of Sinneslöschen, which seems to be a name conjured by an English speaking person by picking two words out of a German dictionary, to mean "Sense Delete". Evidence of this company is mostly anecdotal and it seems that this game was their only release into the arcade market.
Could this stuff be true? Could the government really have engaged in this kind of activity? We do have proof that they've used large populations in our region before with radiation experiments, and more recently we saw them trying to inoculate our populous with industrial waste chemicals by dispersing them into our water supply. It turns out that there is more truth to the story than what seems plausible.
First we'll start with the video game developer itself, Sinneslöschen. There is no evidence it ever existed. Of course that's what we would expect from a secret government program that they have wanted to hide away from public knowledge for the last thirty years. However, there really isn't any evidence that it existed. Oddly though there is a website of that very name where you can actually download the game Polybius, which was the name of an Ancient Greek historian of the Helenistic period. The link to that site is here. The game is described as mix of raster and vector graphics which combines aspects of Tempest, Galaga and Asteroids, and includes such mind bending additional effects such as strobes, eerie poltergeist interferences and subliminal messages imbedded in the game play. However all of this seems to have been developed much more recently as a response to the story itself.
So what about the psychotic breaks, and suicides that were associated with the game? Well it turns out that these are likely exaggerations or unrelated events. There was an incident where a kid in Eugene who had taken part in a marathon video game contest put on by a local arcade had to be hospitalized with a migraine headache. There is ample evidence to suggest that lights flashing at certain frequencies can trigger epileptic seizures, and sadly there are examples of teen suicide every year. The fact that a teen could have been playing video games in a time where their popularity was booming and later could have ended his own life is hardly corollary evidence.
The government agents? Turns out that it was fairly common for arcade owners to offer prizes for high scores, sometimes including cash prizes, which would be a form of gambling and illegal in Oregon at the time, and certainly for a minor. Government agents had in fact raided several gaming establishments around this time trying to find evidence of wrongdoing, and collected data such as high scores and associated initials.
The story it turns out is pure urban legend, and the evidence for most of it is either made up or totally anecdotal. There have been several articles written about it over the last decade and it seems that this period saw the greatest additions to the legend of the last 30 years. I thought it was a lot of fun hearing about this story which oddly, I only recently found out about. I've never talked to another person who's mentioned anything about it, and I'm not sure this story even started here. My guess is we just got the benefit of a creative person or persons who chose to flesh out some of the details using actual events from that time period. Seems though that even the Simpsons have heard the story, which isn't really a surprise as it's writers and creator have enjoyed spoofing such things for years. Here's a screenshot of a Polybius console from the episode "Please Homer, Don't Hammer 'Em"
note at the bottom the "Property of U.S. Government"
I really didn't do any of this research myself but more wrote this as a synopsis of the story as I heard about it on the podcast "Skeptoid" by Brian Dunning. He is a skeptical writer and podcaster who rips through urban legends in nice digestible 15 minute episodes. In looking into this tonight I also discovered that the Willamette Week did an article on this last month, "D'oh!!". I decided to flesh it out myself though as I'd mentioned it recently as a topic for a new junk. So if you're brave enough, download the game at the page I linked to and get back to me about how crazy it makes you. I'm a little too scared after I heard that whole "Bloody Mary" thing is real and I just don't want to press my luck.
or you know, just put your junk here...