Domestic violence is a common, highly damaging crime that affects one in three women in their lifetime and one in six men. The UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that over 2.4 million adults experienced domestic violence within England and Wales in 2019, that’s 5.7% of the adult population.
At the moment we do not have accurate statistics on how many people use domestic violence in their intimate relationships. However, recent research found that to reduce the number of victims we must challenge perpetrators to stop. Working with children’s charity Barnardo’s, a team of us are developing a prevention intervention that uses interactive storytelling to do just that.
Challenging perpetrators of domestic violence may seem like common sense. But only 1% of identified perpetrators receive a specialist intervention for their behaviour. This means that many people who use violence are not effectively challenged or fail to be disciplined for their actions. As such, they continue to abuse their current (or potential future) victim-survivors.
Domestic violence prevention programmes are an effective way of challenging the behaviour when it occurs, ensuring the safety of victim-survivors. These programmes work with perpetrators to develop respectful, non-abusive relationships. They do so by equipping them with the understanding and tools to change their behaviour.
Research has shown that perpetrators often have difficulty with the idea of domestic violence as a choice. Some of them may also struggle to put themselves in the shoes of others.
Known as Choice-Point, this interactive fiction allows perpetrators to take on different roles in a family so they can reflect on their behaviour in a controlled environment.
Interactive fiction is re-emerging as a way of engaging users to learn about and explore serious scenarios. The most well-known example is Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. By providing viewers with options that affected the story’s outcomes, this TV show challenged perceptions of choice, morality and use of violence.
Following a lengthy study with my charity partner, we performed interviews, focus groups and design workshops to design Choice-Point to be used in group interventions with perpetrators.
The story, co-written with the charity and victim-survivors, begins after Terry, the father, verbally degrades his female partner Sharon in front of their two children. We worked with groups of eight to ten perpetrators, each of whom played as a different character from the family or could vote on the path that they would want the story to go.
They all had a set of choices that had a direct impact on what the following player could have done in the story. Ultimately, these choices influenced the ending of the story, ranging from the most rewarding, where the father seeks help for his abusive behaviour, to the most sombre, resulting in further upset by the father’s violence.
Positive choices by the story’s perpetrator permitted others in the group playing as the children or the female partner to have a wider variety of options. But negative choices by the perpetrator directly restricted the choices of the others, reflecting the impact of coercive and controlling behaviour on other people.
If a participant was resistant to getting involved, we also designed the option for them to participate as an anonymous audience member who could vote on their preferred mode of action through a corresponding mobile device.
Reflections on Reality
We trialled the system with three groups of perpetrators (a total of 27 men) that were taking part in an awareness-raising intervention on domestic violence. Our three groups played through Choice-Point twice in each program (taking around 35 minutes each), after which the research team asked the men to evaluate the tool.
We discovered that using a fictional narrative and constraining the sets of choices that users could select resulted in the men exhibiting positive change in how they reflected on their behaviour. This included understanding the connection between their actions, controlling the story and the use of violence in real life.
In some cases, the connection was so strong that the perpetrators used the characters to disclose personal and sensitive reflections on their own behaviour, blurring the barrier between fiction and reality.
In all run-throughs of the story, both the research team and the people running the sessions said Choice-Point provided a protective, nonjudgmental cover for the men to discuss their experiences of using violence. The session organisers said this was especially positive as they found, in line with other studies, that ensuring non-judgemental spaces was crucial for people to learn constructively and reflect meaningfully on their behaviour.
Many people agree that more needs to be done to work with perpetrators of domestic violence. On 21 January 2020, several organisations including Barnardo’s and the domestic abuse charity RESPECT, went to Parliament to present a National Perpetrator Strategy. Part of this includes using quality-assured domestic violence prevention programmes.
Evaluations of the long-term impact of such programs have shown the positive results they can have, including a reduction in physical violence, sexual violence and stalking behaviours. This is why creating tools to change behaviour within domestic violence prevention interventions, like Choice-Point, are needed.
However, the Domestic Abuse Bill (currently on-hold in Parliament) barely mentions perpetrators. If the bill included the use of prevention programmes, we could seek to meaningfully reduce the number of victim-survivors in the UK by challenging abusive behaviour at its source rather than after abuse reoccu.