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Students design violence prevention games


Jordan Pailthorpe, MFA '15, is a producer at Emerson's Engagement Lab and also taught a First-Year Writing Course in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department, which culminated with student-designed games about violence prevention and bystander intervention. (Photo by Dan O'Brien)

A First-Year Writing Program class focusing on game design—and taught by a member of the Emerson Engagement Lab—this spring created four games that teach fellow students how to intervene when witnessing power–based interpersonal violence, which includes sexual assault.

“The scenarios the students created in these games are very real,” said Melanie Matson, director of Emerson’s Violence Prevention and Response, who guided the students at the beginning of their projects. “They’re very applicable to our community. I’m very excited about what they came up with.”

Matson said she is considering implementing some of the games in VPR trainings for students, faculty, and staff.

One of the games is called Bystander Quest, which is an online, choose-your-own-adventure-type game that places the user in realistic situations. In one instance, the user is on an MBTA train at 2:00 am when he notices a woman acting aggressively toward her young child.

Another scenario features a college student who walks in on a sexual assault at an off-campus party.

A second game is called Reactionary!, which is similar to the card game Apples to Apples, but encourages players to debate with each other about the potentially violent situation at hand.

OliverioEvelyn Oliverio ’18, who worked on Bystander Quest, said developing the game created a series of intense dialogue with her student teammates.

“This definitely brought a lot of back-and-forth,” said Oliverio, who said students initially disagreed on how they would approach the mother on the train. “Some of us felt more comfortable approaching people right away, but for me it would have taken a bit more.”

Jordan Pailthorpe, MFA ’15, was the instructor of the course, which is hosted by the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department. Pailthorpe is also a game designer and producer for the Engagement Lab, which develops games and forms of play to address social issues internationally.

Pailthorpe said that, when it came to the topic of violence prevention, it was important for the students to “not just slot the content into a traditional game.”

“We don’t just want a game that talks about the content,” he said, “but addresses the content naturally.”

FuhrmannBenjamin Fuhrmann ’18, who also worked on Bystander Quest, said the actions a player should take are not obvious—and the game was deliberately designed that way.

“There’s a lot of internal monologue,” he said. “We wanted that ambiguity because that’s what it’s like in real life.”

In one scenario, players are able to intervene on what they think is an assault between two teenage boys, but it turns out the boys are just horsing around. In another, players are told of a bad outcome for not intervening with the mother and child on the train.

“It was interesting to hear the discussion that went into the planning of these games,” said Suzanne Hinton, director of the Office of Service Learning and Community Action (SLCA). “These are exactly the types of things we hope students are talking about.”

SLCA provided Pailthorpe with an $800 Innovation Grant to pay for two freelance game designers, Phil Cartagena and Sarah Osborn, to help the students with the course, but some students did technical design work as well.

All students are required to enroll in the First-Year Writing Program when they begin studying at Emerson.

Pailthorpe said students completed other writing projects throughout the semester and designed their violence prevention games as their final projects.

“The ultimate goal wasn’t necessarily to get them to think about game design…as much as it was to think about these issues and address them through a form of writing, which for me is through game design,” he said. “Our philosophy in the First-Year Writing Program is…to translate [what is learned] into real-world actions or skills.”

“The project has a lot of potential to go beyond Emerson,” Hinton said. “I can see it being used by other colleges and violence prevention units on their campuses.”

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