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And You Thought It Was a Game

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A character approaches a situation under the impression that they're dealing with a prank, a con, or a staged event. Unfortunately for them, it's all quite real. When they eventually find out, expect mighty embarrassment or even Fainting if the situation was dangerous enough. Sometimes this is a Magic Feather, and it's revealed that the character is far more competent than they realize.

Not always played for laughs, if the character realizes the reality of the situation before he succeeds (and especially if their oblivious actions have made things worse in the meantime).


In comedies, discovering that the situation is real often turns the poor shmuck Medium Aware.

This trope is a subtrope of Wrong Assumption. Sometimes goes hand in hand with Engineered Heroics. May occur after repeated instances of Crying Wolf have desensitised a character to the warning signs. Compare Real After All, Mistaken for an Imposter and All Part of the Show. Contrast The Game Never Stopped and You Just Ruined the Shot, where the character thinks events are real, but they aren't. Kansas City Shuffle comes into play when the character sees a con, tries to beat the con, and ends up taken for a ride by a second con (the real one). See also Mistaken for Badass, Not a Game. Inverse of And You Thought It Was Real.

As many of these examples are plot twists, beware of spoilers ahead.



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    Anime and Manga  

  • Darwin's Game: Sudo Kaname accepts his friend's request for help in the eponymous Darwin's Game through his phone. He assumes that it's just another phone-battle game, which are very popular in Japan. Of course, the reader knows that his friend was killed, the game is literally one of life and death, and there are others coming to kill him.
  • The main character of Dokkoida?!?! agrees to put on the costume and fight supervillains because the costume contains a special component which boosts his fighting ability, all while playing dramatic music... except that the end of the first episode reveals that the suit manufacturer forgot to put that specific component in, leaving only the music. The other characters don't bother to mention this fact to him until the last episode. Suzuo also put on the suit because he didn't take the claims about fighting supervillains seriously, since the suits makers were a toy company. He realizes too late that toy companies can make weapons too.
  • Digimon Adventure 02: Ken Ichijoji has no problem with enslaving, torturing and killing Digimon because he thinks he's just playing a virtual MMORPG. When he is finally proven wrong with Wormmon's death he suffers a BSOD, triggering his eventual Heel–Face Turn.
    • Previously, riding on the confidence he stems from Koushiro's discovery that the Digital World is, well, a digital world, Taichi believes that he's virtually invincible and if things go awry he'll respawn in the real world. He passes through an illusion of a gate of electricity believing that he won't die from it, but when he later has this trope revealed to him by Koushiro he hesitates in going through it again, resulting in Sora being kidnapped. He still hesitates to go through again on the subsequent rescue mission.
    • Digimon Fusion: Yuu Amano was lured into the Digital World by the promise of being able to play with real friends without the possibility of permanently hurting or killing them. That turned into him leading the forces of the Bagra Army in the war, believing no-one's actually dying. Near the endgame, because of this he even has no problem with the notion of killing his own sister Nene, one of the generals of the opposition; he even sees ending her as part of the game. When Taiki explains that it's actually not the case, he flips out; Tuwarmon recognises that it's important for the Bagra Army that Yuu continue to believe that it's all a game, and afterwards makes a point of reassuring him.
  • In Akagi, the insanely talented title character agrees to play Mahjong against Yakuza rep player Urabe only if his mild-mannered coworker Osamu plays first. As it turns out, Osamu is actually quite good and holds his own against the professional... until he hears that the game is being played for a wager of 32 million yen between two rival Yakuza groups. His emotions overwhelm his ability to play, and Akagi has to step in and save him.
  • Byakuran from Reborn! (2004) thought the whole world was just a computer program. Or it was just a metaphor. We will never know.
  • The protagonists in Bokurano are told they're going to pilot giant robots as part of a game. This is a massive, massive lie.
  • Played straight by the Beelzebub delinquents through the entire premise of the FPS/online video gaming chapters. Furuichi and Lamia convince the Ishiyama gang to join in the search for Lord En by challenging him at online games. They agree to skip school and look for him - all under the impression that Lord En and his retainers are from a rival school that simply want to to beat the crap out of the Ishiyama students. Little do the thugs know that, while playing with En and his maids non-stop for three straight days, Behemoth's 34th Pillar Squads are assembling to annihilate humanity in Lord En's name.
  • In volume 13 of Goblin Slayer, the guild arranges a dungeon exploration contest in a practice-dungeon for prospective new adventurers to try out their skills. During Scrawny Girl's run, she winds up getting attacked by a real goblin (rather than the puppets the guild set up) and going down the secret passage it came from. After finally finding her, Goblin Slayer doesn't have the heart to tell her that all the monsters she took down were very real and not just part of the test.
  • In Gundam Build Divers Re:RISE, team BUILD DiVERS are brought into what appears to be a new campaign mode within GBN, liberating a race of human-like animals from fearsome machines. However, as they push through the mission, things don't line up, ultimately leading to the team failing to stop a Kill Sat from obliterating an island where the Resistance was set up at and the team never gets a signal that they lost. They soon discover that the land of Eldora is actually an extraterrestrial planet that had somehow managed to connect with GBNnote , and all this time they had been fighting real battles in real bodies and Mobile Suits constructed on the world. This one breaks Kazami as he treated this as a game from the get-go.
  • The biggest issue of the Sword, Spear and Bow Heroes in The Rising of the Shield Hero is the fact that they refuse to acknowledge the world they're in is not like the videogames they're familiar with. This results in them not caring about the consequences of their actions and causing more harm than good along the way, often having the titular Shield Hero having to pick up the slack and clean up their messes.
  • In Sailor Moon, the first hint that Ami is Sailor Mercury is when she tops the score at the Sailor V Game arcade machine, that was created specifically to train the Sailor Senshi. The manga also has a later example, again with the Sailor V Game: as she plays it, Usagi openly wonders why the character is using the Moon Stick, only realizing she was being trained in its use when Luna starts using the machine other functions to analyse objects and, later, the real Sailor V hacks the game to communicate.

    Comic Books 
  • One of the DC Comics science fiction comics once had a one-shot story about a man stuck in his humdrum life who finds three discs. Each one, when activated, whisks him away into what he thinks is a particularly vivid daydream where he gets to play the role of the hero, and vanishes when the 'daydream' ends. The final 'daydream' takes him to his hometown where he thwarts a gang of bank robbers. When he returns home, he finds himself being hailed as a hero and he realizes that all of the 'daydreams' were actually real. He faints.
  • In the Lucky Luke "Nitroglycerine" story, Luke is escorting a shipment of nitroglycerine to a railroad tunnel site. The Daltons, spying on him, think the huge crate is filled with gold bars, being sent to the town of "Nitro". Hilarity Ensues when the Daltons try to shoot the lock off, jump bridges on the train, etc. At the end, Joe demands to know where the gold was, and faints upon learning what was inside.
  • Played around with in an arc of Superman/Batman, where Toyman (Hiro Okamura) creates a new Superman and Batman-themed game, not realizing that the "game" has become real via nanomachines, allowing him and his friends to control Superman and Batman. They quickly realize the game is real by having the events of the game come to them, but by this point, the true culprit of the game, Mongul, has made it available online, with 90 million people under the effects of mind-controlling spores now dictating the actions of the two heroes in a fight to the death, thinking it is all just a game, with Hiro and his friends now desperately trying to take charge of the situation by convincing the others that the game is real. However, some of the players simply don't care, wanting payback for injustices the superheroes cause on their everyday lives.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: A Donald Duck comic, Lost Valley, has him forced to become a tour guide in the Amazon. When he and the tourists come upon an ancient temple inhabited by evil sentient apes who kidnap his companions, initially he panics... until he finds a booklet that details the travel bureau's scheme of creating a fake ancient temple with costumed actors as an attraction for the gullible tourists. He then proceeds to spectacularly rescue the tourists and thoroughly kick the apes' asses. After they're all back to civilization, Donald angrily storms into the office to complain about being included in a fraud, only to be told that he came upon a real temple with real evil apes. He faints upon hearing this.
  • In an old Eagle story from the Thirteenth Floor, a bullied schoolboy is trained in Kung Fu by a computer using virtual reality, but he is still too afraid to fight the school bullies until the computer lures them into its VR suite and lets the little "wimp" spiflicate them thinking that they're part of the programme.
  • In one Knights of the Dinner Table story, Bob gives Crutch and Switch helpful advice on how to pull off a heist, under the impression that they're planning a gaming session rather than the real thing.
  • Rorschach (2020) had a double-whammy example for Jonathan Oates, a security agent-for-hire that got roped into a conspiracy to assassinate a presidential candidate. He became attached to the conspiracy after being approached by Frank Miller of all people for reference material on a presidential assassination "story", letting him know how to hypothetically carry it out to make it realistic. Oates eventually did come to realize that he was attached to a not-so-hypothetical plot against Governor Turley — the presidential candidate he was presently working for — but Turley ended up encouraging collaboration since he saw the assassins as hopeless loonies who can be stopped by Secret Service, and that the attempt against him would be excellent to blame on his opposition to cinch the election. But then Oates realizes too late that one of those "loonies" has astonishingly accurate aim with a sniper rifle, and that their crazy attempt would succeed.

    Fan Works 
  • In What You Wish For, when Lori is in the alternate reality where Lincoln is Carol's brother instead of hers, she initially thinks everyone is just pretending not to know him as a prank.

  • In The Man Who Knew Too Little (which used to be the Trope Namer), Wallace Ritchie believes himself to be taking part in an avant-garde street theatre experience, when he has actually embroiled himself in an assassination plot. A similarly contrived set of circumstances results in everyone else connected to the plot thinking that he's a cold-blooded assassin. Hilarity Ensues. Unusually for how this trope usually plays out, Wallace doesn't figure out that it was all real until some time after the end credits start rolling.
  • Tim Allen's character in Galaxy Quest orders the destruction of a threatening enemy spacecraft, believing himself to be shooting a promo for the fans of his show.
  • In the movie Problem Child, Ben Healy (John Ritter) encounters a bear at a campsite, and, believing it to be a friend in costume, acts playfully towards it. He soon realizes that the bear is an actual animal. During the ensuing panic, the bear retreats and the actual friend dressed as a bear arrives, whom Ben hits over the head with a skillet.
  • A good 2/3 through Malibu's Most Wanted, the main character B-rad finds out that the "thugs" who kidnapped him were actually just actors hired by his father to try to scare him straight. Instead of revealing that he knows what's really going on, he decides to play along and have fun with it. When actual thugs kidnap him and the actors, however, he doesn't realize anything's wrong, and his fearlessness puts him in terrible danger but also lets him become the ultimate gangsta.
  • In the film ¡Three Amigos!, three movie stars who specialize in rescuing-Mexican-peasant-villages-from-marauding-bandits movies are invited to come and rescue a real Mexican peasant village from real marauding bandits; they assume the whole thing is staged until one of them finds out the hard way that their opponents are using real bullets.
  • In the movie Erik the Viking, the title character borrows Princess Aud's cloak of invisibility and bravely attacks Halfdan the Black's crew, not realizing that the cloak only makes its wearer invisible to Aud's father. (Not a Magic Feather because he wasn't misled about the powers of the cloak; he took it into battle before Aud could explain its limitations.) Since he thinks he's invisible, he gets confident enough to be able to fight with reckless abandon, which stupefies Blackdan's crew enough for him to beat several of them, and also inspire several of his own crew to fight.
  • Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz being called about an "escaped swan". "And who might you be? P. I. Staker? Right. 'Pisstaker'? Come on!" Cut away to Nicholas taking Mr. Staker's statement.
  • The Naked Gun:
    • In one rather painful scene, Frank Drebin tries to "expose" an impostor, eventually going so far as to sand off the "fake" mole on his buttocks.
    • And an inversion in the first movie - he saw five men stabbing someone in the park and shot the assailants, only to be disciplined later for having killed actors in a production of Julius Caesar. The hundred-strong crowd probably should have been a tipoff.
  • Tropic Thunder:
    • This is the premise of the film. Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr. (as a method actor who has been surgically altered into a Black man) get dropped into a real war zone while still thinking they're filming a movie about the Vietnam War. Robert Downey Jr. almost immediately realizes the mistake (yet still never breaks character). The others... take a little time.
    • In a rare zig zag of the trope, Jay Baruchel's character, an unknown yet serious actor, is actually prepared for the tribulations the troupe goes through, because he actually attended the training courses everyone should have attended (but didn't, making him the only competent "soldier"). He knows what's going on - or at least indicates that he suspects it - but still finds time to make small talk about trivialities "between takes", and still seems to not be taking the danger seriously. The others treating it like a game use him as a pawn to manipulate the events of the plot, which helps them survive, but their motivations were to save the film from each other.
  • In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Willie spends her first proper night in the jungle jumping and panicking at every sound and critter that appears, a tendency not helped by a tamed elephant's over-friendly tendency to lay its trunk on her shoulder. Then, after a particularly exhausting scream-a-thon and subsequent argument with Indy that wears her out, a deadly snake slithers down from a tree onto her shoulder. Whilst Indy himself is paralyzed with fear, Willie — fed-up and assuming it's just the elephant — yells "Cut it out!", grabs the snake and hurls it very far away without even looking.
  • In My Name Is Bruce Bruce Campbell (playing himself) is kidnapped by a fan who wants his help fighting a monster that's killing the townsfolk. Bruce believes that he is there to star in an unscripted movie. Bruce realizes that the monster is real when he leads an attack on it, and he promptly turns around and flees.
  • The entire premise of The Game (1997) is the millionaire protagonist working out whether he is taking part in a Live-Action Role-Playing adventure game, or are there actually people trying to kill him? Or is he really just going insane and having paranoid delusions?
  • The first two victims in Westworld assume the androids will let them win their duels as they have been programmed to do, not realizing that A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
  • This is the entire plot of the classic sci-fi film The Last Starfighter. The main character is a teenager who is the best in his town at a video game that involves defending the Star League against the Kodan Armada, with him eventually becoming the first and only person to be able to completely win the game. Once a recruiter from the Star League shows up in response, you can guess what happens next.
  • In the sequel to the French comedy The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe, the hapless everyman is recruited by a high-ranking intelligence officer to help discredit another. They set up a gauntlet of encounters in which our hero, pretending to be a spy, "beats" or "kills" a series of bad guys, while under surveillance by that other intelligence officer. At one point, our hero turns left down an alleyway instead of turning right, meets a burly workman, and assumes this is the next guy he's supposed to fight. The workman gets annoyed at this skinny loser whacking him with fake karate chops...
  • At the end of What About Bob? Bob thinks he is undergoing "Death Therapy" although Dr. Leo Marvin is actually trying to kill him.
  • Played with in the original TRON. Kevin Flynn has been digitized into the computer system and captured by the Master Control Program's forces. They take him to the Gaming Grid, where Ram, who thinks he's just another captive program, tells him that he'll be forced to play video games. Flynn laughs it off, boasting that he plays games better than anyone... and then the poor guy finds out just how differently things work in the Electronic World.
    Kevin Flynn: On the other side of the screen, it all looked so easy.
  • In Sleuth the line between game and real life thread becomes blurred more than once.
  • The plot of WarGames is kicked off by a teenage hacker accidentally breaking into a US military supercomputer and playing a nuclear warfare simulation with it. The problem is, even after he stops, the supercomputer keeps playing — and it doesn't know the difference between a game and real life.
  • Lassard in Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach, when being held hostage, he thinks it's a simulation for the festivity. In fact, it turns out that it was the bad guys who should have been worried, as Lassard disarms their leader the moment he finds out the truth.
  • Used initially for scary effect, but increasingly for comedic effect as the franchise went on, in the Child's Play saga. Seed of Chucky even takes place partially on a movie set...
  • Played with in The Killing Room (2009). An NSA psychiatrist is recruited to observe tapes of an experiment, and is shocked to find it's a lethal Mind Control experiment inherited from the MK Ultra program. We can back and forth between her and the experimental subjects, who are eventually wheeled into the room where she is, and she's informed that the tapes she's been viewing were filmed earlier that day.
  • In Would You Rather, everyone realizes this around the time that one guest attempts to leave the party - and is shot dead.
  • In xXx', Xander Cage wakes up in a diner where a robbery is going down. Xander quickly figures out it's all just a test and is knocked out again. He and two other men are dumped into a South American jungle and taken hostage. Xander naturally assumes it's all another test when a man threatens him, laughing on how bad the guy's accent is and he's overplaying the part. It's when the guy shoves a machete up to his face and Xander smells the blood on it that it hits him this is all for real.
  • In Mortal Kombat: The Movie, Johnny Cage has absolutely no idea what he's getting into. He has only been told that Mortal Kombat is an invitation-only martial arts tournament, and leaps at the chance to prove that he is a legitimate martial artist rather than a Wire Fu actor. When he realizes what the stakes and the opposition are... he doesn't take it well.
  • Zig-zagged in Bowfinger. When Jiff has to film a scene where he runs across a busy freeway, Bowfinger tells him that all the cars have stunt drivers who will miss him. Inverted when they secretly film scenes with Kit, leading him to believe he really is being followed by aliens.
  • Occurred quite a bit in The Three Stooges shorts, usually with Moe assuming the person behind him is Larry or Curley or Shemp bugging him rather than the threat of the episode about to do him harm. Another instance of the trope happens in What's the Matador? when the boys are hired in Mexico to do a mock bullfight act. Curley plays the Matador while Moe and Larry are in a bull costume. Because plot, they've managed to incur the wrath of a jealous husband, who bribes the arena attendants into releasing a genuine bull into the ring. Moe and Larry see the bull and scamper over the fence as soon as possible, but Curley doesn't notice, and for a few minutes thinks it's Moe and Larry… until he sees them frantically gesturing from the sidelines...

  • The climax of Ender's Game. Ender and the other Battle School graduates are sent to Command School, where they are sent through a grueling set of fleet combat simulations. When Ender realizes that they will never stop trying to skew the odds against him, he decides to pull a Game-Breaker in the most spectacular way conceivable by ordering a suicide attack against the enemy homeworld, resulting in its destruction and the annihilation of an entire alien species, along with the human fleet that had delivered the death blow. He doesn't take the truth well...
  • In the Discworld novel Going Postal, Moist von Lipwig is totally unconcerned about facing down a pack of angry guard dogs because he knows that all purebred Lipwigzers (the Disc's version of Rottweilers) were trained by his countrymen (they don't let females out of the country, to keep the breed price high). He successfully uses his granddad's commands to control them, but later learns they were Ankh-Morpork mongrels that looked like Lipwigzers.
  • The Endymion in Dan Simmons' Rise of Endymion does some pretty bad ass acrobatics on a mountain cliff, all the while thinking that dropping would be such a hassle because somebody would have to retrieve him from the safety line. Just until he sees some fearful friend rush to him with just that safety line he forgot to attach. Considering the circumstances, his lapse of mind is easily forgiven, though.
  • In John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell novel The Arabian Nights Murder, a set of friends putting on an act to trick one of their buddies hires an actor to play a professor in an Arabian museum. They are surprised when a real professor, a friend of the museum's owner, arrives for a meeting and is treated as an actor who looks just like the real thing. In the meantime, the professor thinks that the actors are real, and attacks one of them in an act of misguided heroics.
  • In Halting State by Charles Stross, the British and Chinese intelligence agencies both run Alternate Reality Games in which player-characters pretend (or rather, think they're pretending) to be spies, essentially creating hundreds of agents who Know Too Little. However, most of the game really is a game, with no "real" opposition or consequences for failure. It's a simple way to sort out potential recruits, provide them with training, and actually make money doing so. It's noted that you can't entrust anything dangerous or time-critical to people who think they're just playing a game in their spare time.
  • The Howlers in K.A. Applegate's Animorphs books are savage killers. However, their mind has been compared to a dolphin's in playfulness. They only kill because they have no idea that their victims are alive and feel pain and emotions. Seeing an emotional display causes their master to stop using them immediately as they were unwilling to fight.
  • Another dramatic example: in the sci-fi novella "Wine of the Dreamers", Raul Kinson is raised in a dwindling alien compound and believes the devices he periodically sleeps in are advanced virtual reality devices that create three alternate worlds within the dreamers' minds. Killing or humiliating dream characters is a popular sport. Unfortunately, the dream worlds are actually long-lost colony planets, one of which is Earth! Over the course of millennia, the dreamers have destroyed space programs and even triggered nuclear wars due to a misremembered plan that the "dreams" must end when the colony worlds achieve interstellar flight.
  • Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint. The main character lives in a quaint 1950's town and spends his days solving a newspaper puzzle, "find the green man". It's actually the future, there is a war between Earth and Mars going on, and the protagonist used to be a genius tasked with predicting the Martians' attack targets. After he had mental breakdown, he was given false memories and led to believe that he's living an idyllic life in a fake town. He is still doing his job, by regularly solving what he thinks is just a newspaper puzzle.
  • A Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel introduces a free video game the premise of which is a war between a race of porcupine-like aliens (whom the game labels as the good guys) and a race of mantis-like aliens (the game's bad guys). Since neither race can kill one another in hand-to-hand combat (the porcupines' needles can't pierce the bugs' exoskeleton, and the bugs' claws can't get close to the porcupines' bodies due to the needles), the porcupines recruit humans (players) to infiltrate the enemy base and win the war. A typical first-person shooter, except the save game, for some reason, occasionally gets erased, forcing players to start from the beginning. It turns out that not only is the premise true (except for the porcupines being the good guys), but the aliens are kidnapping humans to use as the in-game "avatars" controlled by players (when players "log out", the avatar just stands there until the player comes back or when the bugs kill him/her). The Doctor is playing the game until he finds out that his avatar is Rose.
  • Bang! You're Dead by Ray Bradbury centers on a US soldier called Johnny Choir fighting in Italy in WWII. He believes the entire war is a game and no one actually gets killed or hurt - they're all just pretending. This allows him to "duck" bullets, because he doesn't think they exist. When another soldier called Melter tells him it's all real, Choir promptly gets shot. The same thing happens to Melter when he tries to do what Choir did to avoid being hit.
  • In Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie, a famous detective writer has been asked to organise a Murder Hunt as one of the activities in a village fete. She begins to feel that she is being manipulated via proxies into changing details of the fictional murder to fit someone else's script, and calls in Hercule Poirot because she feels a real murder might be on the cards. The girl playing the "dead body" is duly killed for real.
  • A nasty example of this trope shows up in Magic: A Fantastic Comedy, by G. K. Chesterton. A certain Conjuror is putting on a show for a Miss Patricia Carleon, her family, and certain of her father's friends. Unfortunately, Miss Carleon's brother suffers from a particularly virulent strain of Scully Syndrome, and upon finding himself unable to explain how the Conjuror managed one particular trick, he collapses in gibbering lunacy. A Doctor who happens to be present explains that the only hope for the lunatic is for the Conjuror to explain how he did his last trick. Then we get this exchange:
    Conjuror: You would really be willing to pay a [very large sum] to know how I did that trick... But suppose I tell you the secret and you find there's nothing in it?
    Doctor: You mean it's really quite simple? Why, that would be the best thing that could possibly happen. A little healthy laughter is the best possible thing for a convalescence.
    Conjuror: It is the simplest thing in the world. That is why you shall not laugh.
    Doctor: Why, what do you mean? What shall we do?
    Conjuror: You will disbelieve it.
    Doctor: And why?
    Conjuror: Because it is so simple. (Jumps to feet) You ask me how I really did the last trick. I will tell you how I did the last trick. I did it by magic.
  • The central premise of Ernest Cline's Armada is that certain video games are actually training sims for an impending alien invasion, with the latest games being near perfect simulations of actual combat against the aliens. And because Earth's defenses are drone-based, certain "game" missions are actual combat operations.
  • In the Star Trek Novel Verse book The Captain's Daughter by Peter David, Sulu's Meet Cute with Demora's mother takes place in a theme-park city designed to look like a Wretched Hive. So when Sulu finds himself caught between a band of ruthless criminals and a beautiful freelance adventurer, he naturally assumes this is an act, possibly something Chekov set up because he was complaining he was bored. He keeps thinking this right up until the criminals vaporise someone's head.
  • The central theme of The Peripheral by William Gibson. In the 22nd century, a method of transmitting information to and from the (or rather, "a") past is discovered. One character who learns of this uses it to set up a system whereby someone from the past remote operates her bodyguard drone. In the mid-21st century, a playtester is baffled by the "VR game" she's testing, and even more so when witnessing an "in-game" murder leads to her being in real danger.
  • In the book Abduction by Peg Kehret, the main character, a thirteen-year-old girl trying to save her little brother from a kidnapper, writes a message on the bathroom mirror of a bar with soap to try to get help. However, it just so happens to be mystery night at the bar, so a waitress, thinking that a patron had written the message to throw people off, washes the message off the mirror. When the story goes on the news and she realizes that the message was an actual cry for help, she feels very ashamed.
  • In the Star Trek novel The Three Minute Universe a Glechenite that was taken hostage by Sackers told Kirk that the Sacker ship clearly outclassed the Glechenite ship and shot all around them for sport before finally getting bored and shooting them down. It was later revealed that their command crew had been killed during an accident and the inexperienced crew that stepped up really was having trouble hitting their target.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
      • In an early episode, "The Big Goodbye", a Red Shirt practically dares a hologram to shoot him and is shocked when the bullet actually hurts him.
      • In "A Fistful of Datas", Worf and his son Alexander are playing in a Western holoprogram, later joined by Counselor Troi. But thanks to a linkup between Data and the Enterprise computer, every character starts resembling Data. So, when Worf faces the character Frank Hollander, he initially thinks Data is also playing a part like Troi, until almost getting killed by him.
      • In "Peak Performance", an actual Ferengi ship shows up during a combat-simulation exercise, catching the crew off guard when they find out the hard way that it's a real attack.note 
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
      • In "His Way", the hologram Vic Fontaine gets Kira and Odo to hook up by telling Odo that he's dealing with a hologram of Kira, which takes Odo's insecurity out of the equation.
      • In "Move Along Home", Quark begins playing a game with some mysterious new visitors using four pieces, when he discovers that four crew members have been whisked off to the game world. Subverted when he loses, and they all materialize back at Quark's. After all, it's just a game!
  • Supernatural has the main characters attend a convention about the series of Supernatural books, which exist in the universe. When they get there, they find a LARP going on in which an old urban myth is the basis of a 'hunt'. They team up with a gay couple who are LARPing as Sam & Dean, and when they realise that the events of the book are real, they choose to team up (unknowingly) with the real Sam and Dean to help take down the Big Bad, because "It's what Sam and Dean would do." The real Sam and Dean choose to play along, claiming to just be fans who are so into the books that they took up monster-hunting for real.
  • On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will tries to impress his girlfriend by having Jazz hire an actor to rob her store. Will goes wildly over the top attacking the gunman with nutty "martial arts" moves and hamming it up knocking the guy out. Instead of being impressed, the girlfriend chews Will out for being reckless and leaves. Will tries to blame the guy Jazz hired for blowing which point, Jazz states the actor is a guy who was watching Will beat down on a real robber with a real gun who's being arrested by the cops. Will faints.
  • Numerous times on Fantasy Island, a guest's fantasy will involve a spy adventure or living out a historical era. At first, they'll assume they're in an elaborate role-play...until a real bullet nearly hits them or someone is struck down and they realize they're truly back in time and in real danger. Played with as, just as it looks bad, Mr. Roarke will suddenly whisk them back to safety. When asked if what happened was real, Roarke will generally just smile "what do you believe?" and the guest just decides it's better not to know the truth.
  • The Thin Blue Line:
    • In "Rag Week", Fowler confronts and talks down a group of dangerous bank robbers, while under the impression they were students playing a prank.
    • Inverted in "Fly on the Wall" — after Fowler talks down the old man with the gun, it turns out that he was going to turn it in to the weapons amnesty program and possibly get on television.
  • On Just Shoot Me!, Maya's Murder Game goes awry when an actual death occurs and she can't convince the others that it isn't part of the game.
  • On Frasier the exact same thing happens, except that Niles, etc. had the opposite goal; to convince everyone else that the recently deceased was just part of the game.
  • In one episode of Stargate Atlantis, Sheppard and McKay are playing what they think is a simulation/strategy game similar to Civilization. Their differing play styles and natural rivalry means that it's no surprise that this strategy game will quickly turn into a wargame. However, everything changes when they realize that the Ancient device they are playing the game on is actually manipulating two actual civilizations remotely, and they scramble to try to avert a real war. Slightly subverted later, when Zelenka and Lorne find another planet being monitored by the "game" and try to help the natives... only to, once again, devolve into rivalry (again, one is a scientist, the other is a soldier) and nearly start another war. Luckily, Weir shows up just in time to put an end to this once and for all.
  • In the Kenan & Kel episode "Bye Bye Kenan: Part 2", Kenan comes up with a Zany Scheme to force his father to quit his new job as a park ranger by having one of his new friends dress up as a bear and frighten his father into quitting. Hilarity Ensues when a real bear shows up first.
  • In "Rose", the first episode of the revived Doctor Who, Rose encounters a crowd of Autons, plastic mannequins animated by the Nestene Consciousness to conquer the Earth and use it as a food source for the Consciousness, and is saved from certain death by the Doctor. She guesses that the Autons are in fact students dressed up as a prank. She is wrong. Happens again later in the same episode - when the Doctor is attacked by the severed Auton arm, it takes her some time to realize he isn't just goofing around with it as Mickey had earlier.
  • In one episode of M*A*S*H, Radar runs unthinkingly into a minefield to save an injured Korean girl. When later told how brave he was by B.J., Radar responds "Did I just run into a minefield?" Granted, he knew the minefield was there before he ran into it, but didn't fully grasp what he had done until the danger was over, a situation common to many real-life Medal of Honor winners.
  • In The Monkees episode "The Picture Frame", the Monkees are hired to play bank robbers in a movie holdup scene, not knowing they will actually be robbing the bank.
  • In Castle:
    • One episode both played straight and inverted this trope in the same situation in one episode: it starts by showing the victim, who paid good money to play at being a spy in a rather impressive personalized Alternate Reality Game, being chased by someone who he assumed was part of the game, but was actually a real-life murderer. On discovering the body, complete with all sorts of cool spy props, Castle of course assumes actual espionage was involved - and proceeds to thoroughly confuse the actors hired as part of the ARG. Similarly, a man picked up in the course of the investigation is suave, confident, and refuses to tell the cops a goddamned thing... until they mention the ARG and he realizes that this isn't part of the game, he's really been arrested by the real police. The super-spy promptly evaporates and is replaced with an ordinary man who's rather terrified at how over his head he's gotten.
    • Another episode of Castle zigzags in a different way: Castle gets excited to find that the case he's on apparently involves a treasure hunt for mythical Masonic treasure. In following the trail of clues, he runs smack into reality: the treasure hunt was all just a game set up as part of a historical fundraiser (Castle was sad to discover the guy he had sword-dueled with was an actor, and the swords were props). Turns out, it actually wasn't a game: it was set up as a fundraiser by a guy who discovered real clues for real Masonic treasure, and decided to crowd-source the clues while telling everyone it was a game he made up. (Most of the participients believed it was a game, but a couple figured out the truth, and one killed the other for the treasure.)
  • In one episode of Gilligan's Island, Gilligan is suffering from low self-esteem (and no wonder). The other inhabitants of the island set up increasingly insane situations for him to save them from, until they finally tie themselves to stakes and pretend a cannibal captured them and will eat them. At that moment, an actual cannibal happens upon the scene, but Gilligan thinks it's just the Skipper in disguise, and he drives the cannibal out.
  • In one Hogan's Heroes episode, the plan is to use a fake unexploded bomb as a diversion. Hogan amuses himself at Klink's expense by "disarming" it with blatantly reckless and clumsy moves... until he's informed that the fake bomb was stuck in a tunnel cave-in and he's working on the real thing.
  • In an episode of Bewitched, Samantha's identical cousin, Serena, was having an affair with a warlock, when his wife tracked her down to Darrin and Sam's house, she cursed Sam with amnesia and sent her to turn of the century New Orleans. At the end of the episode Darrin faints when he's told that his rescue of Sam included a sword fight with a Southern gentleman.
  • An episode of NCIS has the team burst in to arrest a suspect... in the middle of a Halloween party. His first response is to mock their costumes for spelling CSI wrong.
  • On Deception (2018), a lawyer is killed when someone sprays him with a water pistol filled with poison. The FBI agents hunt down the shooter to find him going after another target. Magician aide Cameron sees the man looking confused and asking "did I win?" He realizes the guy thinks he's part of some reality TV show and no idea he was just used to commit a real murder.
  • On Legends of Tomorrow, Nate and Zari are sent on a solo mission to 1936 to recover a mysterious egg. The duo find the egg only to discover it's fake. They immediately jump to the idea that Sara set up this entire fake mission as a way of having them get together, noting how it's all tailored after the action movies Nate loves. When a pair of men with German accents enter, Nate and Zari literally laugh on how Sara added in "Nazis" to the adventure. They're tied up with the Nazis demanding to know where the egg is while the duo mock their cliche accents and bad acting. They manage to call up Sara to joke about which point Sara informs them this is a real mission and these are real Nazis with real guns aimed at them.

    Video Games 
  • Since the Holy Grail War in Fate/EXTRA takes place in Cyberspace, many of the participating Masters initially approached it as a game. The full impact of just what they'd signed up for and the conditions for winning (namely that the losers have their body and soul erased from reality, no one but the surviving contestants remembering they ever even existed) doesn't sink in until the first round ends. This is particularly driven home by Shinji's reaction.
  • Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: While the others trapped in Despair Academy quickly figure out that Monokuma's game is horribly real, Yasuhiro continues to insist it's just an elaborate prank being staged to welcome them to Hope's Peak. It's not until someone dies that he realizes the truth, and mentally shuts down for a bit from sheer shock.
  • Nira Oni: After the group group gets trapped in West Nira Hospital and the Oni starts stalking them, Ryan thinks that it's some kind of fake haunted house. Hiroshi goes out of his way to keep her believing this.
  • When the Mecha-Bowser appears in Pinna Park of Super Mario Sunshine, the Noki Director thought it was another tourist attraction.
  • Virtual-ON: The first few stages in the game are actually training simulations. After completing them, the game reveals that it's not actually a game, and proceeds to give the player remote control of a mecha on a lunar base.
  • Touhou Project antagonist Tenshi Hinanawi never did cotton that Gensokyo's Incidents aren't a game, so she contrives to engineer one herself because she was bored.
  • A dropped concept for Half-Life 2 would have involved citizens of the dystopian future playing a supposed game at the "Manhack Arcade" where they piloted flying buzzsaws in pursuit of criminals.
  • In Super Robot Wars: Original Generation downplays this because of the actual controls for one of the series's original mechs, the Gespenst, were used as the basis for the simulator game. The problem is no one told the gamers that the data from the simulation would be used as an aptitude test for potential recruits/draftees.
  • In Mortal Kombat 9, Johnny Cage initially assumes the Mortal Kombat tournament is some kind of elaborate roleplay and that all the participants are just actors like him in some very convincing costumes. He starts to realize that it isn't when Shang Tsung orders him to kill Baraka after their fight, but it takes an encounter with Sonya and Kano for it to fully sink in.
  • Until Dawn: The mastermind behind the events of the evening, Josh, didn't expect actual, flesh-eating monsters to show up.
  • In Opus Magnum, the noble Houses have engaged in low-conflict "wars" where the two sides will put on a show of fighting, bluster at one another, and finally the "loser" will cede a few streets of territory. House Van Tassen treated the assault from House Colvan as more of the same even as losses mounted up. It took a letter from Taros expressing his intent to conquer Van Tassen for them to realize the danger they were in.

  • Kent from Sluggy Freelance, who believes he's facing vampire- base LARPers rather than actual vampires, although in his case it endures in the face of all evidence because his Weirdness Censor is incredibly strong - which in the Sluggy universe is another way of saying Too Dumb to Live.
  • In Clan of the Cats, the main character is a Involuntary Shapeshifting witch, who can transform into a black panther. After an incident during a vacation with her ditzy half-sister, she runs off into the woods in a distressed state. Shortly after, a black panther is found hiding in a crawlspace under the house they're staying in, and The Ditz crawls in there to comfort her half-sister. After spending most of the night trying to cheer up her half-sister, she finally finds out that it's a REAL black panther, who has just escaped from a private zoo...
  • Killroy And Tina: When an enemy of Killroy's shows up while he's training Tina, Killroy lets Tina believe it's part of the test.
  • The Wotch: Anne mistakes an actual attack for a training exercise.
  • Captain SNES: The Game Masta:
    • In the 2008 Halloween series, Alex refused to believe that the murders around him were real initially (they were in a "murder mystery" simulation) but even then, it wasn't REALLY real as it was All Just a Dream.
    • Earlier, he'd been fearlessly facing his trials in The Desert and dealing with Zeromus, believing that if he did die he'd simply be able to reset to the last save point and try again. When he is able to later talk it over with Bob, he learns that, due to the rules of the save points, the danger was very real and he was quite capable of dying for real. Naturally, he freaked out.
  • In Sabrina Online, Sabrina and her boyfriend are attacked in an alley. Sabrina (an anthropomorphic skunk) sprays the mugger and they run away; when she gets home, she recounts the event to Amy in a tired voice, then suddenly jumps and shrieks, "OH MY GOD, I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED!"
  • In the Gunnerkrigg Court chapter "From The Forest She Came", Annie is trying to convince Kat to talk to her by staging contrived situations in which they must work together to defeat a threat, and Kat isn't buying it. When an Eldritch Abomination emerges from the water tank, she's quite impressed and wonders how Annie created it. Then she notices that Annie is terrified. Luckily, it turns out to be Lindsey, their new guidance counselor.

    Web Original 
  • The participants in Suburban Knights start their quest off believing that it's just some pseudo-LARP adventure. by the end of Part 2 they discover that there really are supernatural beings standing in their way, and don't take it too well.
    Spoony: "Suddenly I've decided that I'm terribly afraid of you."
  • Taken literally in One Hundred Yard Stare when Macy threatens to punch everyone if it is just a game...Unfortunately it is much more than that.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, "The World According to LARP", June's brother Dennis is kidnapped by monsters (as opposed to the intended target, her other brother Ray Ray... the orders given were something to the tone of "the one who can see monsters"), but believes this to be his LARP (live-action role-play) group's new adventure. Since his "props" are real magical items that he stole from June's room (which also happen to make him able to see monsters like Ray Ray), he defeats his kidnappers and escapes the dungeon with no idea that any of it was real.
  • In American Dad!, Francine mistakes a real vacation for a fake one, after finding out that most family vacations have been faked using a Lotus-Eater Machine (though less malicious). Thinking she is hallucinating the whole thing, she kills people, sinks a boat, and wreaks havoc before finding out that this is all really happening.
  • In DuckTales (1987), "Where No Duck Has Gone Before", it takes "Major Courage" most of the episode to realize that he's really in outer space with real aliens instead of on a set.
  • Kim Possible:
    • The episode "Larry's Birthday" featured Professor Dementor kidnapping Kim's geeky cousin Larry by telling him that he's taking part of a LARP set up for his birthday. Larry buys it, and ends up almost putting Kim and Ron through a deathtrap, before revealing he had seen through it. (Dementor's plan, that is, not the fact it wasn't a LARP.) Kim and Ron, along with Kim's father Jim, decide to let Larry and his neurotic mother keep thinking that so as not to result in the latter going into a panic.
    • Drakken's plan in "Clean Slate" was to set up a fake engine overload on a train in order to trigger an evacuation. After he and Shego boarded the train, and Kim and Ron showed up to stop them, he realized that he'd forgotten about the "fake" part....
  • In one Goofy short, Goofy demonstrates to his son how he would deal with a mountain lion if one should attack, not realising that he has grabbed hold of an actual mountain lion in the process.
  • A Donald Duck cartoon has Donald manhandling a mountain lion thinking it was his nephews in disguise.
  • Happens a lot on Total Drama. Owen manhandles a bear, thinking it is his insane girlfriend Izzy in a bear costume. In a later episode, Gwen thinks she's encountering the show's co-host in a generic movie-slasher costume. It's not. Despite Gwen's newfound friend being white and the co-host being black, it takes the appearance of everyone else on the island before she realizes what is going on. Then, she beats him up.
  • One episode of Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers has the Rangers stage a spy game for Dale; he figures out it's all fake early on, but what he doesn't realize is that a group of real bad guy spies have gotten into the mix. Later, the leader of the spies catches on that Dale doesn't know it's not a game anymore; he gets the idea to tell Dale that the "game" is over to make him surrender, but this inadvertently causes Dale to destroy the microfilm they're after.
  • An episode of Pinky and the Brain had Brain staging a victory over a giant monster by having them grow to giant sizes and having Pinky dress up as one. Brain then finds an actual giant monster he at first believes to be Pinky.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "I Had An Accident". Patrick dresses up in a gorilla suit and tries to kidnap Sandy in an attempt to get SpongeBob to come out of his house. SpongeBob can easily tell that it's just Patrick in a gorilla suit... only for Patrick to suddenly walk into frame. Subverted when the gorilla costume is unzipped to reveal that the real Patrick is indeed inside it... then the fake Patrick unzips their costume to reveal an actual gorilla.
  • The Flintstone Kids: Freddy and his friends once went camping. Rocky Ratrock and his gang did all they could to sabotage them. One of their plans was dressing up like a monster to scare Fred, Barney, Wilma and Betty away but Freddy and friends learned of the plan and ended up unwittingly scaring a real monster and only then learned it was real.
  • In Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, the gang are burnt out on Scooby-Doo Hoaxes and assume that the titular island is just another such hoax. It isn't.
  • In Scooby-Doo! Pirates Ahoy! , the gang crack a whole series of staged mysteries on a "Mystery Cruise" on the first day of their vacation. When an actual mystery turns up, it's hardly surprising that they initially complement the cruise director on its realism.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Stranger Than Fan Fiction", Rainbow Dash and Quibble Pants get kidnapped by Dr. Caballeron, taken to an ancient tomb, and rescued by Daring Do. Quibble Pants thinks this is a LARP (to be fair, the Daring Do convention had earlier been offering customers a chance to go on a LARP) and spends most of his time nitpicking everything and insulting Caballeron as a bad cosplayer. He's finally convinced it is real when they are attacked by a monster.
  • Looney Tunes short subject "Picador Porky" (1936) has Porky and his two vagabond pals scheming to win some prize money at a bullfight with Porky as a matador and his buddies dressed in a bull costume. The two buddies get drunk off of some wine and their hiccupping causes them to escape from their cage. The bullfight staff replace with a real bull, which Porky thinks is his friends. He's quite fearless, up until he sees the two in a drunken revelry singing "La Cucaracha."
  • The Beatles episode "Please Please Me" had a similar scenario. In this case, a bullfight's bull, El Taco, is knocked unconscious, so the boys set things up with John and Paul in a bull costume and Ringo as a matador (with George as his picador). John and Paul are delayed because of a jammed zipper, and El Taco regains his consciousness. He barges into the ring to face Ringo, who thinks it's John and Paul.
  • The Fairly OddParents:
    • Timmy, Chester, and AJ end up in The Most Dangerous Video Game. Chester and AJ remain oblivious that they're in a deadly game, thinking it's all fun. Unlike most examples, they never learn the truth.
    • In another episode, Chester and AJ remain oblivious that Mark the Alien is a real villain, thinking the whole thing is a pretend game.
  • In the DuckTales (2017) episode "Double-O Duck in: You Only Crash Twice!", Launchpad and Dewey are playing a VR spy game when they get confronted by Steelbeak and taken to an actual F.O.W.L. base. Dewey is delighted that they've finally reached the next level. Launchpad realises the truth when he's hit with the Intelli-Ray, but forgets it once his intelligence goes back to normal. Dewey never does.
  • Happened thrice to Bozo: The World's Most Famous Clown. In the first instance he thinks the circus tiger is a little kitty painted to look like a tiger, then the lion he's ordered to perform with he thinks is Butchy Boy in a lion costume. The third time he's in Hollywood to be a star and drives a gang of bank robbers' getaway car thinking it's part of a movie shoot.
  • The Simpsons subverts this in the episode "Paths of Glory", combining it with And You Thought It Was Real. In order to train Bart and the sociopaths to become military pilots, they are put in military battle simulations, where they drop bombs in the Middle East. Bart gets the highest score out of everyone, but is horrified when he is told that the simulations were real. Bart refuses to join the military, and it is then revealed to him that the real battles were indeed actually simulations, and Bart is sent home due to being unfit for both the military and as a sociopath.

    Real Life 


Video Example(s):


Suburban Knights

The reviewers begin their quest under the assumption that it's all a game that Jaffers made up.

How well does it match the trope?

3.88 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / AndYouThoughtItWasAGame

Media sources: