I am Praneeta Mudaliar, Assistant Professor of Natural Resources Policy and Stewardship at the University of Toronto Mississauga. In my last blog post, I had written about playing games on the first day of class in my class on common-pool resources (CPR). In this blog post, I will describe the fishing game to teach core CPR concepts.
When I first started teaching a class on common-pool resources in the spring of 2019, a major challenge was to unpack Elinor Ostrom’s work on the role of rules-in use that structure human interactions in an easily comprehensible and engaging manner to undergraduate students. I was using the book Sustaining the Commons by John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen at Arizona State University, written specifically for an undergraduate audience. The book is an excellent resource that discusses frameworks, theories, and concepts with practical examples and case studies in straightforward language. However, when it came to teaching what exactly is a rule, what is the defining element of a rule, and challenges in crafting and enforcing rules, I wanted to do more than a lecture and discussion in the classroom.
If you read my previous blog post on playing games on the first day of class, you’ll know that I am an advocate for bringing games into the classroom to foster learning through a sense of play. I decided to adapt a well-known fishing game to my class for its simplicity and because I could modify it to teach a range of concepts pertinent to the commons such as one-shot games, repeated games, cooperative and non-cooperative games, action arenas, the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, and institutions. While there are several versions floating online, the version that I used was from Living Democracy because it came with replenishment sheets to calculate fish stock after each fishing season.
Next, I’ll describe how I ran the game in a class with 15 students and the concepts that followed in the debrief and student reflections.
The Game Set-up
My class runs for 120 minutes, which means that I could incorporate two versions of the game: without communication between groups for the first five seasons and with communication between groups for the next five seasons in the same session so that students could experience changes in fishing patterns without and with communication. I follow the script from Living Democracy and begin by asking students to imagine that they live in one of four village communities on the shore of a lake. Fishers go fishing throughout the spring months, but there is a close season in winter to allow the fish population to recover. In these months, fishers live on their supplies of dried fish and repair their boats and nets to prepare for the next season. The villages are far apart from each other, and they rarely meet, either on land or on the lake.
I start the game by drawing the above image on the board. Drawing upon my research on Lake Victoria’s fisheries, where Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania share Lake Victoria and fishers from different countries carry their fishing independently of fishers in other countries, I remind students that this scenario is not entirely implausible.
This semester, with 15 students in class, students got into four groups. Each group acts as a team of fishers from a village. I ask each village to pick a name for their boat to inject a sense of play and foster a shared group identity. This semester, students came up with Pier Pressure, Sail la vie, Nutella, and Neptune for their boat names.
Next, I inform them that the total amount of fish in the lake is 140 tons and that the maximum number of fish that they can catch per season per boat is 15% of the remaining stock. This means that the maximum catch per group for the first season is 15% of 140 = 21 tons. Following the prompt from Living Democracy, I give students a vague goal: “try to catch as many fish as possible.” If students ask for clarifications, I merely repeat the goal again and do not give them any hints. My intent in leaving students to interpret the goal as they see fit sets me up for a post-game debrief on how the same words may be interpreted differently by different people. Living Democracy has a handy module on debriefing this particular goal to explore sustainability challenges.
Rounds 1 to 5: No Communication
From this point onwards, I depart from the instructions by Living Democracy. We start the game at Season 1, where the stock is 140 tons. The game is then played for five rounds (Season 1-Season 5) without communication between rounds. In these rounds, each group discusses how much to fish. Each village then privately informs me about their decision without discussing with other villages. I enter their catch in an excel spreadsheet, calculate the tons caught by each boat and the total d catch in this first season, and then present the results to students. This includes the total fish population at the beginning of the second season.
Between Seasons 1 and 5, there was a steep decline in the stock of the fish. By Season 5, the groups had exhausted the total amount of fish in the lake.
After five rounds, it is clear to students that they’re in a tragedy of the commons scenario. I then assume the role of the “government” (or “God”, if I am feeling cheeky), and restock the lake with fingerlings.
Rounds 6 to 10: With Communication
After Round 5, I allow students to start communicating with other groups between rounds. Each village chooses a representative to participate in a conference. The conference is where fishers discuss their fishing problem, share information about their catches, and decide non-binding agreements. Representatives then take the agreements back to their village for the village members to determine whether to follow the agreements or not.
Four representatives met in one corner of the classroom to discuss the different challenges that they are facing. The next time that I run the game, I will have student representatives meet outside the class to reduce the pressure of negotiating under the watchful eyes of other students. In the first round of communication, student representatives agreed to take only 8% of the stock. They took this proposed agreement to their villages for their villages to decide whether to take more and less than the agreed upon 8% of the stock. Since each village must privately communicate to me about their decision, students do not have a way of enforcing compliance, resulting in every group breaking the agreement.
Once students start communicating, the steep decline in the fish population slows down but the fish stock continues reducing. Students realize that although they might be creating vague agreements and decisions in the conference, without a rule to create and enforce transparency, cheating will continue.
In subsequent rounds of the conference, students start tinkering with their proposed agreements to create transparency and catch cheaters (see Figure 5 below). In season 8, they decided that every village needs to verbally declare their catch to everyone. However, a couple of villages passed me a note saying that I should disregard their verbal declaration and include the intended catch on the note. When students realized that the verbal declaration was failing, they decided that each village will not only verbally declare their catch but also circulate a document that includes the catch of each village, which finally put a stop to the cheating.
While the fish stock continued declining, students were able to appreciate the difficulties of crafting enforceable rules for managing fish stocks in the context of little to no information about the replenishment rate of the fish and the intentions and actions of other groups.
Debrief: Communication, Transparency, and Rules
During the debriefing session, students reflected on playing the game without communication for the first five seasons. One student reflected, “The takeaway from the first five seasons was that the lack of communication between the groups meant that an effective response could not be mounted against the fish stock decline.”
At the same time, students also said that expecting communication to resolve the tragedy of the commons is unrealistic. One student said: “Playing the fishing game in class was fun — the two hours definitely flew by. One major concept I learned after playing the game with my classmates is that while communication is important and crucial in solving social dilemmas as explored in previous lectures and readings, it must be paired with transparency and rules or else it won’t be effective.”
Another student echoed a similar thought, “Communication did not enforce transparency and allowed boats to take amounts that were not agreed upon without the other boats knowing. Communication became the most efficient when rules were established and the percentage of fish that was taken was publicly announced for other boats to hear. From this, we learned that although a boat agrees to follow a rule that was made, you do not know if they will genuinely follow through with that decision.”
We also debriefed on different interpretations of the goal, “try to catch as many fish as possible.” One student said, “For my own group, our mentality was to take the most fish available to us, so that we were to have enough for our villagers. Concerns for other fisheries had not yet arisen in this situation because the stock of the lake was the highest it could be. Quickly, however, we realized that this strategy was not going to work as the number of fish left by the end of this was hauntingly low. After that wake-up call, my group began to take less.”
During the debrief, we also discussed reasons for non-compliance among different groups. One group had decided to assume the role of a famine-ridden village. This role led them to take more than the agreed amount of fish. This prompted one student to reflect, “Our team’s hope was that we would be able to i) learn about the other villages and clearly determine their economic state (with respect to food insecurity) and ii) collectively delegate a management agreement that would allow those struggling to redress the impacts of starvation and get fish stocks back to a stable rate. Every round we desperately tried to both account for who needed more fish (those closer to starvation) and how we could bring fish stocks up by half.” This reason led to a discussion that cheating may not necessarily occur for maximizing profit, but may also be an act of hopelessness. This point comes back home to them when a few sessions later, we watch a video on Design Principles for irrigation where Elinor Ostrom reminds us that in the absence of water and a loss of long-term investment, “the temptation to cheat in those circumstances is immense.”
The Fishing Game: New Concepts to Explore
Through a simple game that requires no additional resources, students could dive into important concepts such as communication, transparency, and rules, by experiencing the challenges of communication, cheating, and rule-tinkering. Since the fishing game can be modified to teach several concepts, the next time that I play the game, I plan to foreground equity explicitly by assigning different groups roles of wealthy and poor villages.
I enjoy my time in class whenever I run the game because it keeps me on my toes. I have run the game three times now—twice in-person and once online on Zoom and every version of the game has been different. Students create innovative ways to enforce transparency, while also realizing that their rules are more well-suited to the confines of a classroom rather than villages sharing a lake. As one student wrote in her reflection, “Although we simplified and compacted a real-life scenario into a classroom game, I think it was a good and fun learning opportunity for me to apply the concepts and theories on governing the commons (e.g., communication, transparency, social dilemmas, etc.) that I have learned in class so far.”
In my upcoming blog posts, I will write about how I draw upon the fishing game to teach students the IAD Framework, action arenas, different types of rules, the Institutional Grammar Tool (IGT), and Ostrom’s design principles. Stay tuned!