Three undergraduate students have developed an online game to help us teach the Tragedy of the Commons. Lai Liwen, Fan Yuting, and Liu Hang (pictured below) are currently working towards their undergraduate degrees in Computer Science, Information Security, and Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics, respectively. We recruited them to develop the game, which simulates a fishery and allows participants to choose how many fish to catch each round. If everyone takes one fish the fishery will be sustainable forever. But if some people overfish, the fishery will eventually collapse. To mirror real-world incentives for resource exploitation, students who catch lots of fish receive animated on-screen rewards as well as real-world sweets.
We tried out the game in the undergraduate LSM4255 Methods in Mathematical Biology class, with 24 students. In our first game, the fishery crashed after nine rounds, and all students walked away with few rewards, providing a vivid demonstration of the failure of collective action that characterises the Tragedy of the Commons. In our second game, students maintained the fishery for 20 rounds, until the actions of a few overfishing “defectors” brought the fishery to collapse again.