A digital fishing game

Michael Cox is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College and co-founder of the In Common Podcast.

This post is the latest in a series that we are producing on the use of experimental games to teach students about the tragedy of the commons and collective action dilemmas more broadly.  These games occur over a series of rounds, and within each round, each player can be more or less selfish or cooperative. Selfishness means catching more of a resource for themselves: cooperation means resisting this urge in order to preserve a shared resource.

In two separate classes this year, one being an intermediate class with 30 students, and the other an introductory class with 70 students, I used a game simulating the shared use of one or more fisheries that was developed by colleagues of mine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), specifically by The Education Arcade and the Scheller Teacher Education Program. You can find details about the game here: https://education.mit.edu/project/toc-psim/.

In between my two implementations of the game, I interviewed Eric Klopfer, Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT, about this game and his own work on the use of games in eductaion. We are posting my interview with Eric and this blog post on the same day, so if you would like to hear our discussion of this game and related topics, check out that episode.

I was motivated to use this game in part because I wanted to move away from the more analog approaches that I had used to simulate the tragedy of the commons, namely having students use playing cards to simulate their decisions in a multi-round tragedy of the commons game. A digital version might offer greater efficiency and flow, and one innovation that excited me about this particular game is that it is played entirely through a web browser. So after setting up an instance of the fisheries game on the project website, I could direct my students to a URL and provide them an access code and we were off. 

Students in my classes accessed the game through their smartphones, which initially showed them a set of options to purchase upgrades (see figure 1). These allow them to catch more fish (or increase their “catch per unit effort”, in fisheries governance parlance). Students earn money individually by catching fish (one fish = one dollar). Before they play the game, students cannot actually purchase upgrades: they have to catch fish in order to have sufficient funds, so this dynamic comes increasingly into play as the game continues. This feature might also impact students’ fishing behaviors if they become motivated to accumulate capital as an end in itself.

I liked this upgrade feature in part because of the realism that it conveys to players that they can use improved technology to (1) help themselves catch more fish at the expense of the sustainability of the resource and (2) compensate for a declining resource by catching more for a given level of effort and existing fish populations. We have seen both of these mechanisms in the real world; in the Atlantic cod fishery, for example, improvements in catch per unit effort through improved technologies masked declines in the underlying fish populations, potentially preventing an earlier intervention to decrease catch levels to preserve these populations.

The most exciting thing about this digital game has to do with its use of QR codes. There are two ways to run the game: remote or local, with the difference being that the local version uses physical QR codes that must be scanned. Under this option, when setting up the game as the moderator, you can create a set of distinct fisheries with their own populations. The game then creates an independent QR code for each fishery, and students “fish” out of these fisheries by scanning the QR codes with their phones (see figure 2). This creates a lot of flexibility in how the instructor might design the game, and I would encourage the reader to consider this and play around with their own implementations. In my implementations, I created physical “fisheries” in the classroom by printing out QR codes on six standard-size sheets of paper for each fishery, and clustered these in different sections of the classroom. There was then a “lobster fishery” at one table of the classroom, and a “cod fishery” at another, and so on.

Figure 2: Going fishing

Building on this and the instructions provided by the game designers, I had an initial game that I called the “open access condition”. In this game, students are free to walk anywhere they want in the room, scanning/fishing as they please (see figure 3). The game cleverly prevents them from entirely depleting a fishery in one round, as each player only has so many units of “effort” to expend in one round before they are prevented from fishing more for that round. Moreover, how much they catch per unit of effort (literally CPUE from above) declines as the population in a fishery declines. Nevertheless, in each of the two classes that I implemented this game in, the students depleted each of the fisheries over just a couple of rounds. I should add that I was initially worried that this open access condition would create too much chaos in the classroom, with everyone running around, but after going through this experience twice, I would say that it produced a welcome level of enthusiasm and energy that is harder to reproduce during a regular lecture day.

Figure 3: Students playing the game in ENVS 3, Environment and Society, Fall 2023. In this version, we taped the QR codes to the walls of the classroom to clear out space in the middle for students to move around.

We followed this initial game up with a discussion of what might help improve the situation. In each class I was hoping that the students would conclude that some form of property rights arrangements would be beneficial, with different fisheries (sets of QR codes) being allocated to different (or claimed by) groups of students. This is then an example of common property, or group ownership. And while it doesn’t automatically solve the problem, it makes it easier for smaller groups to work together through informal communication. The importance of increased group size in negatively affecting the likelihood of collective action is well established.

And this is ultimately where we ended up in each class, largely on the direction of the students, which I was also hoping for. During subsequent games in each class period, groups of 6-7 students sat at different tables, each with its own set of QR codes for a particular fishery. During a later game in each class, I introduced an inter-group dynamic by providing each group with the QR codes to two other fisheries, effectively granting them access to the resources of other groups. It was gratifying to see students sending representatives over to other groups to try to negotiate with them, as it represented to me a level of buy-in. A lack of buy-in is my primary concern with the use of such games in an educational or a research context (do participants really internalize the scenarios being simulated, or is it simply “a game”). Overall I would say the use of the game in each class was a success.

I want to end this post with some final evaluative thoughts. Technically, the game worked well for each class without major hiccups. The first class had 30 students and the second had 70, and in the larger class some students reported some lags, but these were never more than around 5-10 seconds. The interface that the game provides is fairly intuitive, although there is a “research” function that players can purchase in the same way as they might for gear, and the interface almost hides from the user. Many students (and myself) couldn’t initially find this option once it had been activated. This is too bad, because, like the gear purchasing option, this also moves the game further in the direction of realism. There is also an option for players to trade fish with each other that I didn’t implement in either class.

Finally, in future implementations I would like to move the needle more on helping the students think about self-governance, which in my view should be a part of any exercise on the tragedy of the commons to help answer the all-important question, how can this scenario be avoided? What I mean by self-governance here is the ability to come up with rules that impact the incentives that players face in a situation. While each of the student groups does this in a fashion, in my experience the rules that are devised are fairly crude, relative to what is seen in the real world, and are often all-or-nothing (let’s all not fish this round). In the future I would like to use these games to better support the development of more nuanced thinking when it comes to institutional development. It would be very interesting, for example, for students to be able to experiment over rounds with a set of more specific rules. Maybe a group wants to limit fishing effort, so that they can only scan so many QR codes in a particular round, and this might then confront them with an issue that time-based effort controls face in the real world: fishers may respond by over-capitalizing such that they can catch the same or more fish with a given amount of time/effort. And in this game, that response would  be possible, potentially leading students to implement gear restrictions, and so on.

An underlying theme for me here is to help nudge the students towards the kind of cognitive and interpersonal processes that real natural resource users must confront. Currently the game does not support this type of rule development, leaving it up to the moderator to do so outside of the confines of the digital game. In the future it would be interesting if the moderator could change parameters in the game to reflect rules that students choose, or maybe if there is a way for players to detect rule infractions and penalize each other, as self-enforcement is an important social process to simulate and internalize as well. There is a trading option that the game offers and this could potentially be used as an enforcement mechanism, but I have not yet implemented this feature.

This all said, I had a terrific time implementing the game with my students and assuming that the game continues to be supported (itself being a public good that is generously provided by Eric and his colleagues) I hope to continue to use it with my students in the future.