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Using Games to Explore Collective Action on International Scales

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One of the salient challenges of sustainability is the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals acting independently and rationally deplete a common resource despite their understanding that it is not

One of the salient challenges of sustainability is the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals acting independently and rationally deplete a common resource despite their understanding that it is not in the group's long term best interest to do so. Hardin presents this dilemma as nearly intractable and solvable only by drastic, government-mandated social reforms, while Ostrom's empirical work demonstrates that community-scale collaboration can circumvent tragedy without any elaborate outside intervention. Though more optimistic, Ostrom's work provides scant insight into larger-scale dilemmas such as climate change. Consequently, it remains unclear if the sustainable management of global resources is possible without significant government mediation. To investigate, we conducted two game theoretic experiments that challenged students in different countries to collaborate digitally and manage a hypothetical common resource. One experiment involved students attending Arizona State University and the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US and Mountains of the Moon University in Uganda, while the other included students at Arizona State and the Management Development Institute in India. In both experiments, students were randomly assigned to one of three production roles: Luxury, Intermediate, and Subsistence. Students then made individual decisions about how many units of goods they wished to produce up to a set maximum per production class. Luxury players gain the most profit (i.e. grade points) per unit produced, but they also emit the most externalities, or social costs, which directly subtract from the profit of everybody else in the game; Intermediate players produce a medium amount of profit and externalities per unit, and Subsistence players produce a low amount of profit and externalities per unit. Variables influencing and/or inhibiting collaboration were studied using pre- and post-game surveys. This research sought to answer three questions: 1) Are international groups capable of self-organizing in a way that promotes sustainable resource management?, 2) What are the key factors that inhibit or foster collective action among international groups?, and 3) How well do Hardin's theories and Ostrom's empirical models predict the observed behavior of students in the game? The results of gameplay suggest that international cooperation is possible, though likely sub-optimal. Statistical analysis of survey data revealed that heterogeneity and levels of trust significantly influenced game behavior. Specific traits of heterogeneity among students found to be significant were income, education, assigned production role, number of people in one's household, college class, college major, and military service. Additionally, it was found that Ostrom's collective action framework was a better predictor of game outcome than Hardin's theories. Overall, this research lends credence to the plausibility of international cooperation in tragedy of the commons scenarios such as climate change, though much work remains to be done.

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Date Created
  • 2014-12