Understanding Concepts in Social Science Research through Werewolves


Anastasia Kulpa

Department of Sociology

MacEwan University


Kulpa, A. (2018). Understanding Concepts in Social Science Research through Werewolves. MacEwan University.


Designed to convey methodological concepts in content-based sociology classes (rather than a methods course), this set of assignments is designed to engage students in the multiple aspects of the research process, and support their understanding that research is the outcome of a series of choices made with imperfect information, rather than the inevitable outcome of a straightforward process.

Students are asked to play a game (Werewolves—see below) and complete a pair of assignments treating these games as fieldwork observations to illustrate course concepts. A session of the game precedes each assignment. The first assignment is written following a classroom workshop to work through aspects of the assignments, with all students working on the same concept. The second assignment presents the same tasks, but students choose their own topics, and provide more examples of their chosen concept.

Background and Context

At MacEwan University, students taking sociology as a general education requirement, or minoring in sociology, are not required to take research methods classes. Instead, research methods are introduced in introductory sociology courses, and incorporated into the curriculum of other courses in the department. Courses at the institution are typically small, with no more than 40 students in second-year courses.

Assignment Goals

  • Engage with the complexity of operationalising variables in a social psychological context
  • Link sources together to provide a nuanced look at a concept or idea, and consider readings in relation to observations.
  • Reflect on how data collected through fieldwork confirms or challenges existing research, and interpret those connections.


For me personally, questions of how we can claim to know things are both fascinating and profoundly sociological. The conventions by which we evaluate and understand arguments are established based on traditions in the academy, and are the result of institutions and individuals making decisions about whose work to support. I don’t think it is possible to understand a discipline without understanding how it collects and analyzes information to draw conclusions, but for many years when I would introduce a unit on research methods, students would be less than enthused. I asked them why, and they said that research methods generally meant a discussion of abstract principles of survey design, or memorising a set of definitions.

This assignment is born of a desire to move beyond abstract principles of research methods and communicate to students why those principles matter. The game of Werewolves serves as an intrinsically interesting activity which can interest students in the research process, as well as developing the tension between participating in an activity and observing that activity which is necessary to understand the fieldwork process. Additionally, Werewolves provides a safe, bounded fieldwork context, where students do not need to negotiate access to sites or potentially put their safety or the safety of others at risk by being in unfamiliar environments. Having all students complete their fieldwork in the same context, with the instructor present, also allows me to better assist them with their work, because they are discussing situations of which I have some knowledge.

My goal in teaching research methods is primarily for students to be better able to interpret research results later on, rather than giving students the skills they need to design and carry out their own research projects. My students are more likely to be professionals working with and communicating research results than researchers, so the skills to interpret research are essential. One of the reasons students have given me for being less than enthusiastic about studying research methods is that they don’t see much purpose in doing so. Before completing this assignment, students discuss research as though if it’s been published you can’t argue with it. After this assignment, students discuss articles differently, questioning if researchers asked the right question, or chose the correct context in which to seek an answer to their questions. They are more aware of how the results of a piece of research might change if you asked a different group of people, or used a different instrument – a common discussion is the difference between observing people’s behaviour, and understanding their internal states for those actions.

Students tell me that what they learned through this assignment series is that research is really complicated, and that they had no idea so many decisions were involved in designing a research project. When they come to me frustrated that they could take their projects in a variety of directions, and that choosing one means leaving something interesting unexamined, I tell them that happens to every researcher. It helps them understand research publications as an analysis of data collected, including choices about what data to include or exclude from analysis. Over the years, students have told me that they find this learning very helpful, even a long time after the course is over.

Some students do find the process frustrating, especially in the second assignment in the series where they are asked to determine their own topic of study. Generally, these frustrations are linked to a desire for there to be a correct answer, and a discomfort with the idea that there might well be a myriad of excellent ways to approach the same data. In my experience, most of this can be addressed by talking with individual students about their particular concerns. The other issue students often raise is a desire to observe the game itself without participating, because they find doing both simultaneously challenging. This offers a lovely introduction to conversations about access to research contexts, and where it might be possible to observe without participating, and where such a construction would be impossible.

As the instructor, it’s important to remind students that the focus should be on collecting data for their assignments, and that winning the game does not necessarily contribute to that. It is easy for students to get caught up in the game itself, so I find myself giving regular prompts to take notes, and, especially for the first assignment where everyone is working on the same idea, pointing out potential examples of the concept in question.

*This assignment would be adaptable to a variety of subject areas by changing the disciplinary lenses students are asked to bring to the process of analysing their observations – here, it is a social psychology assignment, but it would be applicable to many disciplines that collect data using fieldwork.*

A Werewolves Primer

Initially, this game was developed as a psychology experiment about the interactions between an informed minority and an uninformed majority. In this case, the informed minority (a small group of Werewolves) is interested in avoiding detection and eating the population of villagers, night after night. The uninformed majority (the rest of the village) is trying to find this small group, but as a group have no concrete information to work with, they have hunches and observations, and a slow process of potentially killing one werewolf at a time. It is now used primarily as a party game with a lot of very devoted adherents and an enormous number of variations.

For readers unfamiliar with the game, there are numerous resources available.  These include videos of groups playing this game on You Tube, as well as articles discussing strategy and the use of this game which may be of use to both players and faculty looking to use the game in class. When I use this assignment in class, I often make these available to students, because it can help students who are anxious have a sense of how the game will work, which allows them to focus on data collection, instead of learning a new game. One of the attached documents contains a list of game rules suitable for use in classrooms – including recommended distributions of roles for different group sizes, etc. to facilitate the use of this assignment in other classrooms.


This is a discussion of these games in the tech community – it covers some of the history, and some description of what games can look like. Maybe a 20-minute read. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/werewolf

This is a straightforward, bullet-pointed strategy guide for the game

This is a discussion that starts looking at some of the strategies in the game through psychological lenses (mostly those related to trust in communities and strategies). It includes both a look at how the game might be played more effectively, and some discussions of related concepts, and some analysis of strategies that must be implemented by a group of players, rather than individuals. About a 9 minute read. http://eaves.ca/2013/11/07/what-werewolf-teaches-us-about-trust-security/


A one-hour run through video of a game being played. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO35zA8Uua4

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  1. Rubric
  2. Rules for Playing