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Inside a Computer System
"What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
Morpheus, The Matrix

This is a relatively new branch of Science Fiction, it deals with the aspects of people being either partially or completely attached to, and part of a computer system. Virtual Reality taken to the next step, or perhaps, Virtual Reality as reality.

Being partially attached means that you "jack in" or otherwise connect, and you then experience whatever the computer system shows you, typically providing audio and visual quality at the maximum of human perception. It might go further and give you taste, touch, smell and more, or as Dennis Miller once put it, "You know, folks, the day an unemployed ironworker can lie in his Barca Lounger with a Foster's in one hand and a channel flicker in the other and fuck supermodel Claudia Schiffer for $19.95, it's gonna make crack look like Sankanote ." (More than one sci-fi story has this happen: Humanity dies out because everyone is so busy having hot virtual sex that there's no-one left to make any actual babies.)

If you're completely attached, either your consciousness has been transferred into the system and you don't have a "real body" outside of the system, or you are "stuck in a pod" and are connected to it. You may or may not know you're within a computer system.

While there is some overlap between the two concepts, this differs from Cyberspace in that when you're Inside a Computer System, it may be completely self-contained and have no connection to the outside world. You might also be alone in there. Cyberspace implies a connection between the computer system to the real world, and has multiple people connected to it. The Matrix fits both definitions.

To make things easier on the audience (not to mention, where relevant, special effects budgets) the computer environment is generally depicted as being very similar to the physical world; i.e. people still look like people, they still have a "body" and a "location" and they obey most of the laws of "physics", etc. These rules are almost always tampered with (e.g. defying gravity in The Matrix), but the fundamentals are mostly the same (e.g. Matrix-people have only 4 limbs).

The real Deep-Immersion Gaming. If the user thinks it's real, it becomes a Lotus-Eater Machine. See also Win to Exit, when the characters enter a video game, and must compete to get out of it.


Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Serial Experiments Lain has this as the central theme of the story. Notably, it treats Inside a Computer System as a mystical experience, without any technological peripherals connecting people to the virtual reality; the only "scientific" explanation given to the out of body experiences is the Earth's electromagnetic Schumann Resonance, which in the story can link human brains and computer equipment together without anyone noticing.
  • In Silent Mobius, this is Lebia Maverick's main shtick.
  • Season 3 of Yu-Gi-Oh!
  • Ghost in the Shell has a lot of virtual chatrooms and hacking, though in the latter case most people just use a simple glyph as their avatar.
  • Everyone in .hack// is inside a MMORPG, except in .hack//Liminality, which is all about what's going on on the outside.
  • Dennou Coil has the real and virtual world coexisting.
  • The second season of Superbook had the pet dog one of the first season's regulars getting trapped in a computer after a freak accident caused it to merge with the Superbook (the Bible, only with a magic ability to transport people into the stories). The new hero of the season then had to travel into the computer to get her back.
  • Chisame of Mahou Sensei Negima!, being a Playful Hacker, gains an Artifact that lets her do this.
  • Corrector Yui.
  • Like .hack//, everyone in Mythic Quest is in the MMORPG Mythic Quest.
  • Digimon. Also an example of Cyberspace.
  • The entire premise behind Sword Art Online, in which characters immerse their consciousness completely within a virtual reality.
  • It's revealed that the world of Amatsuki is in fact a computer simulation of the past instead of the real thing, and that Toki and Kon are still somewhere in our world experiencing virtual reality. How they got there is another matter entirely...

    Comics 

    Fan Fiction 
  • Friendship Is Optimal: The virtual world of Equestria takes place within a giant computer system run by a strong artificial intelligence known as Celest-A.I..

    Films 
  • We did mention The Matrix once or twice, didn't we?
  • Johnny Mnemonic, starring the indomitable Keanu Reeves, had scenes in cyberspace, but the movie mostly took place in meatspace.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Total Recall (1990) is trying to determine if what is happening to him is real, or if it is memories that have been implanted in his brain because he's on a console.
  • Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky may be simply be having a series of really bad experiences, or he's stored in a computer system and is living a fantasy existence.
  • Natalie Wood's last film, Brainstorm, worked with equipment that could do the whole virtual reality thing over a telephone line. Not DSL, either; a simple modem that hooked up to someone's phone, or could be acoustically coupled and transferred over a pay phone.
  • The movie E Xisten Z had a virtual reality gaming system that people entered, and in some cases you couldn't tell whether they were in a game or in reality. This movie came out about the same time as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor.
  • In Freejack, the "soul" of the character played by Anthony Hopkins is stored in a computer because his body has died, and needs a replacement body to be transferred into within 24 hours or his soul will also die.
  • TRON (and its sequel TRON: Legacy) are variations on this. The protagonists physically enter a computer network when their bodies are reduced to component information by a teleportation device (actually a laser, but the same principle is involved).
  • The Thirteenth Floor revolved around a city in a computer system owned by the protagonist's company - which in turn was in a city within a computer system. And possibly inside at least one more computer system - if you notice, every one of the three worlds you see has different subtle colorizations to them like that pointed out for the 1920s sim, and the movie ends on a CRT-shutdown animation...
  • Strange Days features video recordings that provide direct sensory stimulus when played back, like virtual reality home videos.
  • In Virtuosity, Denzel Washington is a cop, convicted of manslaughter, who gets time off from his sentence to fight Sid, an entity inside a computer who is an amalgam of the personality of dozens of serial killers and mass murderers. When Sid ends up getting himself released into the real world, Washington has to be let out of prison to stop him before Sid kills lots more people than his initial bloodbath takes out.
  • The main premise of the Detective Conan Non-Serial Movie Phantom of Baker Street involves Cocoon, a virtual reality gaming system that puts injects the senses of the players by neural stimulation when sat inside the pods. And then, the boss of the software company murders the chief engineer of the project on the day of testing; the said engineering spread an AI that hacked into the gaming system, which in turn caused Holodeck Malfunction...
  • Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a world of video games.
  • Old Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective; The main characters get sucked into a computer system in an internet cafe. Naturally three of them have Lotus-Eater Machine moments.
    • A smaller example in Old Master Q: Shan T (an ET-ploitation Film), OMQ gets sucked into not-Pac-Man and gets beat up by the ghosts. He gets out of the machine and beats the living hell out of the cabinet.

    Literature 
  • Cyberspace, or the Matrix, in the Sprawl Trilogy of William Gibson popularized this trope.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
    • One of the books featured a description of an alien computer terminal which worked in this way. However, one could exit at any time, and reality and virtual reality were quite distinct.
    • This trope is central to the original book's premise: The Earth itself is a very elaborate computer created to discover the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything (the answer has already been found: 42). The behavior of the beings on the planet are a goodly part of the computations.
  • The Otherland series by Tad Williams is about a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who break into a virtual reality network (in a time where VR is commonplace) and become trapped there, unable to go offline. Furthermore, they can apparently be killed there too. One of the mysteries they must solve is why this is the case.
  • G.A. Effinger's book When Gravity Fails has a system where people meet in a Virtual Reality system, and can even have sex while in the system, and it's indistinguishable from the real thing. In one case, eight people lie down on the Virtual Reality couches, and only seven get up; one of the visitors figured a way to kill one of the others by causing their "soul" not to go back into the body, but to stay and effectively be purged when the machine was shut down.
  • In the Matter of: Instrument of God is about the Afterlife, set up inside a massive computer system, where the occupants are aware both that they are dead and that they are within a computer system.
  • Vivian Van Velde's novel Heir Apparent rests completely on this idea. Gianine gets trapped in a virtual reality fantasy game when it's damaged, and has to win the game to escape.
  • Piers Anthony's ''Killobyte'' involves a paralyzed cop and a diabetic player who are both trapped in a virtual reality game by a hacker and in danger of dying in reality.
  • The majority of the storyline of Realtime Interrupt by James Hogan is Inside a Computer System. The apparent strangeness of reality the character experiences is explained to him as mental illness.
  • Greg Egan:
    • Permutation City is a remarkably hard scifi look at this trope, with some strange philosophical added in.
    • Diaspora features a relatively in-depth look at the Polises, underground supercomputers simulating posthuman intelligences several times faster than real time.
    • Schild's Ladder has entire societies that live inside computers, even ones simulating extra physical dimensions, or non-euclidean space.
    • The short story Crystal Nights is about creating AIs that live inside a simulated universe.
  • The subject of any number of philosophical papers from the classic "Brain in a Jar" introduction to epistemology, to Robert Nozick's Experience Machine, which raises the question of whether or not it would be ethical to plug into one.
  • Three of Jack Chalker 's better novels (the Wonderland Gambit trilogy) feature people who have been inside the machine so long they've created thousands of alternate universes — all of which keep running after they're gone.
  • The Takeshi Kovacs series features this trope put toward particularly gruesome ends. Torture victims could be implanted into a computer world, where they would be tortured for hours of subjective time every minute, for as long as the computer stays running. In theory, a person's consciousness could experience millennia of agony without the mercy of death.
  • Timothy Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy: The Copperhead fighter pilots have implants that allow them to jack into their fightercrafts: the pilots become the craft. They have expanded fields of vision, data from the ship's status comes in as taste, smell and touch. It is an extremely addictive feeling, leading to some pilots remaining jacked in between missions. Recently the Commonwealth military had set up better screening processes to avoid this. Reception to these new tests is varied.
  • Most of the events in Sergey Lukyanenko's Labyrinth Of Reflections trilogy take place in a virtual city called Deeptown, made possible due to a psychosis-inducing video that is played every time someone logs on. A full body suit is necessary for an immersive experience, although the first case of perceiving a virtual world as reality occurred with a guy playing Doom afted watching the video. A special group of people are able to exit the "deep" at will. These so-called "Divers" can also see security holes and backwoods as... holes and doors. The trilogy also features a "super-Diver" with the ability to see how things really are and affect them (e.g. walking through a solid object after realizing it's only a computer-generated model).
    • In Lukyanenko's Competitors novel, the Seekers believe that all of them (i.e people who have been sent to the Space Station for three years, while their original bodies continue living on Earth) are trapped in a computer simulation. They're eventually disabused of that notion.
  • The Eight Worlds series by John Varley has a few examples:
    • Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (and its infamous film adaptation) has a man whose consciousness is loaded into a computer to keep him alive after his body is misplaced.
    • Steel Beach has the protagonist spend several virtual years (and very little actual time) inside a therapeutic computer simulation.
  • Vernor Vinge's novella True Names, with its video game called "The Other Plane" and the specialized interface devices known as "Portals", is one of the earliest works to try to make a truly plausible, realistic version of this trope, and in doing so, introduced many of the concepts that would become common in Cyberpunk a few years later.
  • Daniel Galouye, "Simulacron 3"/"The 13th Floor"/"Counterfeit World" (all the same book), 1965, thus Older Than the NES. Adapted for film twice.
  • The Quantum Thief-trilogy features three distinct kinds of virtual realities in its Transhuman future: Spimescape, that is highly abstract representation of computer systems and networks themselves where gogols (uploaded minds and AIs mostly live, tending their tasks, Sobornost virs that are either highly accurate replicas of real places and events, sometimes all the way down to the quantum level, or representations of abstract concepts, and finally the Zoku Realms that tend to tell a story or fulfill a fantasy and are only limited by the vast imagination of their creators. The Realms also have a special quality of altering their participants to suit the story, often stripping their Transhuman capabilities temporarily in the process.
  • In Doom: Endgame, Fly and Arlene have their souls stuffed into a Newbie computer system and are forced to relive the events of the Phobos/Deimos invasion.
  • Terry Pratchett wrote "#IFDEFDEBUG + ‘WORLD/ ENOUGH’ + ‘TIME’", a short story in which everyone has become virtual-reality dwellers, or "afers" as the story calls them.

    Live Action TV 
  • Caprica has the holo-bands, your own personal Matrix. Portrayed somewhat realistically as a new user, who just got his own avatar, doesn't know how to move without moving his physical legs. Also, he spawns in a drab concrete room with a single door, along with his guide, who apologizes for the lack of décor.
  • A notably early example was in the 1976 Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, where the Doctor travels into a surreal virtual world inside a computer matrix.
    • In NuWho, the Doctor saves River and her archeology team by uploading them to a planet-sized computer.
  • The Stargate SG-1 episode "The Gamekeeper" featured a planet whose inhabitants deliberately plugged themselves into virtual reality pods after the planet was devastated. By the time SG-1 found it, it got better. The planet had definitely recovered into a near-paradise. Too bad that the "Gamekeeper" didn't bother to tell the inhabitants of the planet. Fortunately, SG-1 was there to save the day... again.
  • Stargate Atlantis also did this a few times. In one episode, McKay has to get Sheppard out of a VR where he's imprisoned. Later they use a VR system to dive into each others' minds., and there's also a VR pod that a friendly replicator girl gets plugged into to keep her on ice, while giving her the impression of living a normal life.
  • In Vr5, Syd can draw the subconscious mind of anyone she calls on a telephone into virtual reality. As in Brainstorm, this involves an acoustic modem. Which was already about ten years out of date when the show aired. Viewers actually watched the whole series eventually discovered that the much-maligned "acoustic modem" was not off-the-shelf technology, but Applied Phlebotinum from a buried Secret Project.
  • J-drama Sh15uya centres on a group of fifteen-year-olds trapped in a virtual replica of Shibuya.
  • Red Dwarf had a slew of games and realities of this type, generally known as Total Immersion Gaming. The sims ranged from Better Than Life, a free-form fantasy enabler; to Streets of Laredo, a wild-west game that allowed players to play as one of three cowboys with their own unique skills; to Jane Austen World, which is exactly what it sounds like.
  • Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad.
  • The Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Thaw".
  • The premise of the Bonus Round on Nick Arcade.

    Music 
  • The song "Mastermind" on the Heaven's Gate album Menergy has the title character monitoring our life which is actually inside a computer.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Shadowrun, any character equipped with a data-jack and a cyberdeck can enter the Matrix, a network that connects just about every computer system in the Seattle area. Deckers specialize in this sort of thing. Some do it to mine data and sell it to the highest bidder, while others use it to shut down corporate security systems. The Otaku were able to access it without any sort of gear, but their powers faded when they reached adulthood; following the Second Crash, the Fading stopped, and those with the power rechristened themselves technomancers. Also the Matrix became wireless.
  • In Eclipse Phase there are massive virtual habitats inhabited by infomorphs, who make up a significant part of the post-Fall population. Those with bodies (biological or synthetic) can access a variety of virches but most prefer Augmented Reality.

    Theatre 
  • Possible Worlds by John Mighton has two detectives investigating the theft of a human brain. At one point they go to a scientist who studies brains, and one takes a machine hooked up to a rat brain with him. He muses what it would be like to be like the rat brain and believe things are real although they are really just electrical pulses. His partner tells him not to be ridiculous. Also, In the end, the detectives find that the scientist with the rat brain had stolen the human one and all the scenes that had "happened" to the dead man were just dreams he was having after the scientist hooked up some machine to his brain. Fascinating play, but bloody confusing.

    Video Games 
  • The video game A Mind Forever Voyaging has you as a computer AI, with the real world around you simulated, and now you've been let in on the gag. Believe it or not, it was released in 1985.
  • In Fallout 3:
    • The people of Tranquility Lane are all in pods hooked up into the main computer a la The Matrix.
    • In the add on Operation: Anchorage The player character can enter a military training simulation, it is obviously not real from the players perceptive but the computer generated characters see it as totally real. McGraw also mentions that the sim had it's safety protocols turned off, meaning that getting killed in the sim results in your character going into cardiac arrest in the "real" world.
  • Star Ocean Till The End Of Time All of the Player Characters were actually NPCs in an mmorpg.
  • The Mega Man Battle Network series integrates this into gameplay. The player controls Mega Man's human counterpart who can "Jack In" Megaman into various computer systems to solve various puzzles and progress through the plot.
  • Kingdom Hearts II gives us Space Paranoids, the TRON level. That's without mentioning the virtual Twilight Town DiZ and Riku trap Roxas in, which Sora and the gang later visit. Weirdly, you have to be go through the latter to unlock the final dungeon - the heroes enter a portal in the virtual mansion's basement, pass through "Betwixt & Between" and end up at the Organization's home, apparently flesh and blood again.
  • On Pokémon, you store the titular monsters inside one. And items inside another. The anime is more sensible; Ash just teleports his mons to Professor Oak.
    • Not only this but there's also Porygon that is implied to travel freely into the cyberspace.
  • This trope is heavily at work in Galerians Ash, with the main villain being a computer program who has built his own virtual reality so that he can experience life as humans do.
  • In Mass Effect 3, a side mission has Shepard upload his/her mind to a geth server on Rannoch in order to disable a fighter squadron attacking the quarian fleet. The TRON-like computer world is a case of A Form You Are Comfortable With created by your geth helper, as the geth are pure software.
    • The latter trope gets lampshaded when Shepard asks when memories of quarians from pre-exodus days feature them in full-body encounter suits. Legion replies that Shepard's own mind is filling in missing pieces. Since Shepard has never seen a quarian sans suit, they can't imagine them without one.
  • TRON 2.0, naturally, takes place almost entirely inside several computers with protagonist Jet Bradley digitized into them.
  • The Intellivision game Tron: Maze-A-Tron takes place in a world that basically consists of a scrolling computer circuit board — in essence, being literally inside a computer system.
  • In The Bizarre Adventures Of Woodruff And The Schnibble, the Health Wiseman is trapped inside the virtual trip until Woodruff frees him.
  • Immercenary, a First-Person Shooter for the 3DO, is set inside a virtual reality network.
  • Transistor is set in a city where everything seems to be a digital existence, though it's vague as to whether it's inside a computer or in a city so cyberized it's like being inside a computer.

    Web Comics 
  • The Noob is set in the VR of the "Clichequest" MMORPG. (Mostly, at least.)
  • Used for a shameless Matrix parody during the Sluggy Freelance mini-arc "The Quatrix".
  • Near the end of Narbonic Helen goes into the AI computer that Dave has taken over, in order to try to rescue him.
  • Guilded Age takes place inside a computer game created by sorcery. The Big Bad is actually a company exec/programmer trying to "crash" the game so he can rescue five Deep Immersion Gamers trapped inside. Trouble is, it's strongly implied that the gameworld has its own, real existence, and that the Five have actually become their characters.

    Web Original 
  • Merry, in the Whateley Universe, is a cyberpath who can interface with computer networks simply by being within a few feet of a powerful CPU hooked to the network. When she does this, she's "in" the computer network. She meets a Whateley Academy kid who can do almost as much as she can, but who prefers the TRON visuals for his version of cyberspace.
  • Darwin's Soldiers story Schrodinger's Prisoners takes place primarily in one of these.
  • AIs are important in the Chaos Timeline, so expect this.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • René Descartes actually grappled with a very similar idea in his Meditations On First Philosophy, first published in 1641. Descartes proposes the idea that there could be an evil genius or other outside influence keeping him trapped and exposing him to false experiences (a real, full simulated world). This shortly follows his own proof of his own existence (the famous Cogito Ergo Sum he is more well known for) and is ultimately resolved, then he goes on to prove that God exists and otherwise codifies his own philosophy and weltanschauung.
  • A common idea is that Real Life is in fact a computer simulation and that everyone is either a body that's hardwired in, or just sophisticated pieces of software, being run by who-knows-what. Some have even argued that the quantum uncertainty principle (that is, that all particles of matter fundamentally do not have a definite position or velocity, making everything a tiny bit "fuzzy"), might be due to rounding errors in the simulation software. In fact, if the multi-verse theory is true then there are probably many more simulated universes than real ones simply because there would be huge numbers of universes where at least some one has created at least one simulated universe, and if one persons done it once then there would probably be many universes with huge numbers of simulated universes in them (and then some of those might make their own simulated universes). But it all depends on there being a multi-verse really.

    A similar theory goes as follows: Assume the Universe is finite. If the Universe is finite, it can be perfectly recreated in a simulation, given sufficient resources. If we can perfectly simulate the Universe, our simulation will contain individuals who will attempt to perfectly simulate their universe. As their (simulated) Universe is finite, they will be able to do so. This recurses infinitely. Therefore, there are potentially an infinite number of simulated universes, each containing one or more simulated universes, with one (real) Universe at the top of the stack. It is therefore INFINITELY more likely that we exist within a simulated Universe than the real one.
    • An infinite universe can simulate other infinite universes within itself, so long as it confines the simulation to an expanding finite region. Our universe, for example, could be infinite and as long as the portion of it that is simulated expands outward at the speed of light, we would never be able to tell. This can also be used to construct infinite simulations-within-simulations.
    • This idea is the subject of philosopher Nick Bostrom's "simulation hypothesis", described in detail at Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?. To an SF fan, the argument can be quite convincing, considering that the technical premises of the argument are very mild speculations in comparison to the kinds of tech described in SF, even the hard variety.
    • An important note about this concept that is often forgotten: there is no logically meaningful difference from our inside perspective whether the universe is a simulation or the stack-top. For some reason a lot of people seem to find the idea that the universe could suddenly be revealed as "not real" disturbing, when it really makes no difference at all (as long as the programmers don't interfere, anyway). And no, there is absolutely no way we could somehow cost more computation power in our reality by running our own simulated universes.note 
    • OK, if we are a simulation, where are the tropes?
  • One bizarre philosophical twist on this idea is the notion that the Universe is at once a computer, and computer program, that simulates itself.
  • Another one. The Universe is computer and all the mass/energy inside it is the program. Once you boil it all down in the abstract, all matter and energy is just information. Still inside a computer, but it's not a simulation of anything else. So it's still 'real'. Yea...
  • To a certain extent, life right now in the 2000's. Consider how prevalent an Internet-capable device is (iPod, cellphone, etc) used in the modern world and how easy it is to use them. Some programs like Mumble (a VOIP program) even work via Bluetooth and such without requiring a computer persay. Thus it's entirely possible to never be disconnected from the Internet.
  • Marshall Brain, founder of the Web site HowStuffWorks.com, has argued that one day we will likely all live in a simulated environment, probably within the lifetimes of many people reading this page.

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