Playing With Ecology

A card game based on interacting species aims to get children interested in real plants and animals.

By | July 12, 2012


In 2002, conservationist Andrew Balmford and colleagues published a study that reported the disheartening ability of school kids to recognize more Pokémon creatures than real plants and animals. While many simply shook their heads in dismay, science outreach specialist David Ng of the University of British Columbia decided to do something about it, and in 2010 he appealed to the collective wisdom of the internet to help him out.

"We put a line, literally a single sentence that said 'Kids know more about Pokémon than they do about plants and animals in their backyard, and we'd like to do something about that,' and released it to the web, and sat back and waited to see what happened," said Ng.

What resulted was a brand new card game, based on the attributes of real flora and fauna. Phylo asks players to use their species cards to create food chains and ecosystems, making sure the habitats and trophic levels all make sense. While the combinations don't always achieve that goal (for example, according to the basic rules of the game a whale can munch on a tree), the points and movements attributed to a species are based in reality, and the makers hope people will still learn something. A more advanced set of rules also allows players to call their opponent's bluff if they think an interaction is impossible in the real world!

David Ng is keen to point out though that it's "not his game." Although he's still actively involved in pushing Phylo into new arenas, such as producing decks specifically for museums, Phylo is at its heart a crowd-sourced phenomenon. The games rules were worked out by enthusiastic gamers, all the artwork is donated, and people volunteer for all sorts of other tasks, such as designing a website that allows people at home to print off their own cards and start playing.

Whether Phylo actually does increase children's awareness and knowledge of real creatures and plants is still unknown, but Ng thinks getting the game into schools could help answer this question. A project is underway to allow school children to create their own decks of cards, and Ng hopes to get teachers and other researchers involved, to see if Phylo can transcend being just a fun game to become a true educational resource.


Watch Ng talk more about the project at a recent event where visitors could view some of the Phylo artwork and learn to play.

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Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 1457

July 13, 2012

Cute idea.  My first introduction to literature was the card game Authors.  I've never been able to read Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I can hold my own at a cocktail party by mentioning that he wrote "The House of the Seven Gables" and "Twice Told Tales" as well as "The Scarlet Letter".

Avatar of: elvenkdkat


Posts: 1

July 13, 2012

This is an amazing idea. This is exactly the kind of resource that I love to hear about. Will this game be developed for commercial distribution? If so, where might we be able to access it?

Avatar of: TheSciAdmin


Posts: 56

July 14, 2012

The game is currently just "print-your-own" from the website, but the team is working to partner with museums to make commercial decks. It's quite cool because the artists get a little money for the partnership, and also get to stipulate that any profits museums make from the cards go to educational programs.
 - Hayley Dunning

Avatar of: alexandru


Posts: 1457

July 14, 2012

"Art can save the humanity. In fact, the artists create the toys for adults." (Constantin Brancusi)

It is better that the science create interactive toys for children!

In my opinion, "The Science" is the last divine candle that drives the humanity to the TRUTH!

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