By Tony Sokol
The eighties, a time of breakfast clubs and moonwalks. An actor played a president and George Orwell’s doublespeak was on everyone’s lips. Kids watched music videos from a stuttering half-droid named Max Headroom and plunked their quarters into Pacman and Asteroid machines. But one game only made a minor dent on the arcade market. It was only tested in one area and the teens who played it went nuts. Some people thought it was a mind control machine. Others thought it was some kind of game stopping aversion therapy. Or so the stories say.
Last week, Entertainment 2morrow featured Super Deluxe’s minidocumentary about the 1987 Max Headroom TV Hijack incident. Max Headroom kind of sums up what we do here at the zine, bring you a slice of the future. Whether it’s a good long look into what will be happening in about 20 minutes, or a peripheral glance at a further future. This week we look at the first in the series, about Polybius, an arcade game.
According to urban legend, the game messed with people’s minds. Some people said they saw faces out of the corners of their eyes or heard a woman crying. Players complained about nausea, headaches, blackouts, amnesia, night terrors, seizures, brain aneurysms and, in the most extreme cases, they stopped playing video games altogether. That was scary.
Polybius was supposedly tested in Portland, Oregon. The game was only around for about a month in 1981, and then it disappeared without a trace, leaving no evidence of its existence. That is, if it existed at all. People say the similar things about Jesus, but it’s all word of mouth and there are no census papers to back any of that up either.
Some people thought Polybius was a way for the military to test mental and physical agility as a recruitment tool. Similar to the way the U.S. Navy uses teen boy bands to recruit, as was revealed on The Simpsons. Others thought it was a CIA brainwashing device. The agency was just coming off its MKUltra program, which started we split World War II Nazi scientists with Russia under Operation Paperclip. MK stood for Mind Control, or rather, it didn’t MK stood for Mein Kampf and the kids who played the game were dealing with more than just pop history quizzes. The company that manufactured Polybius was said to be Sinneslöschen, which can be very loosely translated as sensory deprivation.
The director of the Max Headroom video was unknown. This week, we take a look at the first part of the series, which was brought by a known unknown, the director Brook Linder.
“When I was little nothing really scared me like UNSOLVED MYSTERIES,” Kinder wrote to Facebook when the video was released. “Maybe it was Robert Stack, or the haunting theme song/title intro, or maybe it was about imagining there was more to the segment – a truth behind the staged reenactments (sometimes with the very people that were actually involved in the mystery!!). Essentially, something terrifying is happening in your neck of the woods and you can only see it’s shadow. actually episode two of our “Unknown” series, here is episode 1, “Polybius”:
The episode was narrated by Jeffrey Shapiro. The Expert was played by Bill Dewan. The other credits are Producer: Evan Cohen; Score: DRAGON INN 3; Theme: Zach Goheen; Director of Photography: Frank Mobilio; Sound: Molly Young; Production Designer: Gregory Shultz; Art Director: Carlos Laszlo; Set Dresser: Kyle Vannoy; Gaffer – Silvestre Rios; Hair/MU – Denisse Villa; Title Design: Bryan Manning.
Polybius is named for the Greek historian who said always get quotes from eye witnesses. Arcade owners were said to be visited by men in black would collect records and the names of high scorers The game was reported to be extremely addictive, and withdrawal was a bitch. The first time the game was mentioned was on the coinop.org site on August 3, 1998.
It is true that three kids really did experience odd happenings after playing at video arcades in the Portland area at the time. One kid reportedly got his first migraine, a 12-year-old got sick trying to set the world record for playing Asteroids and an 18-year-old competitive gamer had a heart attack a year before 19-year-old gamer also had his heart give out while playing video games.
So, can a video game control your mind? We thought that was our job. Like us at our Facebook page, if you feel so compelled.