- Survivance Confronts Collective Trauma with Community Response
Can a game help someone cope with trauma? It is a question that, perhaps surprisingly, has some history. The links between trauma and gaming go quite deep, from their repetitive cycles of dying and killing that motivate psychoanalytic modes of analysis1 to their real-world application in PTSD treatment for veterans.2 While many games explore or simulate individual experiences with trauma, fewer attempt to understand the angle from the lens of community. Survivance, created by the award-winning Indigenous game designer Elizabeth LaPensée in collaboration with Wisdom of the Elders, Inc., does just that. LaPensée, assistant professor in the Departments of Media and Information and Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University, is Anishinaabe and Métis, and her design practice centers on collaboration with Indigenous communities to create games and media that reflect and enrich contemporary Indigenous experience. This game is a result of one such collaboration. It tasks players with engaging with their Indigenous history and community by choosing a quest that ends in the creation of a work of art to heal personal and communal trauma.
Survivance takes its name from the term coined by the Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor, who uses it to characterize the various ways Indigenous people thrive and persist in contemporary society despite histories that claim their defeat.3 LaPensée describes it thus: "Survivance merges survival and endurance in asserting Indigenous presence in contemporary media."4 As a living digital project, Survivance insists on the contemporaneity of Indigenous life, as well as on the continuous nature of healing trauma. The rules are simple: choose a quest, perform its steps, reflect, rest, and, eventually, create an Act of Survivance, a piece of art that emerges from the completion of the quest, and share. This simplicity encourages players to return to the game over and over again, learning new lessons, healing different wounds, and creating more Acts [End Page 353] to share. Sharing can be done on one's own through social media or directly through the Survivance website, which hosts Acts of Survivance from players of various Indigenous communities.
Each set of quests is "structured in the phases of the Indigenous life journey": The Orphan, The Wanderer, The Caretaker, The Warrior, The Changer. Each life phase has its own set of quests, and each quest includes a set of instructions, reflection questions, and relevant guiding words from an elder. For example, The Giving Quest, part of the Caretaker phase, instructs the player to perform a number of tasks: "Give to yourself." "Give to someone close to you." "Volunteer your time or donate to an organization or someone you are unfamiliar with."5 Each task encourages the player to take one step farther down a path of generosity and community accountability by making changes in their actual lives. In this way, it resembles games such as SuperBetter, which sets daily goals for players with the aim of helping them develop skills to cope with the effects of depression and anxiety.6 However, while SuperBetter emerges from something of an auteur experience (creator Jane McGonigal's recovery process from the emotional and cognitive effects of a concussion) and emphasizes individual resilience and recovery, Survivance draws on communal registers of wisdom and well-being for its central tenets.
Toward this end, Survivance incorporates the stories and teachings of Indigenous elders preserved in digital video by Wisdom of the Elders, Inc., which partnered with LaPensée to produce the game. For the Giving Quest, the quest objectives are contextualized by a video interview with Elaine Grinnell, a storyteller from the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe, who speaks about the centrality of interconnectedness to Indigenous life, the importance of sharing, and how individuals can draw strength from the community in times of hardship or plenty. For example, Grinnell discusses how she confronted alcoholism with and for her family and her wider tribal community, and encourages those healing from addiction to shift their energy into helping others. The stories for each quest offer crucial perspectives for players to consider while pursuing their objectives...