Tragedy of the Tuna

by Eric Orts, Wharton / University of Pennsylvania

Students represent a tuna fishing fleet and balance decisions that impact their own group as well as a commonly-shared resource

In 1968, Garret Hardin published a paper called the "Tragedy of the Commons" He describes the tragedy as the notion that any resource open to everyone - such as the air or parts of the ocean - will eventually be destroyed because anyone can use the resource, but no one is responsible for preserving it. When people are not compelled to preserve resources for the welfare of future generations, the Tragedy of the Commons occurs.

The Learning Lab's Tragedy of the Tuna places students directly into such a situation. Each student (or group of students) represents a country in control of a tuna fishing fleet and makes decisions about fleet size and deployment. As the game progresses, teams vie to stay afloat as competition for the shared fish population becomes more intense.

Game play is fairly straightforward. During each round, the teams must decide where to deploy their fishing boats. They can choose to send boats to either short range or long range fishing grounds, or they can even decide to keep some at home in their harbor. Teams can catch more fish in the long range grounds, but the cost is higher. In addition, the following tools can aid teams in their decision-making process:

Interactive chat - teams can chat with each other to create or break alliances or to attempt to signal their intentions.
Shipyard - teams can order new boats at a fixed cost. Once ordered, these boats become available in the next round.
Secondary market - teams can buy and sell used boats from each other.
Public and Private Contracts - teams can create private contracts which set limits on deployment and enforce penalties if contract requirements are not met. Instructors can create public contracts which do the same.

Once all teams in a world have entered their decisions, the simulation calculates catches, costs, and profits and adjusts the world tuna population accordingly.

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