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The tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is one of the principal tenets of ecology. Recent developments in experiential computer-based simulation of the tragedy of the commons are described. A virtual learning environment is developed using the popular video game 'Minecraft'. The virtual learning environment is used to experience firsthand depletion of common property resources and to explore issues of sustainability and cooperation versus competition.


The commons, otherwise known as common property resources, or simply, shared natural resources, includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The natural commons is effectively the environment we live in; the air we breathe, the ground beneath our feet, all plant life and species of animals descended from the first single-celled organisms that inhabited the Earth billions of years ago.

The social commons includes: language and knowledge, footpaths, parks and other public spaces. It also includes philosophy, democracy and ideas. Some parts of the commons, such as the Internet are new, others like the planet's biodiversity are ancient (Rowe, 2013; Barnes, 2013).

The commons are everywhere but rarely do we discuss or hear about the state of the atmosphere, the quality of our waters or the increasing loss of biodiversity on the planet. Many authors today note that humans are distancing themselves from nature (Axelrod and Suedfeld, 1995; Mailer, Townsend, Pryor, Brown & St Leger, 2006). In evolutionary terms, human life in the Anthropocene is as separated from nature as humans have ever existed. For corporations, businesses, and to an extent the consumers of the industrial age, natural resources such as trees and plants, mineral ores and fossil fuels are worthless until they become processed into their useful products such as steel, energy, and construction materials.

Whilst most readers will be familiar with the concept of sustainability and sustainable living, or the ability of a resource to be used without being depleted, 'The Tragedy of the Commons' (Hardin, 1968) describes society's role in resource depletion. The tragedy of the commons is a theory used to explain the depletion of shared resources by individuals acting in their own self-interest with no regard for others; examples include the overfishing of the world's oceans, pollution of groundwater aquifers shared by different communities, and, in the extreme case, the settlement of the Americas by Europeans. Learning to overcome our tendency to overuse resources is one of the most significant challenges we face on the road to a more sustainable society. When Garrett Hardin wrote 'The Tragedy of the Commons' in 1968 the computer industry was in its infancy. Computer games today are a huge part of both a student's and a teacher's leisure time (Ashford, 2008; Funk, Buchman, Jenks & Bechtoldt, 2003), with more time on average being spent on playing games than sports (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011), and nearly as much time playing games as socialising. We are at a tipping point where computer games are becoming more widely used in education (Griffiths, 2002; Christensen, Johnson &

Horn, 2010; Sharp, 2010). The computer game as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) provides a unique opportunity to experience the tragedy of the commons first hand.

With an exponentially growing global population of over six billion, resource utilisation and the sustainability of those resources is of ever-increasing concern. True depth of understanding of the tragedy of the commons, and of sustainability, is difficult for anyone, let alone children to fully understand. It is hoped that for the 'Net Gen' student, by relating their experiences in the real world to experiences in a virtual world, that a more developed understanding is acquired.


The tragedy of the commons has traditionally been taught using a food reward game: 'the fish game', whose origins have been lost to time. The fish game uses goldfish crackers, candy or similar to represent the common property resource, with four pieces for each player placed in the centre of a table. Players are told that they represent a family and require one fish to avoid starvation, and one fish to live comfortably. Any fish above the first two can be sold for profit. Since they are common property resources, players can fish as often as they like. Players typically overfish and end up not being able to continue the game due to the lack of resources. In a second round, the rules are changed and players are told that the fish can reproduce and will double in number after a time limit set by the instructor. The game continues until either the families starve or equilibrium is reached.

Development of this hands-on activity over the years has led to a variety of computer-based simulations that have more depth. Here we showcase recent developments in the computer-based learning of the tragedy of the commons, including the VLE-based game.


Fishbanks is a multiplayer, population simulation game offered by Dennis Banks and John Sterman. Players control the number and location of fishing vessels.

When the fishing fleet becomes too large the fish population begins to decline, at which point ships can be sold. Players attempt to find the optimal number of ships whilst maintaining a growing catch. The simulation outputs an annual revenue report graph and fish catch per ship allowing the player to keep a close eye on the state of the fishing operation (Figure 1).

The simulation reports a steady increase in revenue as more ships are added to the fishing fleet and continues to grow as the number of fish caught reaches an equilibrium value. If the ocean is overfished, it will not recover for many years, even after all ships have been berthed in the harbour for several years (which would not be an option in real life). Fishbanks can be played by anyone as an individual but its full functionality (selling ships by auction between players) is only available for a fee ( simulation/login.html).

The Fishing Game is a fisheries management simulation of resource management adapted from Dennis Meadows Fish Banks game. The game is for single player use only, and uses a population model to control the number of available fish. The game has four different scenarios (modes): free-for-all, limited season, reserves, and catch shares. The game suffers from a clumsy interface and a steep learning curve for the interface (

The Tragedy of the Tuna is a similar fee-based, population-model-based game by Eric Orts (http://beacon.wharton.upenn. edu/learning/management/tragedy-of-the-tuna/).


The website was developed in 2003 and is hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. The Tragedy of the Bunnies is a Macromedia Flash game played in two rounds--public and private. The goal is to collect as many bunnies as possible by clicking on them with a mouse. In 'public bunnies', the bunnies are all part of the commons and are quickly gathered by both the player and two computer opponents. In 'private bunnies', there are two rule changes, the commons is sectioned into three pieces and if bunnies are left to reproduce they triple in number (Figure 2). This game mode leads to a second round, which ends once all bunnies are collected. Players experience the benefit of controlling common property resources.

The Tragedy of the Bunnies, while an excellent tool, is not an immersive experience and can only be played by a single person at any one time. Whilst it does a good job in communicating the differences between public and private natural resources, it is somewhat limited in its scope.


Minecraft is a sandbox (open world, freedom of how to play) building video game written in Java and published by the company Mojang. It was released in May 2009 on the home computer platforms with an Apple iOS and Android release in 2012, and an Xbox 360 release in 2012. In 2012, Teaching Science was the first educational publication in the world to establish the merits of Minecraft in the classroom (Short, 2012). As of June 2015, Minecraft had sold over 70 million copies across all platforms (Sarkar, 2015), making it incredibly popular with all ages of school children. The gameplay is centred on creativity and building, with players building (crafting) constructions out of textured cubes in a three-dimensional world. Minecraft is a useful VLE for storytelling, history lessons, sociology, and science (Short, 2012). What makes Minecraft different from other VLEs is the ability of users to modify or 'mod' the game, creating versions for just about any discipline imaginable, e.g., for chemistry (MineChem), art [The Arts), paleontology (Fossil Mod), engineering (Buildcraft/ Industrialcraft), programming (Computer Craft), and geology (under development).

The game itself is a digital commons, albeit an infinitely generating one. Minecraft as an educational tool, has its own wiki (http://minecraftinschool., educational modification (, and Google group ( forum/?fromgroups#!forum/minecraftteachers). The mod is an additional piece of software that allows instructors to control the game and players. For example, students can be frozen, teleported, given access to blocks etc. Instructional lessons using a MinecraftEDU experience range from simple tutorials on how to use the game in class to full instructional units, one of which is described in detail below.

In order to limit the space available for the digital commons, a Minecraft map (Figure 3) was constructed consisting of a 79-block diameter x 41 -block high dome structure (biodome) with a grass-block floor. This structure was built for aesthetic reasons, and alternatively could be a simple box design. The dome contains seven spruce trees. Spruce was chosen as the tree of choice since it always grows six to eight blocks high. A group of between two to ten players can play at any one time. Each player will require their own computer.

It is important that the players be at the same skill level in order for the lesson to be considered fair play. The opening round of the game is played in 'peaceful mode', a game setting that is more appropriate for instruction. Specific rules are outlined in the game lobby. Players enter the map from the lobby and are each given a single axe (Figure 3). Players are told that once they exit the lobby the winner will be the player with the most wood blocks. The rules include: staying inside the dome (the commons), no stealing of other player's blocks, no placing of dirt blocks and no cheating. The only tool that is provided in round one is an iron axe capable of chopping down the spruce trees. Players are told that saplings may or may not grow after a one-day cycle, which leads to competition for the trees that do grow. Even if players know how to plant a sapling that is dropped by the trees it is very difficult to harvest without other players stealing the resource. The round is ended after an allotted time period.

After the first round is completed, a discussion is held in order to identify the best tactics for harvesting the trees. It quickly becomes apparent that, with no boundaries, the dome becomes a free-for-all. At this point, new rules are introduced, including the allowance of saplings, bone meal (used to instantly grow trees), fences--which once complete cannot be entered by other players--(Figures 4 and 5), and a time limit to the game. Fence posts are built using the harvested wood. Once an area is fenced off, a player must either signpost their plot of land or post coloured blocks at four corners in order to claim it. The winner is once again the player with the most unused (not crafted into wooden planks) wood blocks. Once round two has ended, students are given time to discuss the game and reflect on the gameplay. It is usually very apparent to the students that a more sustainable world is one in which the land is divided by property rights (fenced areas), claimed and awarded to each player.


1. What happened in the first round?

The trees (a common property resource) were all chopped down; this type of activity is not sustainable. If players cooperate, they can harvest saplings, however competition may result in a loss of resources to other players.

2. What led to this result?

It was a competition to see who could collect the most logs; the most competitive player(s) will most likely win.

3. What changed in round 2?

The public commons was divided by the fences into protected allotments. Players could cooperate (by sharing the same fence) in order to maximise their resource gathering.

4. What kinds of situations lead to a tragedy of the commons?

Availability of public resources and competition from growing numbers of resource users.

5. What are the solutions to a tragedy of the commons situation?

Communication between stakeholders, education about resource use and sustainability, privatisation of the resource if done properly, long-range thinking--'seventh generation sustainability' (Vecsey & Venebles, 1994), incentives for sustainable resource use, governmental regulation/ laws.


In many states in the United States of America recess has been removed from the school curricula in favour of more time in the classroom. Under pressure from parents and the state to raise test scores, some schools are casting aside recess as a waste of precious time. Removing students from nature (the outdoors) and limiting their scope for social interaction and development of communication skills (Jarrett, 2002; Jarrett and Waite-Stupiansky, 2009) prevents students from physically or mentally connecting with the realities of living on a planet with finite resources. In schools, the idea of value is almost exclusively taught through a monetary worldview. The disconnect is so great, I would argue that students believe that their personal well-being is unrelated to the well-being of the world around them. In general, schools promote the competitive type of thinking that leads to the tragedy of the commons. This and many of the related environmental issues affecting humanity will only be tackled through common, cooperative agreements, based on long-term interests; what is known in Native American culture as seventh generation sustainability.

Of all the different approaches to teaching the tragedy of the commons via simulation, the VLE exhibited the greatest connections and lively debate. Minecraft gameplay actively encourages cooperation rather than competition. Students' attitudes to the VLE were generally positive, with a steep learning curve for some, whilst others had prior experience with the game. Ultimately, students exposed to this subject via VLEs may have already experienced the tragedy of the commons. Minecraft has sold over ten million copies and is a very popular game with children of school age. Since the entirety of the Minecraft world is a commons, it is very difficult to stop destruction of property, so called 'griefing', on multiplayer servers. Children are being exposed to loss of digital resources and may be able to understand loss of real-world natural resources in a way that their non-game-player predecessors could not. Griefing is the ultimate expression in the digital age of the tragedy of the commons. For advanced players, the Minecraft map can be extended to be made more competitive with the addition of food, either wheat, which has to be grown, or animals, which have to be bred. Items, including the food and animals, can be placed in the dome making certain areas more valuable. For maps created without supervision, property rights can be managed using grief prevention server add-ons for multiplayer games.

The ultimate challenge is to protect the commons from unsustainable use and pollution. The solution is to create rules, boundaries, and property rights. Classroom discussion may move into areas of the commons that are not able to be bounded, such as the atmosphere and underground aquifers. For example, the rule of absolute dominion allows a landowner to use as much ground water as possible. In some cases, it may not be the landowner using the resource but a third party, e.g., a water bottling company. The absolute dominion rule does not take into account impacts on neighbouring users of the same aquifer, and as a result, one owner could monopolise the entire aquifer without incurring liability. The atmosphere is under threat not just by neighbours but also neighbouring countries, in particular those that are downwind of the polluter.


The map for this lesson is located at http:// index.htm


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Jarrett, O. (2002). Recess in Elementary School: What Does the Research Say? ERIC Digest, ED466331.

Jarrett, O., & Waite-Stupiansky, S. (2009). Recess--It's Indispensable! Young Children, 64(5), 66-69.

Mailer, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P., & St Leger, L. (2006). Healthy nature healthy people: 'contact with nature' as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promotion International, 2/(1) 45-54.

Rowe, J. (2013). Common Property: Our Hidden Wealth. UTNE Reader, \11, 58-61. Retrieved September 28 2015 from:

Sarkar, S. (2015). Minecraft sales on PC top 20M copies, more than 70M total. Retrieved September 28 2015 from:

Sharp, L. (2010). Stealth Learning: Unexpected Learning Opportunities Through Games. Journal of Instructional Research (Vol 1). Retrieved September 28 2015 from

Short, D. B. (2012). Teaching Scientific Concepts using a Virtual World--Minecraft. Teaching Science, 58(3), 55-58.

Vecsey, C. & Venebles, R.W. (eds.) (1994). American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press.

Walsh, E. (2008). Math, Reading, or Video Games? School Board News. Retrieved September 28 2015 from http://

Daniel Short is an associate professor of environmental science at Robert Morris University. His latest work, Unisphere: Symbol of the 1964 New York World's Fair, is published by Arethusa Press.


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Short, Daniel
Publication:Teaching Science
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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