Scientification of Pokemon: Phylo, The Trading Card Game


Cards – PHYLO
Do these trading card images look vaguely familiar to you? Reminiscent of this, perhaps?

Yep, you’re looking at a “sciencified” version of Pokemon: gaming cards that portray real-world organisms.

This brilliant idea is called Phylo: The Trading Card Game. It’s an open source, free community project launched with the goal of redirecting kids’ obsession with Pokemon “pocket monsters” trivia into acquiring real information about the equally fascinating organisms that actually inhabit this planet. Thanks to volunteer efforts and donations by many artists, hundreds of playing cards have already been created and game play rules worked out.


From the Phylo website:

Why are we doing this?

Well, it was conservationist Andrew Balmford‘s letter (Why Conservationists Should Heed Pokemon, Science. 2002 Mar 29;295(5564):2367.), published in Science, that provided the proverbial kick in the pants. Essentially, he did this eye opening study to show that children as young as eight had the remarkable ability to identify and characterize upwards of 120 different Pokemon characters. However, when the same rubric was applied using photos of “real” flora and fauna (animals and plants that lived in the children’s back yards) the results were simply horrendous.

“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.”

In effect, Andrew asked, “Can we do whatever Pokemon does so well, but with the reality of biodiversity and ecology providing the content?”


The good people at Phylo have made an excellent start with this clever science education project. Now it’s up to us–the community of science-y people, science educators, parents, aunts & uncles, etc.–to help them. Anyone can print out their own starter deck. The Phylo website also gives you the ability to make your own cards. Phylo has also initiated partnerships with organizations with an interest in ecology education to start making high-quality, unique collectible decks for sale. All of these efforts are works in progress.

You can help by spreading the word, bringing decks into a classroom, donating original artwork, contributing some programming work, or doing an assessment of the educational effectiveness of Phylo.

“We are very keen to evaluate the impact of these cards in the education of students. Furthermore, in the spirit of the crowd source nature of the project, we welcome any academic or research group that is interested in evaluating the educational merit of these cards. It would be lovely to see whether above and beyond producing a fun game, it also leads to children having a better understanding of biodiversity and environmental concepts. Interested parties, please contact David Ng at db at interchange dot ubc dot ca”.

Phylo may not be an antidote for nature deficit disorder (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder) but it’s a step in the right direction.

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