Sarah: What do you mean, "the game thinks"?
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.
- 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. It takes longer still for them to discover that for every battle they win, an entire alternate Earth's universe will be completely wiped from existence.
- The games in Yu-Gi-Oh! are like this, though it is the Millenium Puzzle that makes the games magical and curses anyone who cheats or loses.
- 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 WarGames, 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". Luckily, the entire movie turns out to be an autohypnotic trance brought on by playing the game - none of it happened. But when the player decides to invite others to play it, he has a vivid hallucination of the Trickster smiling at him as they all sit to play. He smiles back, acknowledging that everyone has a repressed dark side, and as long as no one is harmed while indulging it... Well, that's why we watch horror movies in the first place.
- 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, another live-action film, and an animated series.
- Zathura, by the same author as Jumanji, is essentially the same thing In SPACE! Also adapted into an live-action film.
- 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 get transported to the planet for real, and must use their experience from the Game to survive on the real thing. They eventually realize the Game was preparing them to become colonists on the new world, as Earth had an overpopulation and technology problem.
- 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 virtual civilizations against each other. When another race received transmissions of the game, they took the games seriously and thought the Ketrans coldly interfered in the lives of other species for entertainment. This miscommunication cost most of the Ketrans their lives.
- In "The Roar" by Emma Clayton, this is the way the government attempts to raise an army of children to fight those that live in the wilderness beyond the Wall.
- The Bob Leman short story "Instructions" uses Second-Person Narration to limn out a picture of an elaborate and sinister game using people as pieces.
- In the Goosebumps story "The Haunted House Game", a group of children play a board game of the same name where each command they land on becomes true. It turns out that they're all ghosts who died playing the original game and are reliving the same events over and over again.
- Subverted 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, and the aliens who caused the situation are amused to discover that Quark was really frightened - after all, it was just a game.
- It's more than a touch hinted that this was retribution on the game-loving aliens' part for Quark earlier cheating them at the Dabo table. Needless to say the crew were not as amused.
- 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.
- Goosebumps: The show adapted "The Haunted House Game" story, but changed almost everything. Instead the Haunted House Game is a Jumanji-esque boardgame that two kids are sucked inside of and have to find the exit of the haunted house to escape alive.
- In Final Deployment 4: Queen Battle Walkthrough, Blair Trigger plays a game which has an alien bug which ultimately controls his mind.
- On Riverdale there is Gryphons & Gargoyles (aka. G&G), a blatant expy of Dungeons & Dragons. It's addictive nature is reinforced by encouraging drug use. There is also an apparent conspiracy, possibly more than one, influencing the game from behind the scenes and driving players to commit crimes. For example, Hiram Lodge inserted a number of quest cards into the game instructing players to "Kill the Red Paladin", who is actually Archie Andrews. This leads to murder attempts on Archie, exactly as Hiram intended.
- 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.
- 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 entire plot revolves around "Sburb," a video game that affects reality, generating game equipment and creatures in your house. A variation in that the players knew beforehand that the game had reality-warping effects, but not how far-reaching those effects would become. It soon progresses to things like transporting your house to another dimension where you go an an epic adventure. And destroying your home planet. The characters eventually meet some early adopters from a parallel universe... their playthrough went poorly, and not coincidentally, there's not much left of their universe.
- 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.
- And the Big Bad is a Psychopathic Manchild who made his own session Unwinnable by Insanity. Now he's doing the same to every other session.
- The El Goonish Shive non-canon storyline "Goomanji" is, as the name suggests, a parody of "Jumanji", with an "evil game" that has a fondness for Baleful Polymorphs. Averted in "Goomanji 2", even though it has basically the same premise, because Susan makes it clear to Hanma that it's only acceptable to have a game like this if everyone knows what they're getting into beforehand. The cast of EGS being what it is, there's no shortage of volunteers.
- A lot of stories on Fictionmania feature boardgames/cardgame/chess/etc. that transform their players. Some person will usually 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).
- Gamer by R. D. Ovenfriend is centered around kid being tricked into playing a secret game in the back room of a 1980s video arcade where a player has to live out the Prisoner's Dilemma and electrocute another player to ensure they don't get electrocuted. It turns out to just be a psychology experiment to see if players are being desensitized by playing games a lot. The protagonist was led to believe he had killed another kid to preserve his life but the other child was just an actor. He's still traumatized by the experiment.
- A parody trailer featured a version of this based on Monopoly. Uncle Pennybags makes himself an Evil Mentor to whoever gets sucked into the game before it all goes spiraling down.
Richie Benjamin: I thought this was just a game!
Uncle Pennybags: Life is a game! This game never ends!
- The Amazing World of Gumball has "Dodj or Daar," a board game that Gumball and Darwin made up. They mean to throw it away because of its reality warping powers, but the rest of the family ends up playing it and are forced to finish it after the effects of the game ruin their daily routines.
- Gravity Falls:
- In "Dungeons, Dungeons, & More Dungeons", an Infinity-Sided Die causes the evil wizard from the titular tabletop game to come to life and traps Dipper and Ford in the game.
- Spoofed with a Cold Open two episodes later in "The Last Mabelcorn" (see image above) of Dipper and Mabel looking at old board games. Upon seeing the game and its warnings, they decide it'll help them kill an afternoon, but they're interrupted and we never see anything happen.