John Immerwahr
Department of Philosophy
Villanova University

July 27, 2012

The Swedish Fish Exercise

This is a short exercise to expose students to some of the ideas in Hobbes' Leviathan. There are several more complicated Hobbes games available (see below) but this one has the advantage of simplicity.

Materials: a paper bag (lunch bag size) and a packet of Swedish Fish candies (these are similar to Gummy Bears, or, if not available, could be substituted for Goldfish crackers).

Divide students into families of several students each. For a seminar of fifteen students, one could create five families of three each, but one could have larger families and more groups. Here are the instructions.

You are families who live on a bay in Sweden a thousand years ago. Life is very difficult for you, especially in the cold dark winters near the Arctic circle when the sun rises at about 10 a.m and sets at 2:00 p.m. Your animal protein in the winter comes from the large fish that you catch in the bay. These fish can only be caught at night and they are huge, and they can be dried or frozen and a small number of fish will feed a family for a year. Unfortunately, your population has grown because of refugees fleeing from Vikings from the nearby island if Ikea. As a result, there is a danger that the bay will be overfished, the fish will not be able to breed, and then you will all die of starvation.

So let's assume that there are 14 fish in the bay. (At this point you take out the bag of Swedish Fish and put 14 of them into the bag, which might even produce a chuckle or two.) If your family takes two fish out of the bay, your family will survive the winter, but probably your grandmother will die and maybe baby Abba, who is kind of sickly. If you take three fish, you'll be fine, and everyone will have plenty to eat. If you take four fish, you'll have more than you can eat and the excess will spoil and attract rats, which also carry disease. No one can see how many fish you catch, and, for some reason I canŐt explain to you, you can't share fish with other families. You must leave at least two fish in the bay to repopulate for next year. Don't worry about the sex of the fish; these fish are one of those rare species where the sexes can change depending on conditions.

Now, I am going to pass around the bag and invite you to do your fishing for the winter. First discuss how many how many fish you want to take out of the bay. Then as we pass the bag the head of the household will withdraw the number of fish you have decided to take. Please take out your fish in secret, and don't show anyone how many you have taken.

At this point, let the student discuss their strategies. You might privately point out to a few groups that if they take three fish, no one will know and if others only take two it won't hurt them, and if others take three at least it will give their family another year. Then pass the bag.

After the bag has been passed, typically there are not enough fish left in the bag for everyone to have even two, and definitely not enough to repopulate the bay. Then invite either the families (or the household heads) to discuss it. Often they will agree only to take two fish. Then pass the bag again and see what happens (typically some people violate their promises), then have another discussion. Often the students will come up with some idea of creating a strong power to enforce the decisions of the group.

Some more involved Hobbes games:


Lee C. Archie, An Analysis of "The Hobbes Game," Teaching Philosophy, 1995(18:3)

Christina Bellon, "At Play in the State of Nature: Assessing Social: Contract Theory Through Role Play." Teaching Philosophy. 2001(24:4)

Martin E. Gerwin, "The Hobbes Game, Human Diversity, and Learning Styles," Teaching Philosophy, 1996 (19:3)

John Immerwahr, "The Hobbes Game," Teaching Philosophy, 1976 (1:4)





This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. July, 2012