The Virtual Commons

building extensible software for collective action research

About Us

The Virtual Commons is an open software initiative affiliated with the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity devoted to computer-assisted behavioral experiments. We develop a variety of real-time and web-based experiments to help us analyze and understand collective action issues. Examples of collective action issues range from the sharing of common resources, which has been a challenge for human societies for millennia (e.g., fisheries, forests, irrigation systems) to the development of public goods such as Wikipedia. In many circumstances, the ability to create effective institutional arrangements has helped avoid the tragedy of the commons. Controlled behavioral experiments have been instrumental in increasing our understanding of how humans organize themselves in cooperative arrangements to govern common resources.

If you're interested in our research, would like to contribute to our open source software development efforts, or have any questions, please feel free to contact us.


All of our software is licensed under the GPL v3 and can be downloaded from our project page at BitBucket. You may freely use or adapt the software to perform experiments at your own institution as long as any changes you make are compatible with the GPL; work is ongoing to customize the software for use in educational / classroom settings.

There are currently two main areas of development:

  1. Real-time dynamic and interactive experiments with 10-30 simultaneous clients can be built using the csidex framework. These experiments are implemented as typical client-server applications, with rich clients deployed via Java WebStart communicating with a server also implemented in Java. Results from running these experiments at Arizona State University and Indiana University are described in our Science paper, Lab Experiments for the Study of Social-Ecological Systems.
  2. A framework for web-based collective action experiments is under active development using the Django web framework.

Foraging Experiment

The foraging experiment allows researchers to conduct multiplayer experiments where participants interact with each other in a controlled, shared, virtual resource environment with the following features:

  • participants can move and interact with the resource and each other in a real-time environment
  • support for interactive quizzes, real-time logged chat, message censoring, etc.
  • structured and configurable instructions -> round -> debriefing workflow cycle that ends with a final payment screen
  • highly configurable via Java .properties files. Configuration parameters range from the number of people per group, ability to sanction, method of sanctioning (target participant is "frozen" for X amount of time, real-time direct fine / costly sanctioning or post-round sanctioning), ability to communicate via real-time chat, ability to vote for rules, field of vision, resource mobility, growth rate, and more.
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