A Just Reality is a transdisciplinary transformational collaboration with goal to reduce bias in law enforcement responses to domestic violence and sexual assault using emerging technology. The project concept is a virtual reality (VR) training tool to fill a gap in essential skills training for law enforcement when investigating gender-based violence incidents. VR training experiences have proven effective in improving decision-making skills, eliciting empathy, and creating an emotional connection between the trainee and the materials in many domains. By providing an interactive VR scenario where participants interview an emotive avatar, officers learn to avoid biased language and practice victim-centered and trauma-informed techniques when interacting with those reporting gender-based violence.
VR training experiences have proven effective in improving decision-making skills, eliciting empathy, and creating an emotional connection between the trainee and the materials in many domains.
Benefits to this approach include:
- Provides Immersive, Experiential Learning: Experience is an improvement over traditional training methods.
- Enables Safety and Repetition: Repeated practice in a semi-private, low stakes environment.
- Presents a Spectrum of Bias Exploration: Variety of victim profiles and scenarios enable an array of customized training experiences.
- Mitigates Harm: The avatar bears the emotional labor otherwise done by victim advocates or role play partners exploring traumatic events.
- Addresses Access to Training Quality: Quality controlled solution, implemented at scale.
Promising developments in emerging technologies have enabled the creation of immersive learning environments that go beyond simple training tasks. These innovative solutions support complex essential skill-building activities that lead to behavioral changes in the real-world. Additionally, immersive technology such as virtual reality, enables the implementation of repeatable, high-quality training at scale.
Interviewing a victim of a violent crime is challenging for law enforcement officers, particularly when it involves gender-based violence such as sexual assault or intimate partner violence. An officer’s lack of understanding of implicit bias and the role trauma plays in victim’s behavior can lead to a further traumatization of victims, and derail a victim’s ability to receive justice. A Just Reality uses real-life scenarios created in collaboration with experts in human rights law, victim advocacy, and law enforcement to create simulated victims interviews.
Furthermore, the U.N. reports that, worldwide, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Despite the prevalence of GBV crimes, less than 40% of women who experienced violence sought any assistance, and of those, less than 10% sought help from the police. With the outbreak of COVID-19, there has also been an overall increase in violence towards women and girls, domestic violence in particular (UNWomen, 2022).
Victims who come in contact with law enforcement are commonly met with skepticism, hostility, neglect, and accusatory victim-blaming behaviors. Challenges to a victim’s credibility are especially common when the person is a member of a marginalized community. These hostile conditions pose a significant barrier for the victim’s ability to receive justice and minimize trauma.
When GBV victims’ initial reports are discounted by law enforcement, an investigation ends before it has begun. GBV cases often suffer from a lack of evidence gathering, which prevents proper investigation and prosecution, increases the traumatizing effects of the crime and exposes victims to re-offense or escalation of violence. We identified two key training areas to improve the quality of GBV investigations and better support victims’ emotional needs, regardless of judicial outcomes. The first is helping officers understand the role of unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, in their assessment and response to GBV crimes. The second is to educate officers of the effects of trauma on victims’ behaviors and their abilities to communicate the details of a GBV event.
This transdisciplinary project critically engaged subject matter experts from human rights and victim advocacy; law enforcement and government agencies; and emerging technology. The project collaboration originated as a collaboration with the University of Miami Human Rights Clinic (UMHRC), which founded the COURAGE Initiative (Community Oriented and United Responses to Address Gender Violence and Equality) specifically to address and improve overall response to gender-based violence.
UMHRC’s COURAGE in Policing Project specifically works to enhance law enforcement response to domestic violence and sexual assault in partnership with community-based organizations, police departments, and national leaders — as well as our team of design and technology experts.
DePaul University’s Matters at Play lab and PUSH Studio together explore solutions at the intersection of positive social impact and emerging technology, respectively. Through research and engagement with our network of transdisciplinary stakeholders, our team has identified the opportunity to improve trauma-informed interview techniques for law enforcement.
To contact our team, please email Lien.Tran[at]depaul[dot]edu.
Lien Tran (Matters at Play); LeAnne Wagner (PUSH Studios)
Brighten Jelke (MA in Interaction Design ’22); Chase Jones (MFA in Game Design ’25)
Research and Design
Lynn Baus (MA in Experience Design ’22); Chryselle Rego (PhD student)
Christy Bonstell; John Loos; Jess Reed (MFA in Game Design ’22)
Press & Resources
July 2023 – XR Summit at Games for Change festival
“A Just Reality: A virtual reality experience to improve law enforcement interactions with sexual assault victims” workshop presented by Lien Tran, Chase Jones, and Chryselle Rego sharing our design and research process to develop a trauma-informed interviewing module that is virtual reality compatible and to train law enforcement responding to gender-based violence.
March 2023 – NewThinking Op-Ed
“Leveraging Tech to Address Gender-Based Violence Impactfully” by Lien Tran on addressing gender-based violence through Virtual Reality and other emerging technologies.
October 2022 – Workshop at Meaningful Play Conference
“Transformed Reality: Designing for VR to create empathetic essential skill training” hands-on workshop led by Lien Tran, LeAnne Wagner, Brighten Jelke and Lynn Baus (MA in Experience Design) and Chryselle Rego (PhD student) at Michigan State University’s Meaningful Play conference.
August 2022 – Workshop at Play Make Learn Conference
Lien Tran, LeAnne Wagner, Brighten Jelke, Lynn Baus, and Jess Reed led a workshop on designing interactive training, including for virtual reality, at the Play Make Learn conference from August 8-9, 2022, at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
July 2022 – ISAGA peer-reviewed conference proceeding
Tran, L.B., Jelke, B., Wagner, L., Baus, L. & Reed, J. (2022, July). Demonstration of a Trauma-Informed Interviewing Training Module Prototype for Law Enforcement using Virtual Reality. Selected to present demonstration of game/simulation at 53rd annual international conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA), Boston, MA.
Showcases & Presentations
- January 2023 – Leanne Wagner, Brighten Jelke, Chryselle Reno, Chase Jones, and Eli Petry showcased A Just Reality at DePaul University’s 4th annual innovation day, where DePaul community members gathered to present research, discuss ideas on innovation, and connect across disciplines.
- July 2022 – Brighten Jelke and Lynn Baus hosted a live panel about A Just Reality titled “Developing a Trauma-Informed Interviewing Training Prototype for Law Enforcement Using Virtual Reality” at the It’s On Us National Summit.
- May 2022 – Brighten Jelke presented “Developing a Trauma-Informed Interviewing Training Prototype for Law Enforcement Using Virtual Reality” about A Just Reality at the Immersive Learning Research Network conference, hosted online and in-person in Vienna, Austria.
- April 2022 – Lien Tran was invited and presented at the international Gender Justice and Human Rights Symposium organized by and held at University of Miami School of Law on April 21-22, 2022, with financial travel support from UN Women. Lien Tran and Brighten Jelke (DePaul, MA in Experience Design ’23) also provided a demonstration of the Matters at Play/PUSH Studio GBV VR training prototype to members of law enforcement for critical stakeholder and audience feedback.