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Hometown U: Video game lets players 'go fish' but with care

When the Alaska SeaLife Center celebrates World Oceans Day on June 8, visitors will have a chance to go fishing -- in a new video game that shows how a fishery can last for the long haul.

The game was originally developed by researchers at the University of Kiel in Germany. It promoted sustainable fishing by telling players who caught lots of fish that they were bad, and players who didn't catch many fish that they were good.

The Seward version has been reconfigured by two UAA researchers to more closely reflect fishing policies and attitudes in Alaska, where many fisheries have been successfully managed for 50 years.

Like any video game, players win by racking up the highest total score -- which they do by catching fish. The trick to the EcoOcean game is developing strategies that result in a high catch without exhausting what could be a renewable resource.

The game invites four players to fish for three minutes. A track ball moves a player's boat around an ocean layered with hexagonal cells. Click on a cell and you catch fish and up your score.

There are nuances. Dark blue cells are loaded with fish; light blue cells have fewer fish; and a cell with a fish skeleton on it has been overfished.

Alaska kids have already played a trial version of this game. About a year ago, UAA experimental economist Jim Murphy invited his son Ned, 12, and a half-dozen of his friends to try it out.

Most of the time, Murphy said, the kids hammered the fishery. They lost points by catching all the fish before the three minutes were up. Or they avoided a total resource crash but caught fewer fish than is strategically possible.

Say a player earns 5,000 points, but after the game learns that the high score is 15,000 points. How did that player do it? Visual displays around the game offer tips to increase a player's score.

The trick: Maximize your take by slowing your fishing so the resource has a chance to renew itself. Another potential strategy is collaborating with teammates to divide the ocean into sectors. That way you can fish your area strategically without interference from others.

When you fish a cell, you catch half the fish in that cell and the adjacent cells. If the cells have the maximum of 100 fish when you start, click once and only 50 will remain. Click again, only 25 remain. Keep clicking and you deplete them; fish skeletons pop up.

If you restrain yourself from taking everything in a cell and instead move on after just one click, the cell will "re-grow" fish faster. A cell fished this way can continually renew itself and provide fish indefinitely.

Fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp is the other researcher helping adjust this game for Alaska. He first saw the game at a conference in a presentation by the German researchers.

He and Murphy had been developing simpler, low-tech versions of games that showed how players behaved when they competed for a resource. In one version, a big metal bowl filled with large beans sits in the middle of a table. Those are fish. Four players surround the bowl. They can earn money by "catching" the fish with measuring scoops.

They can choose between big scoops that cost more or small scoops that cost less.

Videos show beans flying everywhere as players choose big scoops and rush to grab as many beans as they can. Lots of beans end up on the floor, wasted.

But tell players they are each allowed one-fourth of the beans, and the manic behavior drops away. Videos show players methodically scooping beans with the small, cheap scoops, knowing they are guaranteed their shares. Few beans are wasted.

Both Murphy and Knapp mentioned the "tragedy of the commons," ecologist Garrett Hartin's theory that a common resource can be depleted by users acting in their own interest.

Lucky for Alaskans, says Knapp, we have the only state constitution that requires fisheries and forests to be managed on a "sustainable yield" basis. Succeeding takes science and rules.

"Wherever you have a commons," Knapp says, "you'd better have cooperation or rules about how to use it."

Knapp pulls up a YouTube video documenting the 2010 herring sac roe fishery in Sitka. In it, fishing boats cluster and maneuver dangerously close, even hull-ramming one another, in the quest for the maximum take during a narrow window of time.

"It's nuts," Knapp says. "Tell me, is there anything rational about this? It's just like the beans game."

Knapp and Murphy hope three messages resonate from the Alaska SeaLife Center's EcoOcean game. Fishing is good; it creates jobs and provides food. But overfishing is bad, akin to killing the goose that laid the golden egg. And lastly, Alaska has a 50-year record that demonstrates how well-managed fisheries can endure.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.