Gaming history is filled with urban myths but none are quite as intriguing as the tale of Polybius, the nightmare gaming cabinet alleged to have collected psychoanalytic data from unsuspecting arcade goers in the 1980s. The myth has persisted for so long and gained such a notoriety it recently appeared in Loki, episode five, in the background of Kid Loki’s clubhouse.
It’s immediately recognisable by the distinct POLYBIUS posterhead on the arcade machine, but the reason why it’s there is never explained. The Void where it resides is a place for all ‘variants’ — objects, creatures and people that shouldn’t exist on the ‘main timeline’ of the MCU. But you can imagine exactly how it ended up there when you consider just how spooky its alleged story is.
Like all good gaming stories, the Polybius myth started as a creepypasta spread across forums and word of mouth.
Tracking down the exact origin of Polybius is difficult, but many believe the cabinet was first ‘reported’ in the late 1990s on video game message boards. The earliest archived web entry on the cabinet states it was created by an unknown German game maker called Sinneslöschen in 1981 (the word itself is apparently gibberish).
According to common legend, the original Polybius game cabinet was installed in an arcade in Portland, Oregon around the 1980s and featured “weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements”. Kids would play on the machine, and later “wake up screaming” from horrible nightmares they couldn’t escape. Many allegedly stopped playing games entirely after Polybius, and it was also reported men in black suits would come to the collect information from these machines after they were played.
This led many to believe Polybius was a military experiment designed by the CIA to measure brain activity and collect unknown data.
Some additional reports claimed players developed amnesia, anxiety or insomnia after using the machine but these reports are not included in the original myth, and may have been added for ‘drama’ once stories of the cabinet hit the mainstream.
While the author of the initial blog post (which may not be the source of the rumour) claimed to have a ROM file of the game, nothing else has surfaced about this mysterious cabinet save for ongoing rumours — and there is no official, confirmed record of their existence.
But this lack of evidence, coupled with the government-conspiracy tones behind the story, led the cabinet to become a figure of myth, so entrenched in the public conscious it’s now ended up in mainstream media. There is a healthy amount of skepticism around Polybius, but it remains an intriguing legend.
Its appearance in Loki is a fun little nod to gaming’s history, and a reminder of just how far wild internet rumours can spread.
Loki‘s season finale airs on Disney+ on Wednesday.