Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress, horrific nightmares, and even suicidal tendencies. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. No evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.
According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1987, something of a rarity at the time. The game, Polybius, proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, quickly followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side-effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend. Some players stopped playing video games, while it is reported that one became an anti-gaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for "sense-deletion"), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to Tempest (a shoot 'em up game utilizing vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.
The origin of the legend is unknown. Some internet commentators think it originated as a usenet hoax. Other bloggers believe the story is a true urban legend – one that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy; the game was reported to have caused motion sickness and vertigo, and was therefore pulled.
Several people have claimed to have a ROM of the game, but none of them have made it available for public scrutiny, a "lack of hard evidence" situation typical of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. Some sources claim it is a maze-style game, while others describe it as an action space-fighter.
The Polybius legend received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video game urban legends called "Secrets and Lies". The magazine determined the legend to be neither true nor false, but "inconclusive". Additionally, Snopes.com claims to have debunked the myth as a modern-day version of 1980's rumors of "Men in Black" visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games.
On March 20, 2006, a man under the name of Steven Roach made a post on coinop.org telling the story of his involvement with Polybius, and how he hoped to "lay it to rest". He claimed to have been working for a South American company that wished to promote a "new approach" to computer graphics (probably vector graphics). The game was claimed to be very inventive and addictive but the graphics, through mistake rather than design, were dangerous and prompted epileptic fits. The product was recalled, the subcontractors (Sinneslöschen) were disbanded, and the program was lost.
On April 26, 2006 Duane Weatherall of Gamepulse.co.uk (now bitparade.co.uk) interviewed Roach after Roach posted this message onto another forum. The Roach story contained a number of inconsistencies: some of it seems to be directly sourced from Wikipedia, such as the suggestion of Cyberyogi's involvement, which was the product of extensive searching through Usenet archives on the part of a Wikipedia editor. The interview also included some of Roach's background, including the revelation that he comes from Rhyl, Wales, and a possible recreation of the storyline.
On July 20, 2007 a Sinneslöschen website went online, offering a freeware Polybius game for download, as well as artwork for the cabinet. The game (created with DarkBASIC and featuring gameplay and graphics based on the interview with Steven Roach) and the site were made by the same person who created and released other freeware games at the site RogueSynapse. In fact, both sinnesloschen.com and roguesynapse.com point at the same IP address, while the PC Polybius game can be seen running in a custom cabinet in a photograph at RogueSynapse.
Several videos of this game have been made and uploaded to YouTube, where it is often described as if it was the actual game the urban legend is about. Some videos, due to their spinning graphics, may cause negative effects to those with epilepsy.