Phylo: A Crowdsourced, Beautiful Biodiversity Game

European Honey Bee card. Image credit:
European Honey Bee card. Image credit:

They started with one provocative thought: “Kids know more about Pokemon than they do about the plants and animals in their backyard. We’d like to do something about that.”

And then the team behind the Science Creative Quarterly released the idea to the web to see what would happen. It was 2010.

Now, just a few years later, the resulting fruit of a crowdsourced labor is Phylo: The Trading Card Game. Phylo is a frankly beautiful, “sneakily educational”, immediately compelling and truly cross-functional collaboration of the artistic, gaming, scientific, education and even intellectual property law communities all coming together to create and curate a sort of “biodiversity Pokemon.”

Okay, sounds neat, but why?

Well, it all started with a letter from conservationist Andrew Balmford published in a 2002 issue of Science. He’d done a study that showed that kids as young as eight years old could identify and characterize more than 120 different Pokemon characters. Unfortunately, the same kids didn’t perform nearly so well when shown photos of real animals and plants that lived in their own backyards. From his letter:

“Our findings carry two messages for conservationists. First, young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures (whether natural or man-made), being able to at age 8 to identify nearly 80% of a sample drawn from 150 synthetic “species.” Second, it appears that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokemon at inspiring interest in their subjects: During their primary school years, children apparently learn far more about Pokemon than about their native wildlife and enter secondary school being able to name less than 50% of common wildlife types. Evidence from elsewhere links loss of knowledge about the natural world to growing isolation from it. People care about what they know. With the world’s urban population rising by 160,000 people daily, conservationists need to reestablish children’s links with nature if they are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation.”

The idea was brilliant. What if you could take the Pokemon idea, and apply it to real biodiversity and ecology content? And, the Science Creative Quarterly folks extended it by wondering what would happen if you released the idea to the web, with its pervasive tendrils of social networking and grassroots engagement. What would they deliver? This video gives you an idea:


So, how does one start playing Phylo? It’s pretty straightforward:

STEP ONE: Print a deck of cards.

Part of the beauty of this crowdsourced project is the variety and quality of the playing cards that have been contributed. And they’re not something you buy; they’re something you print. You can just use Phylo’s recommended BEATY starter deck, or another one of their pre-sorted decks, with contributions by the World Science Festival 2012 or the Natural History Museum, or go to the card section and print off and use as many individual cards as you like. There are cards depicting species (Dragonfly, Sockeye Salmon, Clark’s Nutcracker) and events (oil spill, wildfire, species protection). The artwork is lovely.

Sampling of individual Phylo cards. Image credit:
Sampling of individual Phylo cards. Image credit:

STEP TWO: Familiarize yourself with the information on each card.

Each card contains a basic set of information, like the species name (common and Latin), point value, climate, terrains, and even information on the contributing artist.

Image credit:
Image credit:

STEP THREE: Learn the rules and play.

There are two sets of rules published on Phylo’s website, one called “Biodiversity Trumps” appropriate for children younger than nine years old, and another called the “Phylomon Ecosystem Game,” targeted toward kids eight and older. The website notes that, because Phylo is a crowdsourced initiative, it’s entirely possible (even likely) that there could be many different rules used with the cards. They even offer a link to modify or design new rules.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s a game. It’s educational. It’s “Web 2.0” (or whatever we’re up to now). It’s fairly beautiful. As a parent, though my daughter is probably a bit young yet to do much other than play with a set of printed (and likely laminated, to ensure staying power) cards, and possibly point out a few well-known species, this game is right up my alley. I will definitely be printing out a deck or two of cards and having them on-hand at our house. I just think it’s such a neat idea, and with a very honorable goal: to better educate our kids toward an appreciation and respect for a healthy ecology.

From this mom, kudos. Well done, Phylo. Very well done.

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


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