Skip to main content

Professor earns acclaim for using gaming in research

April 03, 2008

How can a computer game contribute to sustainable development? Just ask Marco Janssen, associate director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity and an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Computing and Informatics.

Janssen has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his innovative work, which includes using group experiments with computer simulations to test how people share common resources—like forests, pastures and irrigation systems—and craft institutional rules governing those resources. The award is among the most prestigious for scientists and engineers early in their careers. It recognizes researchers and educators for their potential to be leaders in their areas of expertise.

In a typical experiment, recruited undergraduate students—who may interact only online—receive instructions and then kick back and enjoy a Pac-Man-type game in which they maneuver an avatar around the computer screen collecting renewable resources. They receive monetary rewards for the amounts consumed, but uncoordinated greedy behavior leads to a collapse of the resource and lower rewards for the students. Between the various rounds the students can use a chat room to coordinate their strategies.

“Using games can help make the experience fun and allows for ‘resources’ to be safely destroyed by the participants,” explains Janssen.

“Also, it is difficult to observe in natural resource management how people develop rules, but in this scenario we can collect all online chat from the students and analyze it. It may help us determine why one group does better than another.”

He notes, “The goal is to get better formal models about society. We need realistic solutions to the problems we face, and we need to understand which institutions fit best in which cases. Ecology varies among locations and social organization doesn’t necessarily fit with the environment. Many naïve concepts are being used and that creates bad or inefficient outcomes.”

Janssen’s award will provide more than $400,000 over five years to help fund his research on institutional innovation in the governance of common resources. It will also be used to develop interactive sustainability games and educational material on computing in the social sciences for middle and high school students.

Though Janssen was trained as an applied mathematician, he has long been interested in environmental issues and has slanted his research in that direction since the early 1990s. Driven to produce research that has real-world applicability, he became frustrated with the boundaries of traditional disciplinary research and turned to the flexibility of intellectual fusion.

His work at ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity allows him to meld his interests in ecology, mathematics, anthropology, economics and computing in pioneering endeavors. Janssen’s award is the second for the center, which officially launched earlier this year. J. Marty Anderies—assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Sustainability—earned the center’s first National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work regarding resource degradation.