Tom Koontz is a Professor of Environmental Policy in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science at the University of Washington Tacoma. In this blog post, Tom reflects on his experience of introducing concepts of technology and public good provision while running the fishing game with students in New Zealand.
I use a version of the Fishing Game, previously described by Praneeta Mudaliar in the games series, as an in-class activity to engage students in experiencing a commons dilemma. I use this game every fall quarter in the United States (U.S.) when I teach my Global Honors 300-level course “Tragedy of the Commons? Meeting Collective Action Challenges in the 21st Century.” The course draws on interdisciplinary insights and examines theories of collective action, cooperation, and institutions.
My version of the Fishing Game is less forgiving than Praneeta’s, in that students are not limited to harvesting just 15% of the fish stock. Rather, their limit per round is fixed at 8 fish, regardless of the fish stock, which has a maximum of 50 fish. I explain to the students that 8 reflects their fishing equipment, to introduce the concept that technology is one variable affecting commons management. I chose 8 because that gives players the real threat of destroying the resource to motivate strategic thinking. Also, the students do not know the total number of fish in the lake, because in real life the actual number of fish in a lake are not known. This unknown parameter also provides the opportunity for provision of knowledge as a public good later in the game: players can choose to contribute to a scientific study that will tell them the number of fish in the lake (+/- 5 fish). With these parameters, students typically only last two or three rounds before extinguishing the stock, after which I introduce an opportunity to provide a public good to restock the lake and try again and give them another try. To incentivize rational maximizer behavior, students each earn extra credit points toward their grade based on their individual level of fish appropriated (I’ve not analyzed how much this incentive motivates them compared to not giving extra credit).
When I had the opportunity to co-teach a course in New Zealand last spring, WATR 301: Water Resource Management, I knew I wanted to include this game. The course examines water management issues including competing stakeholder interests, water use conflicts, and declining water quality and quantity. Common-pool resources are included as relevant for water management, but not as a main focus of the course. The course is delivered following a hybrid model, meeting in person every other week for 15 weeks. Having previously tried the game during a Zoom session, I concluded that the transaction costs of each team communicating its move to me secretly online and my calculating the total resource appropriation and communicating individually to teams was too steep. So this game was played in person.
The WATR 301 class was split into two sections that met separately, so we played the game in both sections. With 17 students present in the first section, I put them in groups of 2 or 3 for 8 boats. The second section had 12 students present, so I paired them up for 6 boats. Unlike in the U.S. course classroom setting, here I was not able to give extra credit points as incentive. But otherwise I ran the game the same.
In section 1, the students crashed the system in Round 2, which sometimes happens in the U.S. course context. I gave them the chance to spend the fish they earned in Round 1 to contribute to a public good – restocking the lake – which they did, and we continued the game. In section 2, the students crashed the system in Round 4, which is the longest I have had the game go in the U.S. course context. Prior to Round 4, they were given the opportunity to collectively fund a research study that would tell them the number of fish in the lake (+/- 5 fish) before fishing, at the cost of 8 fish for the study. The total pledged was 7 fish, so the study was not produced.
Across rounds, teams harvested different amounts, some harvested 6-8 fish most turns, others only 2 or 3 fish. After crashing the system, students discussed their perceptions of what happened in the game. One student shared their strategy was to start at a mid-level of harvesting (below maximum) and then increase it over time as they saw the resource persisting. Another said after failing to collectively fund the survey following Round 3, they felt less cooperative towards others. Students said what made it hard to sustain the system was the lack of information about the number of fish, people being greedy/self-serving, and the inability to hold individuals accountable if they took a high number of fish.
My impression from running the game in New Zealand is that the game is suitable for a variety of courses and course contexts, whether or not extra credit is offered. Students in the New Zealand context, especially in section 1, acted like individual maximizers in their fish harvesting decisions, with the results reinforcing collective action theory predictions from the Tragedy of the Commons (e.g., Garret Hardin’s 1968 article arguing that if players withdraw from an open-access resource in the absence of rules, they will inevitably over-use the resource and destroy it). In both sections the students were engaged in the game playing, which made for an active hour of in-person meeting time. In both sections the debrief discussion raised concepts and questions that served to illustrate important theoretical points from the course material. The fact that section 2 students were able to go 4 rounds is interesting, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the lack of extra credit incentives pushing them to be individual maximizers, or something else.
Stay tuned for more blog posts on games. If you’re running a game in class, or have experienced a game as a student, and would like to write a blog post on games, write to me: praneeta[@]mudaliar[.]com