Complex numbers appear in the Hilbert space formulation of quantum mechanics, but not in the formulation in phase space. Quantum symmetries are described by complex, unitary or antiunitary operators defining ray representations in Hilbert space, whereas in phase space they are described by real, true representations. Equivalence of the formulations requires that the former representations can be obtained from the latter and vice versa. Examples are given. Equivalence of the two formulations also requires that complex superpositions of state vectors can be described in the phase space formulation, and it is shown that this leads to a nonlinear superposition principle for orthogonal, pure-state Wigner functions. It is concluded that the use of complex numbers in quantum mechanics can be regarded as a computational device to simplify calculations, as in all other applications of mathematics to physical phenomena.