Tragedy and Trust

# A Game to increase the Systems Intelligence of Children (of all ages!) “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions” Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline

Life is about making choices- whether as individuals, organizations or societies. All our choices have consequences- some immediate and some longer term, some that we seek, and others unintended. These consequences depend on networks of cause and effect inter-relationships called Systems. A System is a set of parts which interact to function as a whole: Human beings, organizations, and the world are all systems. So, to make better choices we need to understand the dynamics of these systems.

Fortunately, there is an approach called systems thinking which enables us to do this. The problem is that this is rarely taught to children……

Paddington demonstrates the power of feedback. source

Inspired by Linda Booth Sweeney’s “Harvest” game in the “Climate Change Playbook”, I decided to create my own version of it with the children. I created a virtual sea on my computer with a simple algorithm for fish reproduction. I divided the group into 4 teams and gave each team a fishing boat. I told them they would be going fishing to feed their team, and that they could request up to 8 fish each round (or they could choose not to fish.) They would play for up to 10 rounds or UNTIL THE SEA WAS EMPTY. The winning team would be the team who had the biggest catch.

# First Game The first time we played the game the teams did not communicate. After 4 rounds they had fished the sea dry and I did not have the heart to tell them, so I added some more fish. Again, they fished the sea dry after a further 2 rounds. At this point I stopped the game and revealed the results on screen. Immediately team 1, the “winning” team, began to celebrate, chanting “we won, we won”. I asked them how they planned to feed their team in future when the fish were extinct. They stopped chanting, looked deflated and said “what have we done?”…then “please can we play again?” Unlike life we can get second chances in games!

# Second Game On the second round of the game I replenished the sea with an undisclosed number of fish. This time the teams collaborated. They realized that managing the fish population was vital to their own sustainability. They agreed to form a cartel and fish according to an agreed quota. They did not, however, agree to sharing their actual requests for fish. Only I saw this.

For the first 6 rounds they all kept to the agreed quota and all requests were fulfilled. So, they discussed and agreed an increase to the fishing quota. Remember at this point in the first game they had fished the sea dry. I noticed that team 1 “broke” the cartel by demanding the maximum number of fish, whilst the other teams adhered to the new quota. Remember only I could see this.

After 10 rounds I stopped the game and showed them the results. Team 1 celebrated loudly again but when the other teams realized what had actually happened, war literally broke out in the classroom! They stood up and shouted accusations of team 1 being liars and cheats who could never be trusted again. At this point I intervened, calmed things down and invited team 1 to explain their behavior.

The spokesperson, a 14 year old boy, kept his composure. He pointed out to the others the abundant state of the sea and therefore their assured future. He pointed out that all teams had accumulated a far greater catch than in the first game. He said he didn’t understand why they were upset when his team had only had a few more fish than them. The other teams retorted that these were fair points but they still could not see how they could ever trust team 1 again.

I asked them to consider how they could prevent this happening if we were to play again. They discussed introducing open information and pooling the fish demands before they were sent. They noted that as trust falls the need for rules and policing increases.

We also talked about the difference in how they felt immediately after the two games. They were astonished to realise that in some ways they were happier after game 1 than game 2 despite the better future envisaged! This was because there was no deceit and all teams were united in their grief.

We mapped the system we had created at a number of levels including the dynamics of fish population and the dynamics of trust. We also mapped the deeper level of the dynamics of emotions and desires and how these interactions impacted the system. We explored what “winning” really means.

# The children learned: - How they are constantly creating systems through their choices and interactions with others; - That commons can create tragedies. The key is how we choose to manage resources; - How short and long term goals need to be aligned; - How competition and collaboration impact resource management; - The truth of our interdependence and who we can really trust.

# To find out more contact Kerry Turner at or call +44 (0)7853 896127. For further ideas for systems games read “The Climate Change Playbook” by Dennis Meadows, Linda Booth Sweeney, and Gillian Martin Mehers.

For more information on my work in India see Passage to India.

For further details of the course content see Genwise Course Curriculum.

Here is a link to an online fishing game. See Fishing Games.

# Biography Kerry Turner is passionate about understanding and improving systems. She acquired her skills in system dynamics and feedback systems thinking during her career as a management consultant with a series of multinational companies. She trained with Barry Richmond, Peter Senge and Dennis Sherwood, and honed her practical skills with a vast range of clients. For the last thirteen years, she has applied it to every aspect of her life, including horsemanship, swimming and health. Kerry has enrolled at the University of Hull as a part time PhD student in the Centre for Systems Studies. Her research will evaluate the potential for feedback systems thinking in schools to transform the learning of students.