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To Teach Kids that Know More of Pokemon than Phytoplankton, David Ng Made a Game of It

It’s called the Phylo Project, and it’s blooming. Part of a series introducing big thinkers in education.

Steve Burgess 18 Sep

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Squirtle. Butterfree. Jigglypuff. And of course, Detective Pikachu. Ask the children of Planet Earth to identify its fauna, and you may encounter an astonishing degree of ignorance. But ask them about Pokemon and prepare for a learned dissertation on that whole menagerie of cartoon species.

When a 2002 study led by British scientist Andrew Balmford revealed that British kids were better at identifying Pokemon characters than actual wildlife, some academics might have found the results depressing.

Others saw them as an opportunity. Balmford himself argued that if Pokemon cards had proved so incredibly successful in teaching kids about an imaginary world, why couldn’t a similar game teach them about the real one?

The University of British Columbia’s David Ng picked up on Balmford’s suggestion. The process Ng and his colleagues launched has evolved into an international educational enterprise that’s introducing students and teachers to new ways of learning about the natural world, the sciences and even design.

It’s called the Phylo Project, or Phylo: The Trading Card Game. “It launched as ‘Phylomon,’” Ng says, “but the advice from lawyers was to avoid that as a possible indirect trademark infringement.”

It was in 2010 that Ng, a professor of teaching, asked Balmford for permission to run with his idea of creating a natural-world Pokemon-type card game — not just flash cards but a real game with rules and competitive play. Ng and a UBC team (including grad students Megan Callahan and Alejandra Echeverri as well as professors Jiaying Zhao and Terre Satterfield) decided the best approach was to throw the idea out into the wide world.

“We made the decision to let the web figure it out,” he recalls. “The Pokemon angle gave it a ‘twee-ish’ element that the internet loves.”

The internet community did indeed love them some Pokemon 2.0. In response to the crowdsourcing call, an online community of designers and educators took up the cause, tackling issues like game play, art, fact-checking, access, copyright and the proper approach to graphic designers. “It was incredible,” Ng says. “These communities just aggregated around certain tasks. After eight months we had a website, we had rules, we had a starter deck.”

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A Phylo card deck featuring species found in British Columbia. Photo by Megan Callahan, courtesy of UBC.

The game itself can frankly be a little disturbing — after all, nature doesn’t fool around. Players essentially build ecosystems a card at a time, from the ground up. “It’s kind of like dominos, where you’re looking for a match,” Ng explains. “You can’t play a card unless there’s something it can connect to. You can’t play a herbivore if there isn’t a plant card already on the table.”

But there are event cards too, like wildfires and climate change, that can be played to mess with someone else’s carefully crafted food chain. Call them Trump cards. Presumably you can win by destroying entire ecosystems. Never mind dominos — the game may also resemble Monopoly.

“There are two paradoxes with the game that the community has come to notice,” Ng says. “One is that you can win by screwing with the environment. The second is that we’re designing a game to foster respect for the environment. But one of the best ways to do that is to go outside. And we have created a game people will likely play indoors.”

Playing cards may be among the oldest forms of recreation, but they are also having a 21st-century moment thanks to the popularity of games like Cards Against Humanity. Game-based learning is not a new concept either — it’s been studied and practised for years. But Ng points out that much of the recent focus has been on educational digital and online games, whereas the Phylo games are more old school. “Analogue games are coming back,” Ng says. “They have a bit of hipster status right now.”

The Phylo game was always conceived as an open project where everyone would be able to print off cards or create their own variations. But over time the momentum grew for high-quality decks rather than cheap, print-your-own versions. So, a process was worked out that lets organizations create, package and sell their own unique decks with artists properly compensated and all subsequent revenue fed back into their own programs.

UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum was among the first to create its own Phylo deck. Other groups have created versions in places like Colombia and Denmark. Ng opens a binder full of examples, showing off a particularly beautiful version created and illustrated by students at Vancouver’s University Hill Elementary School.

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Cards from the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s custom Phylo deck.

“This is cool in trading card culture,” Ng points out. “What it means is that there are new decks coming out continuously.”

Meanwhile, the Phylo card game itself has evolved into new forms.

It started when the Genetics Society of America wanted its own deck based around model organisms (plants and animals that are most commonly used for research, like mice, yeast or arabidopsis plants). But since model organisms are not the same as ecosystems, the game needed new rules. So the GSA team created an entirely different version of the Phylo game. The mechanics of it do not revolve around building ecosystems but building projects. Players must collect the elements they need to complete that project.

The new GSA game launched what was in effect a whole new Phylo game ecosystem. Even more games have emerged as a result — at least 20 so far, with more in development. Ng and his team have led teacher workshops to train educators about leading the design of new games.

It’s a classroom process that adds a whole new level of education. Not only are students playing these games to learn about the world, they are designing new versions to learn about creation and design. “We’re finding that’s where the really deep learning is coming from, in the designing,” Ng says. “It’s totally open. And because it’s based on analogue materials it’s easier for non-specialists to design something. They don’t need to create an app — they just need cue cards.”

One of the most fascinating Phylo offshoots is the Women in Science and Engineering deck, teaching players not only about prominent women in those fields but about the obstacles they faced and still face today. “When this one came out, there was a lot of discussion about how hard-hitting the content should be,” Ng says. “You have these ‘modifier’ cards, representing issues around gender and representation. But because this was targeted at middle-schoolers, we had a sort of vanilla version that didn’t really get into some of the authentic nastiness.”

That led to the subsequent creation by Ng and UBC colleague Shannon Percival-Smith of a new version called Women in Health Research, aimed at more sophisticated players. This advanced edition has modifier cards including “Stupid patriarchy,” “Biased family leave” and “Assault in scientific field work,” as well as cards for menstrual-related problems and gender differences in drug testing. There’s even a setback card labelled “Ways of the Queen Bee,” representing the unfortunate reality that female colleagues sometimes undermine each other. “We’re still getting feedback on this,” Ng says. “Some are saying it’s too depressing. We are trying to make the positive cards a little more active.”

Ng and the team are also working on tabletop role-playing games — think Dungeons & Dragons — with second-year students drawn from both social science and science faculties. “You world-build a particular locale 100 years from now,” Ng says, “based on physical science, social and cultural models. Then you build a narrative. These second-year students are deep-diving into what, say, Tokyo will be up against 100 years from now.”

More Phylo decks are in the offing too. There is talk of doing a deck on access to medicine and one on biodiversity; educators in South Africa and Nepal are working on unique decks as well.

But perhaps a more pressing question is: Who will star in the Phylo movie? Detective Pikachu has already hit the big screen. Who will be the major Phylo star?

“Are you asking me as a scientist?” Ng asks, before making his casting choice: “Zooplankton. Zooplankton just look cool.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Media, Environment

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