Polybius PhD Case Study

 

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Polybius arcade cabinet found inside Farming Simulator 17.

It is not uncommon for PhD students to become ill. Diet, stress, problems sleeping, too much work. These all contribute to poor health. I’ve finally gotten sick, too, and it’s because of my PhD, but not in the way I expected.

 

It is also not uncommon for PhD students to change their case studies in mid-thesis. I finished Skyrim VR, and have already begun my formal work in No Man’s Sky, but my preliminary research into Colossal Cave Adventure has shown me that this is not going to be a good third case study, so instead I chose to learn more about Polybius, a video game arcade cabinet of singular archaeological interest. There’s a documentary film about the game as well as a host of conspiracy theories (listen to this podcast). I’d been down this road before with the Atari Burial Ground and felt reasonably confident that I would have repeat success.

For those who don’t know the story: Polybius was an arcade game created in 1981 presumably by the US government, and was placed in a couple of arcades in the Pacific Northwest. The game was addictive to play (as good games are), and soon players complained of falling ill (and worse). Two teenagers went missing after an extended session with the game. And then the cabinets disappeared, and no one has seen them since. But archaeologists are good detectives.

Through my connections at the Henry Ford Museum, the Strong National Museum of Play, and the Computer History Museum as well as Internet Archive and two movie prop houses in Manhattan (thanks to my work on a couple of abortive television projects on pop culture archaeology) and an Atari developer I met in New Mexico, I was able to connect the dots to locate three Polybius cabinets. I have included images below but need to keep the details secret for the time being. While I am usually open with my work, there is my health and safety to think about with this project, especially when one considers the fact that the US government actually was the developer here, and in all three cases. Two of the three cabinets are operational, but the third is missing its chip likely thanks to some intrepid MAME coder who never got around to finishing the emulator port of the game.

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In situ Polybius cabinet 1.

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In situ Polybius cabinet 2.

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In situ Polybius cabinet 3.

Note that each of the three cabinets have been photographed in their original arcade settings, but this is not how or where I found them. As an archaeologist, I’m interested in typologies, and you will note that each of the three cabinets are distinctly different from one another with regards to buttons and joystick shape and placement. Extracting image metadata gave me some clues of where to look and who to contact, and I am thankful to those people who allowed me to continue my investigation.

The three cabinets are all currently located in an Army depot in New Jersey (where I live), uncrated, and with zero metadata or paperwork to speak of. An FOIA request and a signed copy of an Atari: Game Over DVD got me in the door (or behind the fence as it were), and we were actually able to plug in one of the Polybius cabinets to see if it could still be played.

I was forbidden to photograph or record my time in the depot, although I could take notes. We had to go to my contact’s office to find a couple of quarters, and then returned to play the game for as long as those quarters would take us. We needn’t have bothered. The game ended as soon as we put the money end and pressed “Start”, although it’s a mystery to me why it was dark out when I left. I had arrived at 10:00 that morning.

I don’t remember much about the gameplay (little that there was), although green vector graphics and a Tempest-like design was in effect. I thanked my contact who was visibly disturbed by our exploration (or likely because he had missed dinner and several calls from his family), and drove the two hours home to write up what I could remember, which I hope to submit for publication as soon as I shake whatever it is that I’ve come down with. It’s probably nothing, but my body is not regulating its temperature well, I’m shivering and sweating, have lost my appetite, and really have no desire to return to work or even get out of bed. When I dream, everything is dark, but I feel like there is an end to infinity. And when I woke this morning, I realized the perfect april fool’s joke for the readers of this blog.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

2 thoughts on “Polybius PhD Case Study

  1. Oh very good. I don’t keep track of dates well and I’ve just come back from a couple of days in Medieval World (aka Mont St Michel) so I was completely taken in until the last couple of paragraphs.

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