Conspiracy Corner – Polybius

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac (with Lucas or Ellen lurking on the sidelines) on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.

I have no shame in admitting I quite like playing video games, in the same respect that I have no shame in saying I like reading books, watching TV and thinking about conspiracy theories: these are all things people are allowed to do and should suffer no opprobrium for enjoying. Video games might be a contentious thing to like–because video games are thought to be for kids–but my suspicion is that the notion “video games are meant to be for kids” is a cultural artefact rather than a view based upon a good argument. I mean, in Germany board gaming is a properly adult affair, yet here we associate it with bad family holidays where everyone argues about the “Free Parking” rule in Monopoly.1

One video game I haven’t played is Polybius, mostly because it’s likely the creation of an urban legend and therefore (probably) doesn’t exist. Also, it’s an arcade game from 1981 and was apparently only available to play in Portland, Oregon, for a number of weeks. In 1981 I was four years of age, sans pocket money, in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand). My trips to arcade halls in Portland were rare, even non-existent, in those heady years of my youth.

Everything you need to know about Polybius is contained in the Wikipedia link above, although for even more details you could watch the following short video:

However, for those of you who are too busy to click a link or are reading this post offline2, the alleged Polybius arcade machine induced psychotic episodes in its players and the data about these episodes was apparently being collected by mysterious men in grey or black suits. As there’s a lack of hard evidence for the existence of Polybius, the machine is likely the product of either a usenet hoax or it’s just an urban legend.

So, what’s interesting about an urban legend and why did I cover it in the Conspiracy Corner segment? Well, an answer to the second question is easy: a reader of this blog and listener to the segments asked me about Polybius, and I’m quite amenable to suggestions for topics to cover. As for the first question… Well, urban legends sometimes take the form of conspiracy theories, and that fascinates me.

My position on urban legends is that they are folk stories which typically express some kind of moral lesson. Stories about single bananas in shopping trolleys and baby-sitters ignoring their charges are meant to provide us moral fables about what it’s like to live in contemporary society.3 The Polybius story also expresses what I take is an interesting message: “Do you know what your government is doing?” and it does this by linking fears about video games to the kind of mind control research that the CIA undertook in the MKULTRA programme.

MKULTRA is the go-to project for conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe, because it’s true that both America and Russia, in the Cold War, were interested in any technology which might allow them some advantage in spying on each other. Psychic research, mind control and the like all had money thrown at them in the hope something useful would be found. Technically, the CIA’s interest in all of this ended in the sixties or early seventies, when MKULTRA was wound down, but the suspicion is that research continued, just under other names and possibly using black budgets. The story of Polybius fits into this by being an expression of that suspicion, a suspicion which gets linked to a fear that playing video games does something perverse to us.4 As such, it links fears about video games to the conspiracy theory the government is using media against us as a kind of warning which is both “Do you really know what you are playing?” and “Do you really know what ‘they’ are doing behind the scenes?”

Which are good questions.

Notes

  1. The correct position on the “Free Parking” rule is to be found in the rules for Monopoly. It’s astounding how few people have actually read the rules…
  2. You know who you are.
  3. The “single banana in the shopping trolley” story is about how hard it is to meet people, given the busy lives we live, whilst the baby sitter story is a warning to make sure you know who is looking after your children.
  4. See, for example, the perennial debate that playing video games makes us either violent or docile.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.