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Image: Radiotopia

If you haven’t heard of Polybius, here’s the short version: in the fall of 1981, a mysterious video game suddenly appeared in arcades around Portland. The game—a black box with no name that involved geometric patterns and colorful shapes—was instantly addictive, hypnotic, and, in some cases, dangerous. Two teenagers supposedly disappeared after playing it. Mysterious men in black suits periodically came to service it. Was it a secret government research program using gamers as unwitting guinea pigs? Was it part of the CIA's MKUltra mind control program?

In Radiotopia’s latest Showcase podcast, The Polybius Conspiracy, an original seven-episode series that aired its first episode on October 6, co-producers Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto investigate just that. (Polybius was the name players later gave to the game, borrowing the name of the Greek historian famous for relying on firsthand accounts.)

In 2011, Luoto approached Frechette with the idea of making a feature film about Polybius after first coming across the legend online. Frechette wasn’t at first taken with the idea, but with a contact at the conspiracy’s ground zero, Dylan Reiff (who eventually became the field producer for the podcast), the filmmakers made a research trip up here in 2015. When a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film fell through, Frechette and Luoto looked towards a more inexpensive medium: podcasting.

“We started shooting little interviews and organically they transformed into a documentary,” says Luoto, “At that point, we sort of thought truth was stranger than fiction. We interviewed everyone, from regulars at Ground Kontrol to video game designers to arcade owners to journalists that had grown up in the Portland area.”

With two episodes remaining—episode five, “The Seller,” aired on November 10—the story reveals the real people behind the assortment of conspiracy theories sustained throughout the years by keyboard activity and online forums. Healthy skepticism about whether or not the game ever existed abounds, but is that even the point?  

“What’s really interesting about Polybius is not only the legend, but also these strange characters and stories that orbit the legend,” says Frechette.

Take, for instance, Bobby Feldstein, who claims he was abducted one afternoon when he was 14 after playing the game at Coin Kingdom and experiencing mind-altering side effects. In the podcast’s first episode, Feldstein tells producers he was led through a series of underground tunnels, akin to the tunnels of Portland’s Shanghai lore, and was found the next day more than 60 miles from his house in the middle of the Tillamook State Forest. Feldstein claims there was another boy with him, one who rescued him.

Feldstein gives for-profit Polybius walking tours around Portland that attempt to authenticate his experience by returning to the former basement of Coin Kingdom. He claims the ordeal of the abduction ruined his life, telling the podcast audience: “Doing the tour is a way to exorcise my demons on a daily basis.”

Feldstein’s account isn’t the only example of Polybius’s lifelong effect.

Ernest Cline recalls hearing about Polybius as a whisper across the arcade game floor as a teenage gamer in central Ohio. Today, Cline is the author and screenwriter of the video game dystopian bestsellers, Ready Player One and Armada. (Both works have been opted for big-time Hollywood production, with the former receiving the Steven Spielberg treatment, due for release in this spring.) In an interview in episode with Frechette and Luoto, Cline cites Polybius as an influence on his work.

But it is Joe Streckert’s story of hearing about Polybius for the first time that reflects the experiences of many who keep the legend alive and well.

“In the early 2000s, I just sort of became aware like a lot of people who were dwelling on the Internet that there was a killer video game from Portland,” Streckert, who gives lectures in Portland about video game culture and history, tells listeners. 

The conspiracy, as the podcast uncovers, stems from a single post online. Exposure from the mecca of video game chat rooms, CoinUp.org, in the early 2000s cemented its place in pop culture. As the producers continued their research and interviews, they found a theme: there were as many different versions of the legend as there were people telling it. 

“This is sort of the nature of the world that we’re living in, this idea that consensus reality is being eroded,” Frechette says. “Everybody has a version of reality that they’ve embraced and it’s often reinforced through their online interactions.” He adds that the podcast won't give those eager for definitive truth a final answer on Polybius. “There are people who have stories, whether you choose to believe them or not.”

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