Where do gaming’s urban legends come from?

This week, one of our culture’s biggest mysteries was finally solved. There’s more where that came from

I’m playing a lot of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 at the moment. Right now, with so much misery and uncertainty in the world, there’s something almost meditative about returning to arenas I traversed decades ago. Something comforting about hearing my board grind on railings and rattle across wooden platforms. And, during these long, aimless days, there’s some focus to be had, trying to unlock Skate Heaven.

And yet it’s not trying to nail my execution of the 360 Varial McTwist that’s occupied the majority of my time spent within Activision’s superb 2020 remaster. Instead, I’ve been drawn once more to one of the game’s most infamous and enduring mysteries and secrets. The Tony Hawk games are infamously laden with them– from grainy, hidden images of unidentified women to an assortment of goat easter eggs – but the one that’s been occupying my mind presently is the long-held belief that video footage of a UFO – an actual UFO – exists within a segment of the game.

Spookily, one of gaming’s most infamous urban legends was solved just this past week. For the last 10 years, Minecraft players have been searching for a creepy NPC known as Herobrine – blank, white eyes, fond of digging holes and tearing up trees – ever since a streamer called Copeland claimed to have seen it in game. Rumour had it that the NPC was a tribute to game creator Markus Persson’s late brother. Inconveniently, Notch never had a brother. Ultimately, Copeland admitted he had made up the character – the weirdo – but alas, the seed had been planted. And after a decade, Copeland’s creation was found and we can finally visit the creature ourselves.

Herobrine. Image Credit: Minecraft
Herobrine. Image Credit: Minecraft

Hundreds, if not thousands of urban legends exist within the gaming landscape. Some are plain ridiculous, like the belief that the Lavender Town section of 1996’s Pokémon Red and Blue was responsible for hundreds of children taking their own lives. This legend was born in 2010, after an anonymous creepypasta story claiming so went viral. You might be forgiven for thinking, “maybe there’s something in it”. After all, the segment of the game is set in a Pokémon graveyard, while the music – said to contain frequencies of mind control, at a pitch beyond that which adults can hear – is some of the creepiest chiptune that the Game Boy has ever spewed forth. That is until you access logic and reason and accept that Nintendo really has no desire to kill the people who play its games.

And yet, some of gaming’s urban legends do appear to have emerged from a kernel of truth. There’s one surrounding EA’s ridiculously successful Madden series, where if a player appears on the cover then a real-world curse will soon befall them. Serious injuries to NFL pros and former cover stars such as Garrison Hearst and Rob Gronkowski, as well as the abnormally strange career decline of Daunte Culpepper, add weight to what is otherwise a fairly ridiculous theory.

Madden NFL 21
Madden NFL 21. Credit: Electronic Arts (EA)

Then there’s the case of Polybius, a supposedly real old-school arcade game that the gaming community has struggled to determine the origins of for almost 40 years. It’s said the game was actually a front for either the CIA or the FBI – a coordinated effort to “programme” the minds of teenagers – which, once again, sounds like a fairly ridiculous theory. Until you learn that the FBI, aware of seedy ’80s American arcades being fertile soil for serious crime, had covertly bugged the cabinets of classic games like Tempest, Scramble and Galaxian.

We all know that we live in a troubling age of fake news and conspiracy – and you only need half an hour on Twitter or Facebook to confirm it. There may well be a psychological reason for this: a 2017 report published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests an interest in fringe beliefs, as well as superstition, may well be caused by ostracization. The more lonely we feel? The more our beliefs are irrational. And since so many of us have been at home, alone, cooped up playing video games for the good part of the last year, don’t be surprised if we’re about to enter an amplified age of the video game urban legend.

And what of the UFO in Pro Skater? Well, it transpires that what is seen in the footage – which is of a tiny Hawk performing tricks on a ramp in 1986, whereupon what looks like a flying saucer suddenly looms up behind him – is actually a funfair ride. This fact was confirmed by series producer Ralph D’Amato during an interview with YouTuber Oddheader late last year after he checked in with Hawk himself.

Damn. I want to believe – isn’t the truth awfully inconvenient?

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