The basic idea behind the dilemmas represented by “the tragedy of the commons” is that a group of rational, self-interested individuals will eventually deplete a shared resource. This will occur because they attempt to maximize their personal gain—even when the depletion is detrimental to every one’s long-term interest. No matter how “rational” we are, the theory suggests, public commons will ultimately vanish because our own rationality drives us towards maximizing the extraction of non-renewable resources. But what if our own self-interest directly contributes to the preservation and improvement of public resources? By creating a game specifically about making a city better, Commons by Suzanne Kirkpatrick, Nien Lam, and Jamie Lin, is a game that aims to exploit self-interested gamers to foster public good.
Specifically, Commons is a crowd-sourced city improvement game that asks players to investigate, report, and rank problems facing particular areas of a city. Graffiti, cracked sidewalks, poor disabled access, etc., are all reportable offenses. The idea of having the public monitor their own neighborhood for persistent problems or improvement opportunities is not particularly new. New York and several other cities across the US offer mobile apps and services that allow residents to photograph and report public nuisances and hazards. Commons, commissioned by Games for Change and part of the Come Out and Play festival and River to River Festival in New York City, evokes the same “public participation” mentality through play.