Polybius: A Study In Digital Mind Control

There have been countless examples throughout video game culture which have suggested that a good time was not the only intended result of a game’s programming. Strange bugs and glitches, unexplained occurrences and even specifically designed digital nightmares have been discovered or exploited in hundreds of games.

pacman-Original-Map-256-glitch

There are those which are relatively innocuous, such as the final screen in Pac-Man (known as the Map 256 glitch) that turns the final screen of the game into an unbeatable jumble of numbers and characters on one side. There are also more intense, and at times disturbing instances in some games.

Luigi’s Mansion, for example, contains a “lighting glitch” in the attic of the mansion, where on a certain wall that is illuminated every so often by a flash of lightning, the player’s shadow appears to be hanging himself. Often times, these bugs are explained away by developers as simple texture errors. But in one instance, an entire game inspired not only interest and curiosity, but fear and paranoia.

 

Hanging Luigi glitch in the Telephone Room

 

The game is known as Polybius, and while it may just be an urban legend, it does raise some interesting questions about what sort of other applications video games might have in the real world.

The YouTube channel known as Ahoy has recently posted an hour-long documentary on Polybius, which can be seen here.

Ahoy goes into great detail about the game specifically in this video, and I highly recommend watching it in its entirety as well as his other content. He is by far one of the most organized and intelligent content creators on YouTube, and the sheer amount of research he put into this documentary is outstanding.

To give a brief background for the purposes of this article: Polybius was first whispered about in the media around the year 2000, but the game surfaced initially in 1981 in a suburb of Portland, Oregon during the rise of the coin-op arcade.

The story basically intimates that a handful of these machines were placed in various back alley arcade destinations, and visited regularly by men in black coats who never removed money from the machines, but rather appeared to be collecting data. People who played the game were said to have curious side effects afterwards, including physical illness, amnesia, night terrors, and behavioral changes.

After one month in circulation, the machines were all mysteriously pulled from their locations, and no further information was found regarding who had made them or why they had been removed.

At least that was the story.

There are some clues about the game which seem to suggest that the legend may have some merit: For instance, the name Polybius is taken from the name of a Greek historian whose name translates to “many lives” (who was also from a region of the Greek Empire called Megalopolis, in Arcadia). The company who supposedly created the game, Sinneslöschen, is almost proper German for “to erase senses,” or “to become senseless.”

However, given that the twenty-one year gap between the supposed introduction of these cabinets is followed by an initial mention on internet media in the year 2000, the popularization of the myth in 2003, and then a dead end, it’s relatively safe to assume that the game was no more than a myth.

Still, the existence of such a story alone makes one question how a video game could potentially affect a player’s senses and their ability to reason. Or, down a darker path, how they could be used to condition and control users.

Every video game in existence is based on some form of Pavlovian response mechanism; perform action “A,” receive reward “B.”

In the early days of the video game revolution, the reward was simple, usually amounting to nothing more than a high score which would be saved on the cabinet so long as it was not reset. Over the years, these rewards became more and more complex, as did the actions necessary to receive them. Games began offering “achievements” or “trophies” for performing specific actions within the game during the modern console era, creating an entirely new way to play many games and altering methods players might use during a standard playthrough.

In the case of Polybius, the gameplay was described as unconventional, with strange geometric shapes and patterns dancing around the interface. Since the game is almost assuredly a myth, it’s impossible to know exactly what sort of data the men in black coats could have been pulling from the cabinets. It is interesting to consider how something so subtle as what sounds to be an early version of Geometry Wars could have such an impact on the human psyche.

The malevolence inherent in the Polybius legend, however, is likely enough to cause just about anyone to shy away from even hypothesizing about the game or its effects.

But what if the game in question was a tool specifically designed to teach real-world responses via a digital medium, effectively training the player to perform actions in their life or their job?

The Xbox title Full Spectrum Warrior (2004), was initially designed at the request of the United States Army’s Institute for Creative Technologies, or ICT, in conjunction with developer Pandemic and published by THQ. The ICT was tasked with making advancements in the field of virtual simulation technology, which included the proposed exploration of virtually training soldiers for combat operations.

Full Spectrum Warrior was just that: A virtual combat simulator, which limited the player’s input options to the issuance of commands to two different squads, simulating the role of a commanding officer in a live fire scenario.

An article from Popular Science on the subject contains this quote from Michael Macedonia, then-Chief Technology Officer for training and simulation in the US Army:

“We spend a lot of time and money training colonels and generals, but we’ve never had anything good like this for squad leaders.”

This sentiment seems to hold true more often than not as time passes. The modern battlefield is dominated by small squads of soldiers, and a massive array of technologically-based weaponry and surveillance devices. What better way to train the men and women of our military than a video game simulation?

UAV pilots in particular operate an interface that involves using a joystick and several buttons while monitoring a video feed from the craft, and while it may not be comfortably likened to playing a video game, training in a game world environment is an acceptable method of teaching these soldiers how to operate a drone effectively and accurately.

How can we suggest that video games are both responsible for providing valuable training for soldiers AND creating mass murderers? Doom was highly scrutinized by parents and commentators after the Columbine massacre in 1999, as both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold played the game frequently before killing twelve of their classmates with automatic weapons.

The entire Grand Theft Auto franchise (as well as pretty much anything else that Rockstar puts out besides that shitty table tennis game) has found itself the butt of extremely similar scrutiny. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton even advocated for new, stricter regulations on video game sales after the now-infamous Hot Coffee mod was released for GTA: San Andreas.

Yet according to Peter Gray, PhD and research professor at Boston College, video games can actually increase cognitive function and perception levels. There are also a number of different studies which report similar results when testing cognitive ability in gamers:

The best proof that video-gaming improves these abilities comes from experiments in which all of the participants are initially non-gamers, and then some, but not others, are asked to play a particular video game for a certain number of hours per day, for a certain number of days, for the sake of the experiment.  In these experiments, the typical finding is that those who play the video game improve on measures of basic perceptual and cognitive abilities while those in the control group do not.” psychologytoday.com

However, this doesn’t fully explain how it is even logical to correlate casual video game use to real-world violence. Unless you’re in the military, where your virtual combat training is specifically designed to facilitate survival and good decision making in live combat situations.

It’s precisely these assertions that make the Polybius legend so unnerving.

What if a game was implanted on modern gaming devices which was designed to manufacture a specific psychological response in the brain? Can we be sure that, even as human beings of sound mind, that we would not succumb to the whims of the programmers?

 

The primary speculation regarding the origins of Polybius are punctuated by references to the MKUltra program utilized by the CIA between 1953 and 1966, which was “concerned with the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.”

While this is unlikely, as the MKUltra program was officially halted in 1973 (and was primarily focused on the potential uses and applications of LSD as a form of mind control), it’s not so far-fetched to think that a similar program could still be in effect today. Especially considering how many of our day to day interactions are governed almost entirely by the internet, social media, and other technological means of interaction.

The trick is to make sure that our devices of all types, useful as they may be, remain ancillary to personal interactions with others and the world around us. That’s right, guy who just can’t seem to stop playing Candy Crush despite the fact that it’s a horrible, soul-sucking pit of a mobile game…I see you.

Just because the bell rings doesn’t mean you have to start drooling uncontrollably.

-b1nx

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