Elizabeth LePensee. Photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Studio, 2013

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Healing indigenous trauma through video games

October 09, 2014
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By Diane Luckow

PhD graduand Elizabeth LaPensee wants to help indigenous peoples confront and process historical and intergenerational trauma.

An avid video gamer and international student from the U.S., LaPensee is Métis and Anishinaabe, and passionately interested in using social-impact video games to change indigenous stereotypes and representation.

“I thought SFU, with its connection to First Nations, would be an opportunity to explore that,” says LaPensee.

A former video games journalist, she has spent the past seven years in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, creating and then assessing the efficacy of such a game, Survivance, for her PhD thesis.

“The next generation needs the ability to heal, and when you throw a lot of really heavy content at them it just reinforces depression and other issues,” she says.

“When it’s framed as a game, it’s something that people can work through and share, and there’s community behind it.”

So LaPensee collaborated with Portland, Oregon’s urban native community to create Survivance. The video game’s quest involves creating a real-world self-expression project in any medium, such as painting, beadwork, a film or a photo collage.

“It’s an opportunity for players to process their family history or their nation’s history—to process memories and come to a place of healing.”

In assessing players’ reactions to the game, including her own, she found the game does accomplish its goal.

“The game empowered me to break the cycle of trauma in my own life,” she says. “I left an unhealthy marriage as a result.”

AlterNative, a major peer-reviewed indigenous journal, recently published an article LaPensee wrote that addresses not just the academic aspects of her research, but also its contribution to games scholarship, and her personal experiences playing the game.

Now, she says, she’s exploding with ideas for video games that are more commercial and, at the same time, also articulate the unique stories and perspectives of indigenous peoples.

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