Peace in Process helps gun violence survivors heal


Chloe Els

An attendee of the Peace in Process event tests out a virtual reality adaptation of sand play therapy.

By Chloe Els, Staff Writer

With gun violence an ever-looming presence in America, the Engagement Lab at Emerson College is attempting to transform the healing process for survivors through its Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative

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

On Dec. 8 at Codman Academy in Dorchester, the Engagement Lab 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 Uncornered, which is composed of former gang members who now work to break cycles of violence in Boston neighborhoods.

The event educated attendees on strategies they could use to heal from gun violence trauma. During the event, attendees could sample two new methods to help people heal from their traumas: a prototype virtual reality app and a role-playing game. The programs were designed 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 term working with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute to develop a virtual version of sandplay therapy, in which patients explore their trauma through the use of sand and miniature objects. At the event, attendants donned VR headsets and experimented with a prototype of the app. 

“Sometimes therapists have children play with toys in the sand and create a world to help express how they’re feeling,” Professor Kelleher said in an interview with The Beacon. 

Kelleher said the Peace Institute adapted this therapeutic mechanism to support survivors of gun violence and allow them to continue working through their trauma at home, where they might not have access to a sand tray.

Emerson professor Eric Gordon’s Games for Social Change class worked in partnership with the Center for Teen Empowerment, a partnership, he said, that aligns with the college’s commitment to telling stories. 

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

During the fall semester, Gordon’s students developed 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 the Center for Teen Empowerment program director Nate McLean-Nichols, led the game and invited everyone at the event to join. Anna Porter, an administrative coordinator for the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Gun Violence Prevention, was involved in making sure the program was culturally appropriate and would not retraumatize anyone.

“It’s a way to heal,” Porter said. “The fact that these conversations are happening gives me a lot of hope that this can be the start of us making real change.”

As the game began, upbeat music filled the room, prompting smiles among the attendants. 

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

As part of the game, phones that did not belong to any of the people in the room began to buzz over the music.

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

From then on, the game prompts players to make decisions centered around their response to this act of violence. After each decision, the players roll a die to determine the result of their choice.

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

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

According to von Peterffy and McLean-Nichols, the game did not have to end like this. The players’ decisions and the chance elements made it possible to have a different outcome. However, once violence was introduced at the start of the game, it was difficult to avoid. 

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

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

“I feel like that 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 play, you’re able to feel safer. Somehow this game got people to speak across their differences and have an incredibly tense conversation about violence.”

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

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