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PollutionSolutions: how a serious game is teaching players about common-good management

By Juliette Rouchier

About the author

Juliette Rouchier is an economist, Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and Co-director of the Policy Research Group at Université Paris-Dauphine’s Laboratory for Analysis and Modelling of Decision Support Systems (LAMSADE).

In economics, the concept of common-good management perfectly encapsulates how collective action works – both in terms of its central mechanism, trust (how trust is created, sustained and eroded), and the various forms it takes (such as public policy). In this article, the author draws on American political economist Elinor Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework to explore a practical application of “complex system” modelling in the form of a serious game called PollutionSolutions. The game aims to teach players, in an age-appropriate manner, how the process of collective action works and, ultimately, to shape more effective public policy-making around common-good management. 


In 2009, Elinor Olstrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her ground-breaking Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, a theory that tore up the conventional rulebook.  She posited that, instead of forming a Leviathan state to manage common goods, they could instead be governed by resource user groups. Olstrom argued that, in a given “action arena” (which invariably differs from one context and community to the next), common goods are managed by means of a polycentric system that operates outside the confines of the law and political authority, and rests instead on complex interactions that can be better understood using new data analysis technologies (Olstrom, 2011).


What are common goods?

Elinor Olstrom eschewed abstract economic models that treated human beings as mere homo oeconomicus. Instead, she based her ideas on field observations of cooperation in action in Asia, Africa and Latin America, analysing how communities collectively manage a vast number of renewable resources – what she termed “common-pool resources”.

Her creative theory stems from a multi-level empirical analysis. First, she established a typology of collective resource management methods. Second, she examined the systems of rules that govern how complex resources are produced and used – by multiple actors pursuing different objectives and bound by varying constraints. And third, at the same time, she analysed those factors that determine whether or not a resource, and the institution managing it, are sustainable.

French anthropologist and economist Jacques Weber adopted a similar approach. In the 1990s he founded GREEN, a renewable resource and environmental management research unit, at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). The unit gave rise to ComMod, a group of researchers using agent-based models and role-playing games to represent and analyse complex socio-ecological systems.

The term “common goods” has recently gained currency in everyday language. Although it does not necessarily overlap with Ostrom’s work (and her term “common-pool resources”), it has become something of a mainstay of economic discourse – as evidenced by a recent publication entitled Dictionnaire des biens communs (in English: Dictionary of Common Goods) (Cornu-Volatron, Orsi and Rochfeld, 2017).

Governments and policy-makers can no longer ignore growing calls for better stewardship of common goods, not least in areas around health and the environment. Yet diverging personal interests and stakeholder priorities pose a serious obstacle to awareness-raising efforts. For instance, while an overwhelming majority of people are in favour of clean air and clean water, they have different priorities depending on factors such as where they live or what socio-professional category they belong to. The resulting deadlock leaves common goods as the biggest loser.

Role-playing and serious games: supporting public policy-making through play

It has long been recognised that role-playing games are a useful way to represent the complex dynamics between individuals with different interests and capacities. Research has also shown how building play into a formal learning process helps to embed knowledge in learners’ minds. Games are widely used in education as a way to make an abstract skill easier for pupils and students to digest, by applying it to a tangible problem. More broadly, play provides a safe, secure setting for learners to test out options and solve problems through a process of trial and error. As a general rule, for a game to be meaningful and to “work”, players must be able to tweak different criteria in pursuit of a particular outcome. That same rule of thumb – allowing players to adjust certain aspects of the game – applies equally to games designed to raise awareness about protecting common goods.


Serious game: a contradiction in terms?

The term “serious game” is an apparent contradiction in terms, containing as it does two words that, at first glance, seem incompatible: “serious” and “game”. Originally known as “simulation games” in the 1970s, they were often used by businesses to tackle organisational questions. Sociologists and psychologists have also used them to study how people react in abstract social situations, while teachers have long used play as a way to get pupils putting what they have learned into practice (for instance, doing arithmetic in more relaxed settings as opposed to formal exercises) or to encourage research and creativity skills among children. Since the 1990s, the ComMod research group (see above) has been co-developing games with users, employing computer-based simulations to enable players to manipulate objects and to foster group conversation and discussion.


With the advent of the digital age, the term “serious games” now tends to refer to educational software programs and apps that draw on the playful tropes of video games to deliver rapid learning outcomes. These games – some educational, others designed to communicate a message or to train a particular skill – are employed in all manner of settings. Airlines use serious games to teach trainee pilots how to take off and land an aircraft. Paediatric wards use them to put children’s minds at ease before surgery. Factories use them to deliver staff safety training. Governments, too, can use them to support participatory public policy-making.

PollutionSolutions: playing seriously with common-good managements

PollutionSolutions is a board game consisting of a series of printable PDFs. Anyone can play the game – all it takes is a printer and a set of 24 playing pieces (eight players, three pieces each). The PDFs include rule cards for each player, along with resources, boards and group projects. As with a conventional game, there is a script outlining the scenario at the start of each turn, plus instructions for the game-master.

The game, which rests on an individualistic vision of the decision-making process, follows the same format as the public goods game, a standard of experimental economics. The idea is that pollution adversely affects well-being, and that the problem can only be tackled if the players work together.

The aim of the game is for players – each assigned different profiles – to improve their well-being. They have two ways to do that: through individual projects (which improve their personal well-being but, in some cases, produce polluting emissions) (see Figure 1: Resident playing card), or through group projects (which improve collective well-being and, in some instances, reduce pollution). Collective well-being declines as the number of “units” of pollution in the environment increases. In each turn, the players count up the number of units of pollution along with the well-being of all players (see Figure 3: pollution board). The only way to reduce pollution – and, therefore, to prevent a decline in well-being – is through individual and group projects, which are funded using units of time and money (see Figure 4: projects for the first five turns).

The hope is that, over the course of the game, the players come to realise that they win on some occasions and lose on others. Each turn, therefore, is a real-time experiment in which players test a given strategy whose success is measured against the other participants’ strategies. Just as in role-playing games, the debrief – a discussion in which players review the process and share perspectives – is vital to making the game a worthwhile experience for everyone involved.


PollutionSolutions is designed to teach secondary-school pupils that defining what constitutes the “common good” is a collective process. It was developed by Juliette Rouchier and game designer Miguel Rotenberg (Playtime), with funding from the Human-Environment Observatory of the Mining Basin of Provence (OHM-BMP), part of the Device for Interdisciplinary Research on Human-Environment Interactions (DRIIHM) Laboratory of Excellence (LabEx). The Aix-Marseille local education authority is starting to circulate the game among its schools, and there are plans to hold training sessions to teach educators how to run it. The open-access materials can be downloaded free of charge at: 

The rules of the game: everyone has their reasons

Players assume one of four profiles: resident, business owner, elected official or farmer. The game designers chose these generic profiles deliberately because school children tend to have a simplistic view of how society is structured. Three of these profiles – business owners, elected officials and residents – are a common feature of empirical fieldwork where pollution poses coordination problems. The designers added a fourth profile (farmers) to make the game more broadly representative, and in particular to give a voice to so-called “minor” stakeholders (in this case, those with little money). It is important for children to understand that, in the real world, coordinating the management of common goods is complex because different parties have their own interests and objectives, and because some have more resources than others. Moreover, they need to recognise that pollution (the subject of this game) is not merely an industrial problem, and that everyone – residents, farmers and elected officials alike – is personally responsible for polluting the environment.

Figure 1: the Resident (who receives two units of money and three units of time for each turn)

The game is played over eight turns. At the start of each turn, players receive a fixed amount of time and money, which they can choose to invest in one or more individual or group projects as the game progresses. Players’ individual projects are detailed on their playing cards and only change once in the course of the game, if at all. At least one new group project is introduced in each turn, and some of the completed group projects are removed from the game.

Figure 2: players have three resources at their disposal: “time”, “money” and “dishonesty”

An individual project only improves the well-being of the person who invests in it. Group projects, meanwhile, improve everyone’s well-being and transform the game environment. But investing in a group project becomes problematic when other players choose not to. If only one player funds the project, everyone else reaps the benefits and is still able to invest in their own projects. Hence, players are acutely aware that they could be “scammed”. They experiment with the resulting tension as they work through the game – and come to realise the benefits of investing in group projects.

Figure 3: the impact of pollution on well-being is known at the start of each turn, and the repetitive nature of that impact places players under immense strain.

Each playing card contains one polluting project and two non-polluting projects. Individual decisions therefore affect the overall level of pollution for all players. But the only way to reduce pollution is through group projects. Players therefore have to talk, negotiate and try to convince one another to rally around group projects. Reducing pollution – and, therefore, maximising well-being – depends on the players finding a way to come together and pool their resources. Players typically come to that conclusion after a few turns, once individual projects have caused pollution to rise and well-being to decline. This point tends to involve a heated debate, as players talk among themselves, plead with each other and explain what is at stake to those who have not yet grasped how the game works, before agreeing to fund certain projects.

Figure 4: the game starts with two simple, affordable and universally beneficial “dummy” projects so players can learn how the process works, with the projects becoming more complex as the game progresses.


In pursuit of the common good: teaching children to think critically about collective action

Once that point of common agreement is reached, there is a collective cry of joy and a subconscious shift away from viewing success as a personal pursuit as the players resolve to work as a team to reduce pollution. Yet in the very next turn (usually the last turn), players revert back to their personal interests. That shift – from individual to collective then, in some cases, back to individual again – has occurred every time children have played the game. In one trial run, the group understood what was needed straight away when a leader took charge, spontaneously using words such as “we” and “us” when suggesting ways forward. The players did not even consider acting according to their individual interests and, by the end of the game, the group had earned the maximum possible number of points. In a separate trial run, the group, having dealt with the pollution issue, decided to reward one player (an “elected official”) for the work she had done on everyone’s behalf by pooling their resources to fund a project solely for her benefit (thereby increasing her personal well-being). In this case, despite achieving their collective objective, the players continued working together. Conversely, in trial runs involving adults, some games have ended with universally low levels of well-being because, in every round, mistrust between players has resulted in nobody investing in group projects.

The debrief is a key moment in the game, since it gives players an opportunity to think about how they came to cooperate and build trust, to reflect on the debates and discussions that took place during the game, and to link them to everyday democratic processes. While the debrief is vitally important, children can only draw connections between their experience and how stakeholders interact on common-good management questions in the real world if the game forms part of a wider programme of sustainable development or citizenship education. For that reason, teachers should also touch on broader concepts from politics (decision-making, reasoning, balance of power and collusion), economics (discussion, negotiation and arbitration), and cognitive science (emotions, and virtuous and vicious circles of trust), as well as the processes behind environmental pollution and remediation.

Trust and dishonesty in collective action

Players have two main resources at their disposal: time and money. These same resources underpin how economic and political processes work in the real world. Elected officials invest both time and money, talking to stakeholders before coming to a decision about a project, and paying companies to execute it. In the non-profit sector, meanwhile, money is in short supply and people often volunteer their time for free. The game also features a third resource: dishonesty. This is because, when deciding whether or not to fund group projects, stakeholders cannot always predict how the other parties will act. The “dishonesty” cards look exactly the same as the time and money cards on the back, but their value on the front is zero. These cards allow players to pretend to contribute to a group project when, in fact, they have no intention of doing so. There is no limit on the number of dishonesty cards that players can use, and they can retrieve any that have already been played if they run out. Other than a player clearly stating their objection to funding a group project, retrieving previously used dishonesty cards is the only way for other participants to know that uncooperative conduct is afoot. The time and money units are distributed at the start of each turn according to the values shown on each player’s card.

Under the rules, players can pretend to contribute to a group project without investing either time or money. The designers built this mechanism into the game to mimic common-good experiments where participants cannot see what others are doing, and are therefore free to make decisions without fear of being judged. At the end of each turn, the stack of resource cards is collected, shuffled and counted to see whether, collectively, the players have invested enough to fund the project. The “dishonesty” cards have no value. If there are only a few of them, there should still be enough in the pot for the project to go ahead. But too many of these cards will likely cause the project to be abandoned because not enough time and/or money has been invested. The situation comes to a head when the shortfall is narrow. At that point, players admonish the handful who have failed to contribute and trust between the participants can collapse. Mistrust, as the dominant emotion, sparks a flurry of discussion and debate and forces the players to compromise.

As explained previously, trial runs of the game have shown that, in the end, players almost always come to a position where they trust one another. Sometimes, trust is built right from the first round when players talk through the options and try to work out which is most beneficial for the group as a whole. As a general rule, however, it takes pollution to rise and well-being to decline before the players abandon their mistrust and decide to cooperate with no concern for what others might do – because the fear of pollution trumps the fear of being scammed. The moral of the game, meanwhile, is that players who choose to cooperate emerge as the winners. That is because, according to the economic theory of common goods, cooperation is – relatively speaking – always a better strategy than individualism. Moreover, as modern-day environmental problems show, if nobody cooperates, nothing will happen.

How can a serious game for secondary-school pupils support public policy-making?

The below quote from Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 1998) brings into sharp relief the fact that decision-making theory can only usefully inform public policy-making if due weight is given to the conduct of citizens.

“For those who wish the twenty-first century to be one of peace, we need to translate our research findings on collective action into materials written for high school and undergraduate students. All too many of our textbooks focus exclusively on leaders and, worse, only national-level leaders. Students completing an introductory course on American government, or political science more generally, will not learn that they play an essential role in sustaining democracy. Citizen participation is presented as contacting leaders, organizing interests groups and parties, and voting. That citizens need additional skills and knowledge to resolve the social dilemmas they face is left unaddressed. Their moral decisions are not discussed. We are producing generations of cynical citizens with little trust in one another, much less in their governments. Given the central role of trust in solving social dilemmas, we may be creating the very conditions that undermine our own democratic ways of life. It is ordinary persons and citizens who craft and sustain the workability of the institutions of everyday life. We owe an obligation to the next generation to carry forward the best of our knowledge about how individuals solve the multiplicity of social dilemmas—large and small—that they face.”

The game provides useful insights into stakeholder dynamics around questions of common-good management, and demonstrates that although individual decision-making is a generic process, tension is something that can be considered, recognised and managed. Once players understand that trust is beneficial for collective action, they are more likely to seek to build trust when working with others. Yet planting that initial seed of trust is not as easy as it seems. That is why games like PollutionSolutions can help children to identify the inherent problems in coordinating people and groups with different viewpoints, and to come up with solutions to those problems. The example given previously is a case in point: adults are more reluctant to play and to adopt the mindset that the game is designed to push them towards – and, therefore, are less open to the idea of learning in general. One of the designers’ original intentions was that the game should aid communication between people equally affected by pollution but with different positions in the decision-making process. That objective never materialised because self-image and social status make it harder for players to fully embrace the learning experience.

When children play in an educational setting, they are open to new ideas because that is precisely why they are at school. Moreover, the game is typically framed as an opportunity to learn through trial and error, i.e. pupils are free to test out strategies and options and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, adults typically play with personal victory in mind, whereas children are more likely to rethink their goals and pursue the greater good as the game progresses. It is rewarding for teachers to see that eradicating pollution as a group gives pupils greater satisfaction than gaining a few more well-being points than their opponents. Primary-age children tend to struggle more with the game because they lack confidence in mental arithmetic and decision-making. Trials have shown, however, that children between the ages of 10 and adolescence fully grasp and engage with the game, and can think critically and usefully about the experience in the debrief session. Consequently, teachers can use that time to touch on other relevant topics such as collective decision-making and checks and balances on power.

Because players fund projects using time and money, PollutionSolutions very much focuses on the economic side of collective action, omitting another more political yet equally important aspect of the democratic process: voting. In some cases, however, groups with more than one project awaiting funding have been observed organising a vote to decide on the order of priority. At secondary school, pupils are at just the right age to begin learning about the process of collective action. There are, however, more focused simulation games that practitioners can use to explore how collective decision-making works in specific situations. These games are typically developed for a specific target audience to shape discussion around, and find solutions to, real-world coordination problems (see ComMod above). It has long been recognised that role-playing games can help participants think dispassionately about real-life collective decision-making processes and embrace views that differ from their own. For that reason, serious games have a role to play in supporting public policy-making.



François Bousquet et Martine Antona. 2017. Une troisième voie entre l’État et le marché : Échanges avec Elinor Ostrom: Éditions QUAE GIE.

Marie Cornu-Volatron, Fabienne Orsi et Judith Rochfeld. 2017. Dictionnaire des biens communs : Presses Universitaires de France (PUF).

Pierre Dardot et Christian Laval. 2015. Commun : La Découverte.

Elinor Ostrom. 1998. “A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action: Presidential address”, American Political Science Association, 1997. American Political Science Review 92:1-22.


The interview

Focus on PollutionSolutions, or how a serious game shines a spotlight on economic theories and concepts

In this interview, Juliette Rouchier explains how PollutionSolutions, a serious game designed to illustrate the challenges of common-good management, provides practical insights into economic concepts and theories – from common-good provision and game theory to atomistic individualism and reputation effects.

We asked Juliette to tell us more about the thinking behind her game and the theory that underpins it.


Length of the interview : 19 minutes 12 seconds





Contact : recherche.igpde[a]


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