Phylo: Real-World Pokemon

Geek Culture

A few Phylo animal cards. Image: Phylogame.orgA few Phylo animal cards. Image:

A few Phylo animal cards. Image:

Recently a couple of college kids who were over for game night were talking about Pokemon, about how they used to know the names of all the Pokemon (at least the first generation, I think). Well, then they just couldn’t start playing board games until they had listed all hundred (hundred-fifty?) Pokemon from memory. It took them a while, but they refused to look any of them up and I think they eventually ended up with the complete list. Now, I don’t know Pokemon myself—I was in college when it first appeared and never really got into it—but these guys were all at the perfect age to become totally obsessed. Even now, not having played Pokemon for some time, the names of the creatures (and, I’m sure, their stats) are still there in their memories, accessible with just a little prodding.

And these guys I know are not unique in their ability. Andrew Balmford, a conservationist, published a letter in Science back in 2002 explaining that kids as young as eight were able to identify over a hundred different Pokemon characters, but then had dreadful results trying to name real animals and plants—even those in their own backyards.

Inspired by Balmford, Phylo (originally named “Phylomon” but changed for copyright reasons) is a trading card game featuring actual animals with their common and Latin names and characteristics. I’ve just barely scratched the surface in exploring the site, but their approach is a “non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet” vision. Artwork for the cards is submitted by anyone who wants to tackle a particular species, and there’s a set of rules in development (with a target date of May or June for completion). The game’s creators are hoping that teachers will weigh in on whether the cards and games have educational merit; and the ultimate goal is to have a generation of kids who are learning about the natural world rather than becoming more and more isolated from it.

It’s a tremendous and incredibly ambitious project. A lot of effort has already been put into it, and they’re still accepting submissions for artwork, text on the cards, and gameplay suggestions. The cards are all available free for download, and they have some pretty great ideas about partnering with environmental NGOs to print high-quality cards, while also working out exactly what it means to have a “rare” card or how to make that happen with a print-your-own system.

The site is definitely worth a visit to read the story behind Phylo and see what’s already available. But if you’re an artist, biologist, teacher or game designer, you should certainly head over there to get involved!

Who knows? Maybe in another ten years, a group of college kids will be sitting down, making up a list of local flora and fauna instead of imaginary creatures.

Find out more at

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