Published: May 12, 2014
Professor John Sterman conducts a Fishbanks simulation in Spanish with MIT Sloan students
The MIT Sloan School of Management recently announced that it has expanded access to its most popular management simulation, Fishbanks. The simulation is now available in Portuguese, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese.
Fishbanks creates a virtual world in which students can explore the economic and environmental issues facing the fishing industry—and renewable resources generally. The original and new translations of Fishbanks are available free of charge through the MIT Sloan LearningEdge website.
“Management simulations like Fishbanks provide a dynamic and interactive setting for students to tackle some of the greatest social and economic challenges of our time,” says David Schmittlein, John C Head III Dean.
The newly translated versions “expand the reach of MIT Sloan’s educational approach and tools to more students and educators around the world,” says Dean Schmittlein. “They also open the door to new online learning opportunities in the future.”
The translations are made possible by a donation from Gustavo Pierini, SM '87. “Simulations reflect reality: they show how we’re impacting the world, the consequences of our actions, and what the effect of different policies might be,” says Pierini, founder of Gradus Management Consultants, based in São Paulo, Brazil.
“Translating Fishbanks into Simplified Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish—some of the most widely spoken languages in the world—broadens the reach of its lessons on sustainability,” says Pierini.
Pierini attended MIT Sloan with assistance from scholarships, including the Fulbright Scholarship. He says it is important to him that MIT Sloan provides free and open access to this simulation, in contrast to other schools that charge users, because it “removes any barrier—and excuse—for people not to learn about these critical issues.”
“By making this material free for everyone, we raise awareness about decreasing fish stocks. I want people to get acquainted with the problem, get educated about it and then do the right thing,” he says.
Fishbanks has a storied past. Dennis Meadows—an alumnus and former MIT Sloan faculty member—created the original Fishbanks simulation in 2001. Originally a hybrid board game/computer game, Fishbanks used small wooden ships to represent each fleet. Facilitators ran the model on their laptops.
A decade later, Professor John Sterman, Director of MIT Sloan’s System Dynamics Group, adapted Fishbanks for the web. This allowed the game to be run in much larger groups, while enabling people to interact face-to-face, negotiate, and bargain as they seek to manage their resources profitably and sustainably. The web implementation also enabled new modes of play: people from anywhere in the world can participate live, communicating by chat embedded in the game. “The web-based version adds capabilities and dramatically expands the potential audience,” says Sterman. “It also simplifies the play because the computer does all the accounting for you. Instructors can monitor the game in real time, show participants what’s happening and why, and store results.”
Both the web and board games are popular with government officials, students, and faculty all over the world. Last year, Sterman began fielding inquiries about the game from teachers in China and Latin America—both prominent fishing regions strongly affected by a decline in the world’s fisheries. “People wanted to know: ‘Is it available in my language?’” he recalls. “Now it is.”
Players are divided into teams of fishing companies, which seek to maximize their profits as they compete against other players and deal with variations in fish stocks and their catch. The teams buy, sell, and build ships; decide where to fish; and negotiate with one another. The goal is to maximize catch and profit. The challenge is to avoid depleting fish stocks and ruining the fishery for all.
“At first, there’s plenty of fish and everyone’s profitable—there’s no pressure to negotiate limits,” says Sterman. “But there is a moment in the game where each of the teams realize the catch is rapidly diminishing.”
By then, however, it’s too late: they’ve already wiped out the fish stocks. The delayed revelation makes it difficult for teams to change course. Each has a fleet of ships to pay for, so they must keep fishing or lose their livelihood. But if they all continue to fish, the fishery collapses and everyone loses.
The outcomes participants generate often mimic the decline in global fish stocks. According to a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 82 percent of marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.
The situation is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Some resources, like fish, the climate, or the historic common pasture anyone in a community could use to graze livestock, are “common pool resources”—available to anyone who wants to use them. Grazing more animals, catching more fish, or emitting more greenhouse gases benefits the individuals who do so, while the costs of overgrazing, overfishing, and harmful climate change are borne by all. In such settings, it’s in each individual’s self interest to take more and more of the resource, even if they know that doing so will destroy it.
“In Fishbanks, people experience powerful incentives to take the last fish—even though it eventually destroys their livelihood—because if they don’t take it someone else will,” says Sterman. “It’s not that people are evil or shortsighted, it’s that the structure of the system compels people to generate that outcome—unless people get together and agree to enforceable limits on each team’s catch. Some groups do manage to save the fish—and their community, though most only act after it’s too late.”
During the course of the game, which can be played during a 90-minute workshop or over the course of an entire semester, students grasp the challenges of managing a resource that belongs to everyone. “People learn about the importance of collective agreements to preserve common pool resources. They also learn why such agreements are tough to negotiate and often come after the damage is done. Incentives matter, but so do the time lags and feedbacks in complex dynamics systems such as fisheries, forests, or the climate. In these settings, the consequences of our decisions unfold over decades and centuries. Participants who negotiate catch limits only after overwhelming evidence of resource depletion is available always wipe out their stocks,” says Sterman. “Lecturing about this has little impact, but when people experience it for themselves, it really sticks.”
In post-game debriefings, students explore examples of successful resource management as well as the economic, political, and social policies needed to implement and sustain them. As examples, Sterman points to the International Whaling Commission, a partially successful organization that dramatically reduced whale hunting, but has not yet succeeded in halting it, and the Montréal Protocol, negotiated by the Reagan administration, which has successfully cut the production of the chlorofluorocarbons that deplete the ozone layer.
“Management simulations such as Fishbanks are a perfect illustration of what makes action learning so compelling,” Sterman says. “When experimentation is impossible, when the consequences of our decisions unfold over decades and centuries, as is the case for many of the most important issues we face, simulation becomes the main—perhaps the only—way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work, what the impact of different policies may be, and catalyze enduring change.”