Peace in Process helps survivors of gun violence heal

At gunpoint, an ever-threatening presence in America that engagement lab at Emerson College seeks to transform the healing process for survivors through his Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative.

This three-year collaboration between the Engagement Lab, the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute tries to facilitate important conversations about gun violence through innovative therapeutic methods.

On December 8, the Engagement Lab at Codman Academy in Dorchester hosted an event called “Peace in Process” to showcase the work of Emerson students. Around 50 people attended, including members of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute — those who have lost loved ones to gun violence — and Boston without corners and edgesmade up of former gang members now working to break the cycle of violence in Boston neighborhoods.

The event informed attendees about strategies they could use to heal from gun violence trauma. During the event, attendees were able to try two new methods to help people heal from trauma: a virtual reality app prototype and a role-playing game. The programs were developed by students in Emerson’s Immersive Media and Games for Social Change classes in collaboration with the college’s Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative.

Emerson Professor David Kelleher’s Immersive Media class spent the fall semester working with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute to develop a virtual version of sand play Therapy in which patients explore their trauma through the use of sand and miniature objects. At the event, attendees donned VR headsets and experimented with a prototype of the app.

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“Sometimes therapists let children play with toys in the sand and create a world that helps express how they are feeling,” Professor Kelleher said in an interview with The Beacon.

Kelleher said the Peace Institute adapted this therapeutic mechanism to support gun violence survivors and allow them to continue processing their trauma at home, where they may not have access to a sandbox.

Emerson Professor Eric Gordon’s Games for Social Change class worked in partnership with the Center for youth developmenta partnership, he said, consistent with the college’s commitment to storytelling.

“Our job at Emerson is to provide partnerships and tell stories,” said Gordon. “[The Engagement Lab] works directly with the people most affected by violence in Boston and connects them with Emerson students and faculty to create stories.”

During the fall semester, Gordon’s students created a game called Peace or Piece. In the game, players are divided into three groups and make choices for a character in the game.

Junior Visual Media Arts Major, Charlie von Peterffy, along with Center for Teen Empowerment Program Director Nate McLean-Nichols, co-hosted the game and invited everyone in attendance to participate. Anna Porter, an administrative coordinator for the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Gun Violence Prevention, helped ensure the program was culturally appropriate and would not re-traumatize anyone.

“It’s a way of healing,” Porter said. “The fact that these talks are happening gives me great hope that this can be the start of real change.”

As the game began, upbeat music filled the room and brought smiles from those in attendance.

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“Today is your 21st birthday,” said von Peterffy. “You’re all partying and having a great time.”

As part of the game, phones not belonging to any of the people in the room began buzzing over the music.

Von Peterffy explained that this is the moment in the game when everyone in the group finds out their best friend Danny was killed in a drive-by shooting.

From then on, the game prompts players to make choices centered on their response to this act of violence. After each decision, players roll the dice to determine the outcome of their choice.

McLean-Nichols and von Peterffy took turns asking players whether their characters should harshly interrogate a potential informant or casually ask about Danny’s killer. They asked players if they should buy a gun to bring with them when confronting Danny’s would-be killers, or if they should go in unarmed. They asked the players if they should threaten Danny’s killers or just try to talk to them.

The players chose peace every time – by casually asking the informant, not bringing a gun, and not threatening Danny’s killer. Despite their peaceful choices, the game ended with all three characters being shot and badly injured by Danny’s killers. only one survived their injuries.

According to von Peterffy and McLean-Nichols, the game shouldn’t have ended like this. Player choices and the elements of chance allowed for a different outcome. However, once violence was introduced early in the game, it was difficult to avoid.

At the end of the game, players were asked to share their feelings. Some responded with sadness, some with fear, and some with frustration.

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One of the players, a teenager named Fiona from Boston, said the game made her realize that you can choose peace and still be a victim of violence.

“I have a feeling that’s what happens in real life,” she said.

Professor Gordon commented on the purpose of a game like Peace or Piece and how it can help survivors of gun violence explore their trauma.

“A game gives you permission to play,” Gordon said. “Once you have that permission to gamble, you can feel more secure. Somehow this game made people talk about their differences and have an incredibly tense conversation about violence.”

Malena Horne, senior VMA major and game developer, took pride in how people of different ages and backgrounds could play the game together.

“It was so cool to see all of these worlds collide,” she said.