Polybius, MKUltra and Dream Machines


As we know, myths often have a historical basis. So before tackling the mysterious tale of the soul devouring arcade game known as Polybius, let’s consider some facts:

Fact One: The CIA was officially engaged in a U.S. government sanctioned project between 1953 and 1973 called MKUltra. It took a Supreme Court hearing for the government to release the MKUltra documents. The court ruling described MKUltra’s goal as “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior” (see CIA vs Sims (1985) for more).

This included exposing unsuspecting “subjects”, from individual civilians to small groups, and even possibly entire towns, to a variety of drugs, most notably the psychedelic compound LSD.

How broad was their scope? According to congressional testimony, it included some 80 institutions, including 44 colleges and universities. Why stop there? MKUltra also tapped hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies. And that’s just what we know. Officially.

There’s even a potential connection between MKUltra and the Unabomber, but that’s a different story.

For more on MKUltra, a quick web search is all you need; what the government has officially revealed is damning as it is, without having to get conspiratorial. If you want more, explore Richard Metzger and/or The Disinformation Company.

Fact Two: LSD’s most vocal proponent, Dr. Timothy Leary, switched gears from psychedelics to Virtual Reality toward the end of his life, proposing that in the future, 3D computer generated experiences would take the place of mind-altering drugs. For more on this, read his book Chaos and Cyber Culture.

So, here we have an interesting intersection: The Spooks are interested in mind control and have been actively testing LSD on unwitting subjects for years. Meanwhile, the man who famously told the world to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” was changing his mantra to “Plug In, Play On” (quote mine, not Dr. Leary).

Still, is there any evidence that a visual experience can change a person’s neurological state of consciousness?

Fact Three: In the sixties, visual artist and writer Brion Gysin, a collaborator of Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, read a book on the brain that discussed the phenomenon of Neural Entrainment. This is the measurable ability to change a person’s brain waves based on specific frequencies of light and/or sound (think binaural beats).

Brion Gysin had a Eureka! moment: what if he could build a machine that would induce brain waves that were similar to –

You guessed it: LSD.

Gysin made a handful of prototypes, which he called Dream Machines. Granted, these were analog devices, driven by a record player and a lamp shade with carefully spaced slits.

They remain collector’s items, and some of these collectors (many of whom are musicians) still use them and swear by them. For more on this, watch the documentary film Flicker or check out the book Bryon Gysin – Dream Machine.

There are a few Dream machine simulators online; just remember to use them with your eyes closed (seriously). And remember, they can have side negative sides effects, which leads us to the point of this post: Polybius.

There is a legend of a game that mysteriously appeared in Portland, Oregon in 1981. It disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Purportedly, it was a massive hit, drawing huge crowds, long lines, and the occasional fist fight. For the short time that the games were around, they were periodically serviced by men dressed entirely in black…

Yep, Men in Black.

Then came the side effects, including amnesia, insomnia, stress, nightmares and night terrors. To make matters worse, some players swore off gaming for good, while one went on to (gasp!) become an anti-gaming activist.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but yes, I would play a round of Polybius. Or at least I would watch someone else playing a round of Polybius…

Chances are, I never will.

In part because the very first mention of Polybius isn’t until an anonymous online forum post from 1998. There is nothing from 1981 – no local news reports, no hospitalization records, nothing. Yes, there are people who say they know people who played the game, but beyond that, no eyewitness testimony (hold on to that tidbit). Not a single existing cabinet, just a purported screen shot, including the name of a company that is pigeon German for sense-delete/deprivation, and an anonymous report, posted 17 years later.


I’m like Fox Mulder from the X-files…I want to believe. And there’s a lot to believe here: MKUltra, check. Neural Entrainment, check. The government’s involvement with ATARI to build 3D simulations around the alleged time of Polybius (I left that one out, but you can’t expect me to do all of the work, can you?), check. Does all of this add up to Polybius…?

Let’s got back to the “no eyewitness” bit, and our final fact.

Fact Five: The ancient Greek historian Polybius was famous for his insistence on firsthand reporting, or at least interviewing eyewitness; he was one of the first historians to lay this down as a general maxim.

So, we have an alleged game, first reported 17 years later, with no eyewitnesses, named after a Greek historian who maintained the importance of firsthand accounts.

Methinks an online trickster could be at work here.

Then again, if it really was MKUltra, would you actually expect any eyewitness? Seriously, the CIA had been playing around with mind control for three decades before Polybius supposedly showed up. Maybe the real joke’s on the skeptics…

Either way, I’ll end with a nod to Special Agent Fox Mulder:

The Truth Is Out There.

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