Awareness Contexts

In Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (1983), Fine cites the earlier work by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, “Awareness Contexts and Social Interaction” (1964), drawing on the four awareness contexts they propose—open, closed, suspicion, and pretense—to articulate his own theory of frames and games.

Coming back across Fine’s work recently reminded me of Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit series School of Stealth, and particularly the third part of this series, “How do Stealth Games Deal with Detection?” It struck me that Glaser and Strauss’s awareness contexts map quite neatly to detection states in video games: closed is hidden, suspicion is looking, and open is found. However, the pretense context is something of an outlier. At first, I thought pretense might map to a disguised state, like we see in the Hitman games (2016, 2018, 2022). But on the contrary, in Glaser and Strauss’s framework, disguised would actually also be a closed context. Pretense emphasizes that awareness contexts are not so much about stealth, but rather about sociality. As Fine writes, a “pretense awareness context applies when both parties are aware [of each other’s identities] but pretend that they are not.” Awareness contexts are not about hiding in shadows, but about hiding in groups, about the strategic concealment and disclosure of identity.

So, then, what kind of social stealth games might we make, where pretense is the preeminent mode? Perhaps we can find examples in detective games like Her Story (2015), Return of the Obra Dinn (2016), and Paradise Killer (2020), but what other types of games might there be for us to find, or to make?

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