This unit deals with the topic of the overuse of freely available resources, so-called common pool resources. Students play a game enabling them to recognise and experience first-hand the main incentives inherent in common pool resources. They get to discuss possible solutions as well as the difficulties involved in trying to implement them, and they try out the effect of penalties and conferences. The unit enables students to explore concepts such as the types of economic goods, the tragedy of the commons (and the associated concepts of the common pool resource dilemma or commons dilemma), externalities, sustainability, scarcity of resources, the role of the state and social norms. The topic can be – but does not have to be – linked to environmental problems (e.g. carbon emissions and climate change).
The ‘Fishpond’ group game is played with the whole class. Students work through the topic by way of the associated worksheet, which can be differentiated to suit the level of the class. A video projector is required. The masks worn by the players in the game can be ordered or downloaded.
Two to four lessons, depending on the depth in which the topic is explored.
Instruction in language, communication and society (LCS), economics and law (GYM), economics and social studies (KV), ecology/environmental studies, geography, history and civic studies, sociology and psychology.
Intermediate. The game can be used in a wide range of contexts. The level of difficulty can be increased more or less as desired in the evaluation.
The unit consists of this commentary for teachers and the following teaching material:
Common pool resources are goods that no one can be excluded from using but where there is rivalry between the users. This tends to lead to overuse or over-exploitation, for example of fish stocks in public waters. For details, see the knowledge sheet for the unit. In the ‘Common pool resources’ unit, students in the role of fishermen make decisions about how much they want to fish from a fish pond. The declared goal is to catch as many fish as possible by the end. The rounds of the game are evaluated to show students how their individual actions ultimately affect fish stocks and stimulate discussion about the appropriateness of individual behaviour in economic, social and environmental terms.
Students are directly confronted with their own and their fellow students’ behaviour, which they try to influence with penalties and conferences, both of which are options in the game. This is an opportunity for students to acquire both personal competences (examining their own actions and motives) and social competences (mutual examination of each other’s behaviour). This rapidly raises questions such as: ‘Is it okay to behave like that?’, ‘Is that morally reprehensible?’, ‘Why does the law prohibit a certain kind of behaviour?’ and ‘Who is ultimately justified in their behaviour?’. – This potentially forms the basis for a discussion in class about social norms (e.g. laws), ethical principles and individual values.
Common pool resources are goods that no one can be excluded from using but where there is rivalry between the users. This tends to lead to overuse or over-exploitation, for example of fish stocks in public waters. For details, see the knowledge sheet for the unit.
As research by the renowned environmental economist Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012) – so far the only woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in economics – has shown, in many cases common pool resources are managed more appropriately and sustainably than private or state-controlled goods.
Notable examples are alpine pastures such as the Urner Boden, where resources are owned by a local community (in this particular case the Corporation of Uri) and managed by the owners themselves in accordance with jointly agreed rules.
‘Fishpond’ is a group game designed to give participants an intense emotional introduction to the topic of common pool resources and form a basis on a shared experience. The common pool resource is represented by a fishpond. Over the course of several rounds, the students anonymously try to catch as many fish (i.e. get as many points) as possible. Each player can catch up to three fish per round. If they catch an average of no more than two fish per round, the fish population can recover sustainably between rounds.
This means that, theoretically, the players could go on catching fish for as long as they wanted. However, there is an incentive for each player as an individual to catch three fish per round. In most cases this results in overuse or even a collapse in fish stocks, which leaves everyone worse off. This situation enables the players to experience and understand first-hand the conflict between personal gain and acting in the interests of the group as a whole. It illustrates a classic case of the tragedy of the commons or commons dilemma. The teacher leads the game from a computer connected to a video projector.
To make sure that decisions remain anonymous, it is recommended for players to wear masks. These can be ordered at www.iconomix.ch/order. The rules of the game and the different stages of each round are described in a separate document (‘Fishpond explained’).
The game can be augmented with two interesting options.
Ideally the game should first be played without these additional options (using the teacher evaluation and the ‘Without penalties’ Excel tab), in which case it will probably last for only a few rounds. The game can then be played a second time, this time introducing the penalty option (using the teacher evaluation and the ‘With penalties’ Excel tab) and – if the fish population continues to decline – calling a class conference as well. This way the students get to experience both the depletion of fish stocks (in the first game) and the effect of penalties and a conference (in the second game).
An alternative, short version would be to play only once and introduce penalties over the course of the game (if fish stocks decline to two thirds of the original population; in this case use the teacher evaluation with ‘Short version’ Excel tab). A conference can also be called later on. In this case it is not necessary to play the game twice; on the other hand, it means it is not possible to compare how the game develops with and without the options.
Further tips for running the game:
The material is designed to enable active problem-based learning (see www.iconomix.ch/didactics). The targeted skills can be developed in three phases:
Phase 1: Engage with the material
The teacher starts directly by explaining the rules of the ‘Fishpond’ game – without any prior explanation of common pool resources – and has the class play the game once (the short version) or twice (only introducing penalties and a conference in the second round). The game creates a sense of concern, a shared experience, and throws up many different questions around the topic. It is crucial for students to precisely understand the problem and recognise it as a challenge. Only this way can they set clear goals for the subsequent phase of working through the problem.
Phase 2: Discuss and reflect
The first part of the reflection phase involves making the experiences of the game phase explicit and naming them. Section A of the Worksheet (Exercises related to the game) can be used to work out the characteristics and implications of common pool resource systems:
The sample answers to the Worksheet are deliberately detailed, and serve as an aid to teachers. For theoretical input, there is the option of studying the knowledge sheet in class or as homework. Alternatively, the teacher can talk about the most important points from the knowledge sheet in a presentation. The text contains knowledge and technical terms around the topic, and the summary outlines the ‘core knowledge’ in compact form.
Phase 3: Practise and apply
This phase is all about consolidation and transfer: students can reinforce the skills they have acquired through practice, expand their skills and become more agile by tackling more challenging tasks. The transfer tasks in Section B of the Worksheet (Further tasks) are available for this purpose.
|Phase 1 |
Engage with the material
|Introduction||Introduction to the ‘Fishpond’ game||Slide set (rules, structure of the game, scoring system), score sheet for players, computer and video projector||5–10 minutes|
|Game||Run game (possibly once without and once with penalties and conference)||Masks, teacher evaluation (or check sheet slide), score sheet for players, computer and video projector||15–30 minutes|
|Scoring and results||Game scores, possibly giving out prizes||Teacher evaluation (or ‘Fishpond explained’ slides and scoring system), computer and video projector, prizes||5 minutes|
|Phase 2 |
Discuss and reflect
|Evaluation and reflection||Evaluating game using exercises 1 to 3 on the Worksheet||Slide set (slide 7), Worksheet (Section A: Exercises related to the game), sample answers||30–45 minutes|
|Theory||Study knowledge sheet (possibly as homework) or teacher presentation||Knowledge sheet||10–20 minutes|
|Phase 3 |
Practise and apply
|Transfer tasks||Complete transfer tasks in a pair or group||Worksheet (Section B: Further tasks), sample answers||30–45 minutes|