The network game

The department I currently work in has a competition for who can do the best job of baking their research into a delicious and informative dessert for coffee hour. After seeing some of the amazing desserts prepared by others, I knew I wouldn’t be able to compete on the baking front…I needed a gimmick! Because I come from a family of gamers, I decided to make a game instead. It was so much fun to play that I thought I’d share the rules here for anyone who wants to teach network theory to a class (I may just play it with my family at Christmas…if there’s one way to get my family’s attention, it’s through competitive gaming).

This game does involve a teensy bit of baking because that was necessary to participate in the competition, but you can avoid this part by buying something edible and flower shaped. Although, why would you? This is a really easy recipe!

Network game

Apple Roses (I love this because it’s like a nested botany pun (apples are in the rose family), plus they’re just beautiful for minimal effort)
Making the Roses (I invented this variation off of a gif recipe I saw on reddit, there are tons of variations online if you google “apple rose”)
1. Slice apples in half and then remove core. Slice thinly and mix in bowl with splash of lemon juice, splash of water, a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of brown sugar. Cook in the microwave, uncovered, for three minutes, then allow to cool.
2. While apple slices are cooling, roll out puff pastry and then slice into long strips (about 5-6 cm wide). Line these strips with apple slices, with the skin facing up above the edge of the pastry. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar, then roll into a rose.
3. Place these apple roses into a buttered muffin tin. Bake at 190C for 40 min, allow to cool, then sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (pollen).

Network game

Game Setup
Then I made bees and flies out of fondant and connected the roses to the pollinators (flies and bees) in a nested pattern using sour straws. Note: Insects can only attach to roses and roses can only attach to insects (there are no rose-rose or insect-insect connections). The nested pattern means that some species have many interactions (sour straws) and some have few, and that poorly connected species tend to be connected to highly connected species. This is a real pattern we see in ecological networks. The number of interactions you create is up to you, but I tried to put in a relatively high connectivity of about 30% of the possible interactions. In a classroom setting, you can vary this initial connectance and see how the resulting game ensues.

Network game
Network collapse!

Game Play
Anyone can remove (and devour) any node at any time. However, once they remove a node, they must consume all its interactions as well. If removing the node then leaves a node on the opposite side of the network with 0 interactions, a coin flip will determine whether that species then goes extinct (tails) or rewires, making a new connection to a different species (heads). This is a team game, so no one person can win, although different players may have different objectives, either attempting to make the network collapse as quickly as possible, or to make it last as long as possible. There are some obvious and not so obvious actions individuals can take to achieve these objectives.

Network game

Optional additional complexity

If you want to mimic the impact of population decline, you can eat half a node and remove half of its interactions at random. A lot of delicious chaos ensues when you implement this tactic.

Network game
The crumbled network…

Summary of our game

The best part about this game was how realistic the outcome was! Even though we only had 15 total nodes, five nodes were removed/devoured before a secondary extinction occurred. Thus, like real ecological networks, this edible network was surprisingly robust. However, once secondary extinctions began to occur, the network rapidly collapsed into powdered sugar and pastry flakes.


5 thoughts on “The network game

  1. Pingback: Local and regional specialization in plant–pollinator networks: a new study just published | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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