The Fish Game

Video Demonstration:

Download The Fish Game Guide

Virtual Lesson Alternative (a MobLab Activity): Instructions and Slides

Lesson Description:

In this lesson, students catch fish in the classroom lake, first, when the fish are owned in common, and then, when fish are owned privately.  They experience first-hand a tragedy of the commons and examine the incentives at play with different types of property rights.

Time required:

10-15 minutes


  • 2 large sheets of chart or butcher paper OR 2 overhead transparencies
  • Leave one chart/overhead  blank
  • Using a large marker, divide the other into 6-8 sections with irregular shapes and sizes
  • 15 – 20 goldfish crackers
  • quarters – 4 times the number of crackers


property rights
the tragedy of the commons
market approaches to conservation


1.   Place the blank piece of chart paper on a table in the front of the room (or project the blank transparency on the overhead projector).

2. Select 6-8 students to stand on the edges of the table or projector cart.  Take the fifteen goldfish from your pocket and scatter them randomly on the paper or overhead.  (Do not tell students how many fish there are as the total amount of any resource is unknown).

3. Give the following directions:

  • There will be two 15-second rounds to this activity.
  • When I say “Go” at the beginning of a round, you may harvest the fish.
  • I’ll pay 25¢ for each fish picked up in the first round.
  • I’ll pay 50¢ for each fish picked up in the second round.
  • Say “Go” and keep time for 15 seconds.  Watch for students who try to hide fish; collect all captured fish at the end of the round.  Pay a quarter for each fish, but refuse to pay for fish that were smashed or broken in the race to capture. Because students will not be able to trust others not to harvest the limited “resource,” you will not have to play a second one-minute round.

4. Ask students to return to their seats.  Choose a new set of participants.  This time, use the chart or transparency that has been divided into sections.  After students line up around the edges, assign each student the “ownership” of a particular section.  (As a variation, you may want to have one fewer student than sections, leaving the remaining section unassigned.)

5. Repeat the instructions from procedure #2.  Play the 2 rounds and pay students for the fish, again commenting that you will not “buy” damaged or smashed fish.

6. Debrief:

  • (To the first group of fishers.) Why did you harvest the fish so quickly?
  • What were the incentives facing these fisherpersons?
  • What were the rules of the game that shaped the incentives?
  • What happened to the resource?
  • (To the second group of fishers.) Why did you wait to harvest the fish?
  • What were the incentives that encouraged these fisherpersons to wait?
  • What were the rules for the game that shaped these incentives?
  • What happened to the resource?
  • How much income did the first group earn compared to the second group? (Emphasize the fact that the second group earned much more.)


Well established property rights increase the value of investments that pay off in the future. (Students’ waiting is an investment)

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