GP Students Participate in Game Theory Experiment

Thursday, April 09, 2009 | posted by Global Playground News |
This past January, students at Global Playground's schools in Cambodia and Thailand participated in a "public goods" game theory experiment that gave valuable insights into the cultural mores and concerns of children in developing countries. Such insights may eventually help organizations such as Global Playground determine how best to provide development assistance.

Bill English, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Duke University, conducted the "public goods" game as part of his dissertation work. The game first involved allocating to each student in a classroom "enough play money to buy two pencils or pens," said English. Each student could then choose to deposit none, some, or all of his or her money into a community pot. "Any money in the community pot was doubled and then split equally amongst the players," explained English. If a student contributed nothing, the student would keep his or her original allocation and also receive a share of the community pot. Yet, if all participants made no contribution, the communal pot would ultimately be empty and no one would benefit from the doubling of the pot. At the end of the game, students were given pens and pencils--highly sought-after school supplies in developing countries--in exchange for whatever "money" they had won.

Developing economies are a research interest for English, who received some funding from Duke University to conduct the game theory experiment at Global Playground's schools. A fifth-year graduate student, English has studied the history of development aid, including projects that have been successful and some that have been not so successful. According to English, "one of the challenges in developing countries is to figure out how to sustain projects that advance the common good when individuals confront personal incentives to 'free ride' off the efforts of others and not contribute themselves."

Of the forty-six Cambodian students participating in the game, seventy percent chose not to "free-ride," but rather to contribute to the community pot, a relatively high number when compared to what has been observed in other cultures, said English. At the end of the game, students were then asked survey questions about the game and their attitudes and beliefs. "In the survey, many students reported that they expected classmates to contribute, and in practice most of these students contributed themselves," said English. This was interesting because the Cambodian students reported that "most cannot be trusted. Yet, they were very trusting, based upon contribution levels to this public goods game," said English. In addition, the students reported that "they were happy, despite poverty. Wealth doesn't correlate a lot with happiness," he said.

When English conducted the experiment a second time with the Cambodian students, contribution levels plummeted to approximately thirty-five percent. "If you play this game repeatedly, in three or four iterations the contributions usually go down to zero, if it is publicly observed that 'free-riders' make out like bandits," explained English. In Cambodia, the public goods game generated a great deal of interest among the students; some who had been playing outside came inside to watch the game.

As for the Thai students, in the one instance that the experiment was conducted with them, approximately fifty percent contributed to the community pot. The results illustrated a difference by gender; boys contributed slightly more than girls. The survey results also demonstrated that despite the standard of living being higher in Thailand, Thai students perceived health as more of a problem than the Cambodian students did. When surveyed about the greatest dangers in their lives, the Thai students placed environmental issues at the top of their lists. This is not unsurprising given that the Thai students, members of the Hmong and Karen "hill tribes," live in a region where a great deal of "slash and burn" lumbering occurs. In comparison, the Cambodian students were focused on their lack of material resources, as well as violent crime and theft.

Overall, the students at both sites "seemed to enjoy the 'public goods' game, and found it interesting," said English. The "public goods" game provided a snapshot of the concerns and attitudes that Global Playground's students hold--something that may be useful for determining how to best aid them in the future. It also provided additional insight into the difficulty of achieving cooperation when individual incentives are not in line with the group's overall welfare and it affirmed that local cultural mores affect individual responses to such dilemmas. English commented, "Hopefully, the exercise provided a useful teaching moment for the students, some useful insights for Global Playground, and some additional questions for the economic development literature."

-Jon Heifetz

For more information about Bill English's dissertation work and his work with the students at Global Playground's schools, you may contact him at