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One or more characters are asked to play a game (or find a game), and are given a short description of the game. The characters agree, either because the game sounds interesting or because "everyone is playing", or just because they fear ridicule. At that point, the worst possible punishment for not playing is being called a coward.
When the game is in full swing, the players realize that there are consequences in Real Life, and that either they or their loved ones are game pieces. The stakes have been drastically raised, and the players will have to fight to get out alive and sane.
This trope is often used to deliver An Aesop about considering the consequences before rushing into something, even if it looks harmless at first, therefore instructing impressionable viewers to become suspicious of everything that looks fun, often for absolutely no reason. And in many cases, the players are indeed tweens and teens, the potential targets for the aesop.
And yes, you just lost the game.
Compare Pleasure Island, and Be Careful What You Wish For for a similar aesop. Please note that this isn't related to Yakov Smirnoff's Soviet Russia jokes. Super-Trope of The Most Dangerous Video Game.
Not to be confused with Playing the Player.
Anime and Manga
- Bakugan: The seemingly harmless cards which fall from the sky turn out to contain incredible power from another world.
- In Bokurano, the children explore a cave and find Kokopelli, who says he's developing a Super Robot game and asks the children to sign up. As they do, they are transported back to the beach, and later find the robot they have to pilot. Only when a rival robot appears, they learn the fight is real - and it takes them even longer to realize that they're fighting for their world's survival and will die doing so.
- The games in Yu-Gi-Oh!! are like this. In this case, the villains are tricked into playing the games, and punished for losing or cheating.
- Bus Gamer, a manga by Kazuya Minekura, involves three guys playing a simple game of 'Grab the Floppy Disc from the Other Team', with a little bit of interesting snippets of backstory thrown in for good measure. Then one day they notice that one of the guys that lost against them has been found in a river, dead. Then a member of a losing team dies right before their eyes in a pretty painful way and they realise they're in too deep. It gets worse.
- In Serial Experiments Lain, the blurring of the border between the real world and the Wired causes an online FPS game to leak into the real world, cross over with a bunch of kids who were just playing tag, and cause some players to kill themselves or the kids.
- Doubt starts when a group of teenagers in Japan meet to play a game of "Rabbit Doubt", a game where people play as "rabbits" and must find a wolf hiding among them before they are eaten, like the Western game Mafia. It doesn't take long for a game to start with real people involved who have to find the "wolf" to survive.
- In The Game, disillusioned businessman Nicholas van Orten gets a gift certificate for a potentially dangerous game from his brother, and signs up.
- In War Games, the Playful Hacker David hacks into a supercomputer and finds games offered there, among them "Global Thermonuclear War". His actions cause images of Soviet missiles to show up in the real defense computers. While the military doesn't retaliate because they found out it's not real, the supercomputer tries to restart the game - with real missiles.
- In Brainscan a teenager obtains the eponymous virtual reality game where he must commit a murder. Not only do the murders turn out to be real, as the game zombified the player and made him a homicidal sleepwalker, but it also lets out an evil punk Trickster into the real world who forces the boy to continue "playing".
- Stay Alive has a video game of the same name being beta-tested by a bunch of players. And then they start to die for real: "You die in the game, you die in real life!"
- The film Open Graves had a similar concept to the above, but with a board game. Anyone who picked up an "Open Graves" card would die in real life exactly as the card described. The person left alive at the end would get a wish. (Which he used to turn back time and undo all the deaths. Too bad his wish wasn't specific enough. He never said anything about wanting to remember the events that had occured, so the whole thing ended up being a Groundhog Day Loop.)
- The Wild Hunt is all about people trying to make up for inadequacies in their real life by playing a live-action roleplaying game. When real life intrudes into the game, however, there are tragic consequences.
- In Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg, two children find a game board someone abandoned in a park. When they play it, it conjures up animals and causes other distortions to reality. Unlike most examples of this trope, it is possible to stop playing the game of Jumanji, but finishing the game is the only way to make its changes to reality disappear. Adapted into a live-action film and an animated series.
- In Interstellar Pig by William Sleator, a boy is drawn into playing a Cosmic Encounter-like board game with three mysterious strangers. They turn out to be aliens, and the MacGuffin of the game actually appears.
- A gentler use of this trope appears in Monica Hughes' Invitation to the Game: the titular "Game" which the protagonists play seems at first to be just exploring an uninhabited virtual world, but eventually they learn that they've been sent to another planet for real. However, considering that Earth's kind of overpopulated and humans are unnecessary there because robots do anything, this is an improvement.
- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is an example, although in that case the protagonist only realizes this after the game is over.
- L. J. Smith, the writer of The Vampire Diaries, also wrote a trilogy called The Forbidden Game where a being from Another Dimension haunts a young woman after catching a glimpse of her when she is a child. When she is grown, he effortlessly tricks her and her friends into playing a board game. The situation becomes a classic example of this trope.
- The Most Dangerous Game, a novelette by Richard Connell. Let's just say that the title has a double meaning, and you're the game.
- The Game of Sunken Places by M. T. Anderson offers another board game version of this trope.
- Inverted with the Ketrans in K.A. Applegate's The Ellimist Chronicles". Ketrans spend most of their free time playing strategy games that involved pitting civilizations against each other. When another race received transmissions of the game, they took the games seriously and thought the Ketrans violently interfered in the lives of other species. This miscommunication cost most of the Ketrans their lives.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Move Along Home", Quark gets into a game, then discovers that his "pieces" are the senior officers. But even though Quark lost pieces, the officers got out unharmed in the end - after all, "It's only a game."
- This was what an episode of Stargate SG-1 was about. Teal'c was asked to test a virtual reality training program simulating a Kull Warrior invasion of the SGC. When he didn't find it challenging enough, the game was tweaked to learn from him... and it gradually raised the difficulty level until it made winning impossible by continually adding new objectives, having lots of Kull Warriors immune to the Kull Disruptor, the base self-destruct triggered and several SGC personnel infested by Goa'uld. The catch? Every time he got wounded in the simulation, he got a nice electrical jolt; however, he died so many times that when he got jolted again and again and again, his real body briefly entered cardiac arrest. At one point, the program even disabled the failsafe exit that let him to quit any time on the grounds that if it would be a real fight, Teal'c wouldn't quit for anything; he just gave up and sat until Daniel entered the game and helped him win.
- A similar scenario happened in Stargate Atlantis. Sheppard and McKay were playing what they thought to be an Ancient strategy game similar to Civilization but it turned out to be a social experiment with an actual planet. They only realized it when they went to the planet and one of the sides had Rodney's face on their flag. However, the two sides were at the stake of war so the guys used fake "game" data and precision bombardment from the Daedalus to simulate an actual one. This convinced the factions that they should make peace. Weir ordered the game room sealed and depowered after Lorne and Zelenka nearly did the same with another planet.
- This the premise of the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode "The Tale Of The Forever Game."
- In one episode of Tower Prep, Archer plays a game that at first appeared to be a simple maze, but for every life lost, painful consequences were brought upon his friends.
- In The World Ends With You Neku agrees to the game but does not fully understand it. Then he learns that the whole game is a way to get Back From The Dead.
- Silent Hill: Shattered Memories begins with a "psychology warning" that the game will respond to the player's actions, creating a personal nightmare. It concludes with the phrase, "This game players you as much as you play it."
- It isnt' a great example, some details it changes are nonsense, but if you answer the profile honestly, the monsters do become creepier to you than other designes.
- The original .hack// Quadirillogy used this as well, although more as a plot point and less as an aesop. Early on in the game, you're a newbie player to an online game, going through a dungeon with your level 50 something pal as he teaches you how to play the game. Then Skeith appears, Data Drains your friend, and suddenly, he's in a coma. This kicks off the plot of finding out what happened to him, how to bring him back, and to learn more about The World.
- Homestuck's Sburb is a clear example of this; apparently "immersive simulation" means the game equipment and creatures appearing in your house. And transporting your house to another dimension where you go an an epic adventure. And destroying your home planet.
- But if you win, you'll get to make your own universe and be a god there! And don't worry about your home planet, it will be repopulated by exiled NPCs from your game.
- It turns out the players of the game are actually game constructs as well, thanks to the game's reliance on Stable Time Loops. It's been playing you since before you were born!
- And the sole reason your Universe even exists in the first place is that some players made it in the past. The game is playing you so hard and there's nothing you can do about it.
- A lot of stories on Fictionmania feature boardgames/cardgame/chess/etc. that transform their players. Some person will usualy invoke the trope of 'the changes will be undone after we win the game' like in a lot of fiction. It (almost) never happens. (In one case, they were changed back, but the main character was transformed permanently by something else)
In Soviet Russia, game just lost YOU!