I am Praneeta Mudaliar, the Blog Editor for The In Common Blog and Assistant Professor of Environmental and Natural Resources Policy and Stewardship at the University of Toronto Mississauga. With this blog post, I wanted to explore the topic of playing games in the classroom to teach concepts of common-pool resource governance.
The First Day of Class
I have a love-hate relationship with the first day of classes. I love the energy and the anticipation of learning that accompanies a new semester. At the same time, I find that the syllabus poorly communicates the joy of learning, which I try to compensate for by sneaking photos of cats and dogs into the first day of class. I dread going over the syllabus and filling students’ heads with assignment due dates, policies, and procedures that they are bound to forget as soon as they leave the classroom. I think these are important things for students to know, but as I see students start glazing over the projector screen, the need to cover these on the first day of class has become less of a priority for me.
The first day of class provides a fantastic opportunity for setting the tone for the semester. Since I value social and collaborative processes that create a sense of play to foster learning, I wanted to create an environment of playfulness from day one rather than waiting until mid-semester to introduce games. Having read—and experienced—the benefits of learning through play such as enhancing motivation for learning, community-building, and developing problem-solving skills, I decided to start playing games from the first day itself.
Deep Sea Adventure
In March 2020, I learned of a game called Deep Sea Adventure from Tom Koontz, Professor at University of Washington, Tacoma. Tom ran a workshop on Games in the Classroom at the 3rd International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Working Together on the Commons workshop in Arizona.
Deep Sea Adventure is a multiplayer game for 2-6 players. This semester, on the first day of my class on the commons, I teamed up 9 students into groups of three so that we had three “players” for the game. My class has racially diverse juniors and seniors from different majors (Biology, International Development, Economics, Environmental Management, Environmental Science), representing different countries of origin, as well as different campuses within the University of Toronto’s tri-campus system.
The premise of the game is that a group of explorers go deep sea diving to collect treasure while sharing a single tank of oxygen on their submarine. Each player’s goal is to collect as much treasure as possible without depleting their oxygen supply. Each player rolls the dice and the player with the highest number is the first one to dive into the ocean, followed by the player with the lower number, and so on. Once divers are in the ocean, they land on a chip, which gives them two options. One, they can remain on their chip. Two, they can go deeper into the ocean. Once players land on a chip, they can collect the treasure chip and replace it with a blank chip. Once players collect treasure chips, they also have the option of returning to the submarine.
The game becomes interesting once players start collecting the treasure chips. Any moves that players make after collecting a chip slows down their progress. For instance, if the dice rolled to five and a player holds two treasure chips, the player would move only three spots. In addition, the shared oxygen supply on the submarine reduces by the number of treasure chips each player collects. Pertaining to the example above, the shared oxygen supply would reduce by two. The first round ends when the oxygen has run out. Players who are still in the ocean deposit their treasure chips into stacks of three at the bottom of the ocean. Any players that made it back to the submarine hold on to their treasure chips. The game is then played for two more rounds. At the end of three rounds, players who were able to return to the submarine count the points on their chips. The player who has the most points is the winner (Video instructions included here).
After playing three rounds, our game did not have a winner. In fact, every player lost because no one returned to the submarine. Only one player was close to returning to the submarine, but the oxygen supply in the submarine ran out since other players continued collecting treasure chips. As an instructor, I was less concerned with whether a certain player wins than the students’ opportunity to engage with the challenges of managing the commons with a sense of play. Students laughed, got confused, agonized over bad decisions (for e.g., collecting chips instead of returning to the submarine), and collectively groaned with dismay with each roll of the dice. The syllabus and its nitty-gritties lay forgotten.
At the end of the game, I led a debrief that included the following questions, “What were different groups trying to achieve,” “Why were there no winners?” “What strategies would have resulted in a winner?” and “What would you have done differently?”
Students gave a variety of answers that describe several challenges of managing common-pool resources. For instance, since each team’s decision to dive further into the ocean reduced the oxygen supply for everyone, one student said, “How can we cooperate with each other to maintain the oxygen supply and still win?” which brought up the concept of subtractability: one individual’s use of a resource reduces the amount of the resource available for other users. Another student said, “How to make decisions when I can’t trust the other group?”, which led to a discussion on the obstacles communities might face for building trust.
Benefits of Playing Games on the First Day of Class
I revisited Deep Sea Adventure on the last day of class to end the class on a high note. Students organized into two groups to play two games concurrently. The differences in communication between the two groups was stark. One group had six students who played the game on the first day of class. This group had high levels of communication, appeared more relaxed, and had an easy banter among themselves. A student who was a part of the communicative group reflected, “We not only knew everyone but we had a level of shared history with each other. This gave us some insight into how we would behave. The shared history also leads to trust as we could predict how everyone would behave to some extent.” No one was surprised when a couple of players in the communicative group returned to the submarine and eventually the group had a winner.
The second group had three students who played the game on the first day of class with three students who had not played the game. This group had little to no communication. A student from this group reflected on the quality of communication in her group and that playing with people who hadn’t played the game before meant that she had to take initiative to direct other players. She wrote, “I noticed that the communication between our group was very limited in comparison to the group that was playing the same game beside us. It also felt that the other individuals who were playing the game either did not remember the rules or had never played the game before. As someone who played the game before and remembered the rules, I felt as though I had to step up in my group to assist others by answering questions in every round and monitoring if everyone was accurately following the rules.”
In the debrief session, students mentioned that playing games on the first day of class enlivened and animated concepts of communication, trust-building, mutual reciprocity, and cooperation that followed later in the semester, all while having fun in class. Students said that they could connect class discussions, lectures, and readings to their experiences on the first day to better appreciate the challenges that communities might face in managing water, fisheries, groundwater, forests, and pastures. While a more carefully crafted study might disentangle specific factors and mechanisms through which playing games on the first day of class might influence student engagement, student learning, and community-building, I am looking forward to continuing the practice of playing games on the first day of class.
If you are playing games in class to illustrate common-pool resource concepts and/or would like to exchange notes on games, write to me firstname.lastname@example.org