Deer and hare and candy, oh my! Using game theory to teach environmental politics

I was recently invited to facilitate a workshop at a social justice conference for youth. The Power of Being You conference was organized by several not-for-profit organizations in Waterloo Region. The conference was designed for grade 8 students to promote discussion and dialogue, social justice, action and allyship. My workshop, “Earth Allies,” was designed to help students understand how environmental problems are created and how they can be solved. This post describes the workshop, some lessons learned, and how it might be modified for an undergraduate environmental politics course.

The workshop was based on a modified and interactive version of the Stag Hunt, a game (in game theory) based on a story told by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Stag Hunt goes like this: two hunters each have the choice of hunting either a hare or a stag. The stag is more valuable than the hare but the stag hunt will only be successful if the hunter does not go at it alone (hunting the hare does not require cooperation). So if one player chooses to hunt the stag while the other chooses the hare, the stag hunter will go home empty handed. If both hunters choose the hare, they will both go home with a hare but there is a lower payoff. As you can see from the payoff matrix below, the players benefit most from cooperation. 

Image by Chris Jensen and Greg Riestenberg

The Stag Hunt is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma — one of the most well known games in game theory, — often taught in undergraduate political science and economics courses. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is used to demonstrate that rational actors might not cooperate, even if it is in their best interest. The Stag Hunt however is used to illustrate the trade-off between risk and cooperation. Unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is no conflict between individual self-interest/rationality and mutual gain (for more on this see Brian Skyrms’ book).

For the simulation, I used mini chocolate bars (i.e., stags) and suckers (i.e., hares) (ironically, for a workshop on environmental problems we produced a lot of waste with the individually wrapped candies!). Students were given two cards to vote for their preferred candy, and were given 30 seconds to decide whether they would vote for chocolate or suckers. In the early rounds of the game students were not allowed to communicate with each other (similar to this adaptation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma). In later rounds of the game, students were allowed to communicate, and they saw their collective payoffs greatly increase. Students didn’t know how many rounds were going to be played, which made cooperation more difficult. As the simulation progressed, I made cooperation more difficult still; for example, I asked students to negotiate in pairs, and several times I asked students to find new partners that they hadn’t worked with yet. 

I ran two workshops, each an hour long. In the first workshop, students took much longer to begin cooperating and there were several students that consistently defected much to the frustration of the others. In the second session, there was much more negotiating (and even blackmailing!) and as a result I nearly ran out of chocolate! The difference can be explained by a couple factors. In the first workshop there were almost twice as many students, we were in a bigger room, and one student in particular was behaving ‘irrationally’ and could not be convinced to cooperate. In order to get the most out of the simulation I would recommend working with no more than 15 students in a suitably sized classroom that is designed so that students can easily move around and talk to one and other. If there is a student that is refusing to cooperate, it is worthwhile speaking with them individually – it may well be the case that there is a misunderstanding about how to play the game. 

After the game was finished, I had students reflect on their experience and we turned the discussion to environmental problems and solutions. I asked students to suggest some global environmental problems – the most common were climate change, air pollution and plastic pollution – and we discussed the relevance of the simulation for each. For example, in the case of climate change, I talked about the history of global climate negotiations and incentives for countries to defect or free ride. I then talked about the outcome of the Paris negotiations as an example of collaboration. More generally, we discussed challenges to taking environmental action including incentives to exploit resources, free ride, and to adopt the less costly option in the short term. And we discussed how communication, trust, coalitions and learning contribute to improved payoffs (i.e., helping solve environmental problems). Students also made some unexpected connections, for example bringing up the idea of political deadlock and the path dependent nature of preferences. I concluded the workshop by connecting the simulation to students’ own lives and the actions they already take to reduce their environmental impact.

This activity could be modified for an undergraduate environmental politics class by reducing the number of rounds played and increasing the time allocated for discussion. The simulation would be most useful in a tutorial setting in a first or second year class. The simulation should be seen as one way to understand trade-offs around cooperation and should act primarily as a springboard for discussion. There is lots of opportunity for more nuanced conversation about the assumptions and trade-offs in the game versus in reality. 

If you have any questions about the simulation, suggestions or related resources, please don’t hesitate to share them below.

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