The hexagonal world of Die Siedler von Catan, with its little wooden cities and its alluring rock quarries and wheat fields, first appeared on my radar in 2006, when I was a senior in college. Since then, the English version of the board game has exploded in popularity, and I’ve spent countless nights in Portland, Ore., and the Bay Area negotiating transactions around limited imaginary resources – with the consistent goal of monopolizing them and thereby hosing (technical term) my Settlers compatriots.
Juan Sebastian Lozano Velásquez, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Bogotá, Colombia, doesn’t share my passion for Settlers. In fact, until we met on the Stanford campus a few weeks back, he’d never heard of the game. But he was introduced to what you might consider a real-life application of it while he was an undergraduate student at the Javeriana University in his native country. There, he helped run an economics experiment looking at how people make decisions about common-pool resources, such as fisheries, when they have actual money at stake.
“It was a mess,” he says. “Everyone was of course harvesting very high” to maximize individual profit, rather than moderating their impact on the ecosystem to achieve some theoretically possible collective benefit.