Image by Lucas Santos


Making a Dissertation into a Game

I executed this project as a Game Design Fellow for the Games and Culture Lab at Duke University under the mentorship of game studies faculty.



  • Can I effectively communicate scholarly research through play?

  • How do I develop games incorporating primary and secondary research sources?




  • Understand the processes of other design-scholars creating games.

  • Develop key goals for my game design.


  • Create a working prototype including rules and assets.

  • Draft a game design document tracking project design and iterations.


  • Assess and improve gameplay through observation, interviews, and surveys.


  • Continue adapting gameplay and presentation to meet project goals.



I studied the development processes of other designer-scholars creating games at universities and interviewed developers about their processes. The insights from both academic and professional developers allowed me to plan my own design process and led me to create an analog RPG instead of a video game to speed up the iteration process.



I created an initial working prototype by using the existing mechanics of Mafia which requires players to discover and remove members of the opposing team while they operate in secret to remove the other players.

I supplemented these with cards and narrative cues for the Game Manager (GM) based on archival research from my dissertation. The addition of narrative elements would allow the base game mechanics to simulate the historical events of the Salem Witch Hunt to simulate the explanations of the event put forward by legal historians, psychologists, biologists, and other experts.



I tested the game through group user observation sessions and interviews. During the first session, I asked them to play with no input from me while I took notes about where rules were confusing or where gameplay could be improved.

Afterwards, I interviewed players as a group about their experience of the game. I also asked them to summarize how they would describe the Salem Witchcraft Trials after playing the game and whether or not they felt their understanding had changed based on gameplay.

I repeated this process with two subsequent iterations, once with the same group and once with a different group.

Key insights:

  1. The initial narrative design required more historical knowledge of the period than was necessary.

  2. Narrative elements could be converted into mechanics that would reduce the cognitive load on players.

  3. Players reported learning some of the key points of the research in initial questioning however more through testing with a final game design is required to conclusively show a positive impact on player outcomes.

  4. The GM would need to have a basic grounding in the history of actual events to effectively communicate research insights.



The next version of the game, under development, incorporates a game manual for the GM walking them through key aspects of the Salem Witch Trials to inform how they run the game based on archival research.

I’m also exploring a video game iteration of the game which would allow players to explore archival material as part of the game without requiring substantial prior knowledge of the player or GM.