Sep. 12, 2014

One For All: A Natural Resources Game

by Population Education

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Renewable resources are natural resources that naturally replenish themselves, such as fish and trees. Humans can use renewable resources again and again if we manage them properly. But if we don’t give these resources an opportunity to reproduce, we can exhaust them quickly, especially as our demand grows. The tragedy of the commons theory asserts that individuals acting in their own best interest may deplete a shared resource at the expense of the interests of the whole group. When we manage shared resources, it is important that we use them cooperatively and sustainably rather than exploiting them for short-term gain. In the following activity, students play a game where cooperative decisions must be made if all participants are to benefit. 

Concept: Sustaining our natural resources requires conservation and the cooperative use of those resources.


  • Identify a strategy that would produce a sustainable use of resources in a simulation game.
  • Draw parallels between the chips used in the game and renewable resources upon which people depend.
  • Draw parallels between the actions of participants in the game and the actions of people or governments in real-world situations.

Subjects: Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Social Studies, Geography

Skills: Finding cooperative strategies

Method: In a simulation, students desiring to draw renewable resources from a common pool determine short-term consumption strategies that will preserve a long-term supply of the resource.


  • Chips or tokens (such as poker chips), about 200
  • Candies or other reward
  • Music

Target Grades:  Grades 6-12


  1. Count out 30 chips. 
  2. Seat 10 students in a circle
  3. In the center of the circle, place the 30 chips in a pile.
  4. Read the following rules carefully to the students. Allow time for questions and answers to make sure students understand the rules of the game thoroughly.
  • You may not talk to anyone during the game or communicate with hand or facial gestures.
  • The chips belong to all of you—to the group. 
  • Music will be played, and while it is playing, each of you may take chips out of the pool of chips in the center. 
  • You may not put chips back into the pool once you have taken them out.
  • As soon as the music stops, you must stop taking chips out of the pool. At that time, I will double the number of chips left in the pool, and then we will continue the game.
  • At the end of each round, players who have 10 chips may trade them in to me for a piece of candy. If you have fewer than 10 chips, you will not get candy.
  • There will never be more chips in the pool than there were at the start of the game. This is the maximum number of chips the pool can hold.
  1. ​Start the music and watch what happens. Typically, the players take all of the chips in the first round, completely emptying the pool. If this happens, point out that, as it is impossible to double zero, the game is over. Ask the students if they’d like to try again. Each student must return all his or her chips to the pool. Start the music and the game again. If the players leave chips in the pool at the end of the round, double the number of chips (not to exceed 30), and continue playing. If any player accumulates 10 chips, she or he can trade them in for a candy.
  2. If after three rounds, your students are still emptying the pool of chips, change one rule—allow them to talk. Most likely, some of the students have realized that some chips must be left in the pool in order to sustain the resource. Let the group work out a strategy for moving forward with the game.
  3. After the students have applied their strategy in two or three more rounds, ask three additional students to join the circle of players, and continue the game. After another two rounds, ask three more students to join the circle (you should now have 16 players in the circle).
  4. As the game continues and you see that the students are starting to work toward the same goal, you may stop the game and start discussion (see discussion questions below). You might want to have enough candy on hand so that all of the students get a piece for a job well done. 


Notes to the Leader

DO NOT explain the significance of the chips before playing the game. The rules are the only instruction the players get.

When doubling the chips in the pool, remember that there can “never be more chips in the pool than there are at the start of the game; this is the maximum number of chips the pool can hold.” A useful analogy is to think of the chips in the pool as fish in a pond. A pond only has enough room and food to support a certain number of fish. That number is the pool's “carrying capacity.” The pool in this game has a “carrying capacity” of 30 chips. You can share this analogy with the students (see discussion question #1).

As mentioned in the procedure, it is very likely that the first time students attempt to play the game, they will deplete the pool of its chips. In fact, they might continue to fully deplete the pool until they are allowed to verbally strategize.

Groups might come up with various strategies to equitably acquire chips and ultimately get candy. The two most common scenarios are: 1) Each student takes one chip per round. As a result, they remove 10 chips each round and the game can continue. 2) The students take turns removing 10 chips. During one round, a single student takes 10 chips and trades it in for candy. During the next round, a different student takes 10 chips and so on.

Do not be surprised if halfway through the game—when the group has a strategy for removing chips, and things seem to be going smoothly—a single student decides to break from the group plan and, in one round, remove all the chips. This is a great opportunity for discussion! For example, consider a group of countries that have agreed to a specific policy. Would one country ever decide to break from the group and go its own self-serving way? 

Discussion Questions
  1. What do the chips represent?
    Renewable resources, such as fish or trees. (Coal, gasoline, oil, iron, and aluminum are examples of nonrenewable resources, and therefore aren't applicable in this exercise.)
  1. Can we draw any parallels between the way you treated the chips and the way individuals, and society as a whole, use or overuse renewable resources?
    Deforesting: cutting trees down without planting replacements or at a rate at which newly planted trees are not given time to grow to maturity before they, too, are harvested; or cutting down old-growth or tropical rainforests which took hundreds of years to grow. Overfishing: taking so many fish that not enough are left to reproduce and replenish the stocks for the next year. Overfarming: depleting the soil of nutrients without giving it time to regenerate. Polluting: producing carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution at a rate that far outpaces the time it takes to naturally replenish clean air and water.
  1. Imagine that you and the other players in the game each represent a different country. What are some resources that these nations might have in common? Is it realistic for nations to share these resources cooperatively?
    Examples of shared resources: oceans, air, fish, coral reefs, rivers, etc.
  1. How many chips did the other players take out of the pool in the different game variations? How many candies (or other rewards) did this generate? How did each game variation make you feel about other members of the group?
  1. Why do you think more players were added in the middle of the game? What do they represent?
    The additional players represent an increasing population. Because the amount of resources stayed the same, participants needed to cooperate more in order to benefit from equitable distribution.
  1. How did talking about the game make you play differently? Did discussing strategies change your attitude or the way you played the game? Why do you think some players took as many chips as possible while others left some behind? How did this make you feel?
  1. Have you experienced a similar situation at home, with friends, or in your community, where several people relied on a common resource? (It may help to provide an analogy, such as several people in the house competing for hot water in the morning.) How, in the long run, can the whole group benefit when individuals refrain from taking too much? What sort of attitude do we need to have as individuals to achieve the greatest benefit for all?
This activity was adapted from “Something for Everyone,” found in Teaching Population: Hands-on Activities, Population Connection, 2008.
Population Education, a program of Population Connection since 1975, develops curricula to complement students’ science and social science instruction about human population trends and their impacts on natural resources, environmental quality and human well-being. We provide hands-on training to 12,000 teachers and student teachers annually. With an emphasis on experiential learning and balanced discussion of different viewpoints, our program has earned a reputation for educational excellence. All of the materials are matched to current national and state academic standards and frameworks.

Population pressures can affect our ability to sustainably use the earth’s resources and improve living conditions worldwide. Through the World of 7 Billion contest, students learn more about population connections, and creatively communicate what they learn to others. Over 2,000 students participated in the 2013-14 contest.

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About Population Education

Population Education, a program of Population Connection (formerly ZPG), develops interdisciplinary K-12 curricula and professional development workshops for teachers on human ecology and geography.

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