Conspiracy Theory

Was This 1980s Arcade Game Really at the Center of a Government Conspiracy?

Here's what we know. In 1981, two children in Portland, Oregon, suddenly grew mysteriously ill one week after visiting a local arcade. Soon after, a professional video game player died in a sudden accident while at an arcade, and later, his greatest rival suffered the same fate. A conspiracy theory quickly caught on: these four were the victims of a government mind-control theory centered on a one-of-a-kind arcade game known only as "Polybius". Okay, we'll bite.

Pac-Men in Black

Here's the legend of Polybius in a nutshell. It was the golden age of arcades — "Donkey Kong", "Frogger", and "Galaga" were all released in the fateful year of 1981. And if the urban legend is true, it was the year that Polybius made its debut as well. Found only at one arcade (in some versions, two) in Portland, the game led to lines around the block, but left many players with headaches and worse. Every week, men in black would arrive to open the back of the machines and gather data. Then one day, Polybius disappeared, and was never seen again.

Sounds scary, right? It's scarier when you find out that at least some of this is true. 12-year-old Brian Mauro fell ill at a Portland arcade, and the same week, arcade regular Michael Lopez experienced migraines for the first time in his life. And in 1981, the revelation of the government's secret MK-Ultra program would have been fresh enough in people's minds to make the brain-hacking government plot plausible.

And then there are the high-profile deaths that followed shortly after. A week after Brian Mauro's illness, 18-year-old arcade wunderkind Jeff Dailey passed away after a round of a different game, "Berserk". And a year after that, Dailey's great rival Peter Burkowski died doing the exact same thing. Okay, count us as officially scared.

Dispelling the Rumors

Alright, let's all take a breath. There almost certainly isn't a wider conspiracy behind this game. In fact, it's pretty likely that Polybius never existed. Remember Brian Mauro's mysterious illness? Yeah, that came 28 hours into an "Asteroids" marathon and Mauro was standing on the grace of Coca-Cola alone. And there's a similar explanation for the older teens' deaths as well. Both were competitive players attempting record-breaking runs on the game "Berzerk", and their time at the joystick likely took its toll on their hearts.

And as for the government involvement, well, there's not a lot of evidence to back that up at all. But there is a reason why there may have been government employees investigating arcades in 1981. Many arcades at the time were involved in illegal gambling rings, and feds were known to bust up gamers' havens. Or maybe that's just what they want you to think.

The Legend of Polybius

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 13, 2017