The Biodiversity + Pokemon-ish Project: It's a go.


Don't you think it's twisted that so many kids know what
this creature is, but so few can go about naming the birds in their backyard?

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Well, I had briefly talked about this before, more as a whimsical train of thought, but there you have it - we're going to give it a go.

Not sure what I'm talking about?

Well, basically, this was inspired by a letter published in Science in 2002, entitled "Why Conservationists Should Heed Pokemon.." It starts:

According to E.O. Wilson's Biophilia hypothesis, humans have an innate desire to catalog, understand, and spend time with other life-forms. This in turn provides a powerful aesthetic argument for combating the present extinction crisis. Yet, as industrialization and urbanization reduce our direct interactions with nature, our interest in the variety of living things is perhaps becoming redirected towards human artifacts, with potentially grave consequences for biodiversity conservation.


Here, the research essentially concluded that our children have enormous capacity for character driven knowledge - i.e. they can easily keep track of and identify large numbers of things like Pokemon characters. However, despite this ability, these same kids, when pressed for recognition of the animals and plants that share their community, often perform horrendously. So something isn't quite right with that picture, especially if you follow the saying that, "People only care about things they know."

In fact, the conclusions of this particular study say it well:

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 nter secondary school being able to name less than 50% of common wildlife types.

Anyway, a few months back I talked to Andrew Balmford (the lead author of the above paper), about whether they had followed up, and if not, whether my own facility could tackle the project ourselves. He graciously agreed, and hopefully, we can have a go and do justice to the idea.

So here's what's basically being planned as we speak.

1. I have a graphic artist on board. Marissa Cheung, who's currently in the middle of a graphic design program (THE IDEA PROGRAM) is currently working on a number of character designs (the images here in the post, are some doodles for the squirrel).

This is a bit of a challenge, since ideally, we need these images to appeal on several fronts. They need to appeal to the graphic design community - i.e. the iconic look of the Pokemon universe is (I think) a big part of its success, since that type of freedom in the art is usually attractive to the illustrator's creative muses. However, at the same time, we need the imagery to be sensitive to the overall goal of the project - that is, the pictures can also go to lengths to allow a child to familiarize themselves with the organism in question.

Anyway, her goal is to produce about 20 or so images by the end of August, at which point we can release them via the Terry project site (which is up for a major rehaul in early September).


2. We'll need an element of gaming involved. I've been looking into the rules of the Pokemon card game, and it's actually pretty complicated. As well, it more or less involves a "one character tries to beat the crap out of another character" feel to it. I'm not so sure that that is the best way to structure the game for this project, although in some respects, it does feel very "Wild Kingdom." Maybe success in the game should involve the build up of a community, so that the big picture principles of ecology can be emphasized? I dunno, but I do think that knowledge of "local" creatures should somehow be endorsed. As well, if I had a personal Holy Grail with this particular project, it would be that the memorization of latin names is worth bonus points somehow (how cool would that be, if an 8 year old can spout of a couple taxonomy names because of this endeavour). Anyway, if you had any thoughts on game play, please leave a comment below. Better yet, if you design card games, let me know.

3. The cards and possible game features produced will be freely available and protected by a creative commons clause that protects and acknowledges the artist's work, the non-commercial aspect of the project, and allows other participants to participate. As well, although the cards would be protected in this specific manner, the copyright for the images specifically, will remain solely with the artist, so that he/she can do whatever he/she wants with them (above and beyond this project being able to use them for the cards). That way, hopefully access will not be an issue, but the artist still gets the kudos for playing.

4. Ideally, we'll be setting up an online hub at the website, and one that will allow other graphic designers to upload their animals and game related stats. These will be moderated by a small admin who will presumably have some background in both graphic design as well as some element of the biological sciences (so that accuracy can be maintained for example). This might take the form of a wiki-like enterprise, or a flickr portal? Anyway, we do have a programmer on board with the project as well, although comments as always, are appreciated.

5. It's worth stressing that having the above structure will be important. I'm reminded of the 700 Hoboes project that was catalyzed by readers of Boingboing. I'm crossing my fingers that a similar level of interest can be generated for this project. Mainly because this project will be especially brilliant if we can reach card numbers that high.

I mean, seriously, can you imagine how wonderful this would be - if we were able to get 700 different animals and plants, represented from all parts of the world. It's really why this project is particularly interesting to me. It boils down to the fact that the original idea is great, but in many respects, the idea is now "sound" because of the enormous influence that web communities can have to drive projects like this. Chalk it up to optimism and Web2.0.

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Anyway, this is all to say that this little endeavour is game on, and I'd appreciate any comments or words of wisdom on this. In particular, if you think you can help - i.e. you're an artist who thinks this is cool - drop me a line below in the comments, or link to some imagery you've produced that you think might play well with the project.


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I've got a fair amount of experience with the Pokemon card game (I was a "Pokemon Gym Leader" for a while when I was an undergrad which meant I was basically a baby sitter at a book/music/movie store who played Pokemon with kids for a couple hours). In settling disputes between the kids I got to be pretty familiar with the rules.

It seems like you should be able to build in some realistic ecosystem factors into the game. Maybe a type of food chain with attacks and defense. Some other card games you might want to look into which use those type of figures are Magic or Yugioh (which was starting to get really big when I stopped working that job).

Also, you could include the latin names as 'flavor text' on the card. It doesn't really have anything to do with the game, but makes the cards more fun to read. That might also help the kids with categorizing the cards. Something you could include from Magic is creature types, which is somewhat hard to explain but is pretty easy to understand when you look at a card.

If you've got questions, feel free to send me an email because your idea sounds like it would be a really cool way to get kids interested in real animals.

What you are trying to do reminds of this (mind you I haven't played it):

I think that in order for the game to make a positive impact on children, it might somehow encourage them to respect wildlife and nature in general. Maybe this could be achieved if elements of strategy within the game involved recovery from human influences such as urban sprawl which would effect all organisms (some negatively and some positively), climate change, point source pollution, etc. So that when a child sees something in the real world, say a golf course, s/he can turn to his/her parents and say "look mommy, runoff from that golfcourse is creating an algal bloom in the pond next to it, that's not good because..."

I was discussing with Ben this very aspect. i.e. Will there be DDT cards, or Hydroelectric Dam cards, or Yucca cards.

As soon as I saw this a whole _flood_ of ideas and comments came to mind; I'll limit myself to those I can type before falling asleep. For the moment.

Taking the points of your post in order:

1) No comment on the art, since I have all the artistic talent of a half-eaten radish. (Though from the sketch you displayed I'm _really_ looking forward to seeing more.) One word of caution, though: Do not wait on the art for your game design! Good game design for a card game of this kind is difficult and time-consuming; make test cards early and often with random scribbles, doodles or placeholder clip art. You can add proper art as it becomes available.
(The grandaddy of collectable card games, Pokemon's elder relative Magic, was originally playtested with random clip art of household objects. This didn't hurt; it helped.)

2) "We'll need an element of gaming involved."
This is your most important understatement. When considering the success of Pokemon (or Magic, or other card games) you should remember that many other, equally collectable-and-categorizable games and franchises have vanished into obscurity.
The most important factor in the success of Pokemon, beside encouraging children to 'collect' imaginary monsters, was that the original computer game was good. The Pokemon card game is "actually pretty complicated" - simple by the standards of the current adult gamer, but pretty much at the complexity threshold for a young child. But it's also fun, and has some non-trivial tactical choices.

This is important, as our 'Eco' game is going to need to be pretty complex. So, two important lessons from Pokemon:

A) Gameplay is crucial. Even 'adequately fun' gameplay is not enough; the modern 8-year-old has ready access to a large number of good games, with which we are competing for attention. Good art and theme can get people to pick the game up, but solid gameplay will stop them putting it down again.

B) Complexity of gameplay and tactics is fine - even beneficial. But it needs to be encapsulated in simplicity of presentation; the game might be complex to win, but needs to be simple to learn to play.
Corollary: Clear graphic design is just as important as the catchy character art. (One of the gameplay functions of the art is to makes the card clearly identifiable from across the table.)

These obstacles are opportunities also. Our theme provides ready opportunities for tactical depth to emerge from simple card properties; several have already been suggested. Card games such as magic and pokemon get a huge amount of mileage by placing simple properties with few or no effects of their own liberally on the cards, then allowing other cards to interact with them. This provides interesting behaviour without requiring increased rules complexity.

(For me the really attention-grabbing part of the squirrel sketch was the list of properties down the left side; these belong in the game design notes - many of them can be easily encapsulated on the cards. You don't even need to know what they do at the time you write the cards; if the information's there you can use it later. e.g. Note that squirrels are Urban, and Cache Food, and Mark Territory, and Eat Acorns and Bugs. Then you can have other cards only usable by - or against - Urban creatures, or Territorial ones. Or maybe a creature can't be played unless it has a food source already in play, thus forcing players to build their way up the ecosystem, starting with plants and bugs on turn 1 and building up to the more dangerous carnivores...
This also leaves you design space to work in. If you've given creatures design text noting that they Hibernate, even if you didn't have any idea what that does at the time, then later when you decide to have a card called "Early Winter" it can easily put all the Hibernating creatures out of play.)

You're right that we can be subtler than Pokemon's "one character tries to beat the crap out of another character"; I would propose that a player would typically have a 'force' of several creatures in play at once. (But it seems to me that attacking and eating your opponent's creatures is both appealing game design and a useful teaching tool; it's not that hard to make a design in which creatures care what kind of prey they eat!)

It's because of this kind of emergent gameplay goal that I disagree with your suggestion that the Holy Grail is that "memorization of latin names is worth bonus points". It's a brute-force approach which is unlikely to merge smoothly into any other form of gameplay; it requires the player to do extra work which is not inherently related to the goals or tactics of the game. Teaching this kind of information is our goal, not the player's; we must be careful to remember this distinction.

The Holy Grail, IMHO, is for the players to play the game so much, and use the cards so much, that they start to recognize and use the taxonomy without ever intending to.

(Pokemon has a crude taxonomy of its own - pokemon group into several different categories of creature, and most can change into other pokemon as the game progresses. The game does not award points for remembering the names of pokemon, or for remembering which pokemon change into which others. It doesn't need to; the players memorize these facts anyway. That's the goal we're aiming at here.)

I rather like Matthew's suggestion; if we want the game to encourage respect for nature the key is to let the gameplay model (crudely) the consequences of human activity. The things we want people to take away from the game should emerge

3) This approach makes sense to me.

4-5) Get your online hub up early for game design discussion. I can't stress enough how much playtesting, design, redesign, rewrite sections of rules from scratch and redesign again a game of this kind often needs - the willingness to do this is one of the many things that separates the successes from the failures.
(Wizards of the Coast, the company that produce Magic, have what is effectively a sizable full-time card-testing R&D team.)

The internet is a great tool for finding people who like to test, break and redesign card games; use it liberally. (Set up a rules ideas wiki? Over-distributed game design workload may not work well; some kind of coherent vision is required. But hugely collaborative testing works well. And is cheap. Lots of people out there love to play games and then tell everyone what could be done better; we should use them early and often.)


Some final links: Looney Lab's "Eco Fluxx" is too simplistic a game for this discussion, but is a good example of how even simple game mechanics can refer to complex concepts.
(Their "Chrononauts" is also a great example of how, even with very little card text and minimal art, you can still get a great deal of story and character onto one card.)

By Daniel Taylor (not verified) on 26 Jun 2007 #permalink

This kind of reminds me of Frank's Zoo. It's a much simpler game than you're probably looking for, though.

Random thought--since the game is about biodiversity, maybe the win condition could be "first person to get 10 (or 15, or whatever) types of organisms"?

My son is mad for this (and Magic The Gathering) and often designs his own Pokemon et al cards, so if you want a coal face adviser, let me know.

Something that springs to my mind is to take the idea of land cards from Magic, but make them a more communal thing. The goal is to dominate land. When your opponent has been driven from all his land, you win. The driving takes place by interspecies competition.

Then you can introduce things like runoff and urbanization which reduce the capacity of land or balance it towards particular species. Thus a damaged piece of land can support many fewer life forms and is much more easily conquered back and forth, while deep wilderness with a lot of biodiversity is very difficult to conquer.

I agree wholeheartly with Daniel Taylor about the game design issues. You are attempting to make a card game, not study cards, and therefore the gameplay must come first art is not a concern as long as you don't even have an idea of how you are to design the gameplay. Gameplay always comes first.

Toward that end I must reinforce his message concerning your Holy Grail, do not search for an opportunity to reward memorization of taxonomy, if you do you will break the game making it boring and thus useless. Players will only memorize by repeatedly playing.

I also think that you shouldn't try to incorporate to much in the game at first, there is enough struggle in the ecology to fill a game without needing to include the actions of humans; The more you include, the more you will have to balance later.

When it comes to the gameplay, the first question you must answer is how do you win?
In magic, you win by getting your opponents health down to zero before s/he does. In Munchkin you win by getting your character level to ten before anyone else. In poker you win by having the strongest hand, or getting everyone else to withdraw.
In all these cases you win by accomplishing something simple, and whatever game design you settle for the win condition must be simple, at lest if you want the card game to appeal to anyone but the hardcore cardgamers.

We have established that simply killing the opponent is not the kind of win condition we want. I'll just suggest that the player wins when they dominate the ecology of the game.

This could be represented by maybe forcing the opponent out of the ecology, or by securing a majority of the resources before anyone else. Maybe securing the majority of the resources and keeping control of them for a few turns? I don't know, someone that knows ecology better than me might have some better idea.

What's also important is what happens in a turn of the game, what can the players do?
Obviously they can play animal cards, and (maybe less obviously) these cards are what will win them the game.
But the animal cards must interact in some way, either with each other, or some other type of card.

A toy model of the entire game might be this:

The plot:
A new volcanic island has appeared, and in the highly competitive world of species conservation, several different conservationists have descended to battle it out for control of this new ecosystem!

The players all start with some number of cards on hand that they draw from the top of their deck.

They have plant cards, rodent cards, bird cards, insect cards etc in their deck. They also have weather cards they can play at any time, these include things like hot summer, dry spring, flash floods etc. And also environment cards that are things like
Mountains, river, plains and other geographical features.

The before game begins by each player placing a geographical card that they select from their deck, this is their starting environment.

The game begins with the players in turn placing any environment cards they have on hand, and then any organism cards that they have on hand and can live in the environments played. There is however a maximum amount of environments that can be played (the island is small), and after that number has been played no more environments can be put into play (possibly unless someone has an earthquake card or something like that).

The goal is to have as many of ones own organisms in play, because once all the space in the environments are filled, the game is over, and the one with most organism points win.

This means that every environment can only support a certain amount of plants, and every plant can only support a certain number of herbivores etc.
Of course some species can invade and push out other species, and it's the exact details of how this is accomplished that will be crucial for making a fun game.

In this case a simple system of three different stats are compared and the organism with the highest stats of two different types win. (These stats could be divided into different ranges of values, each range representing a different type of organism) This means that while one animal can be better than the other if they where alone, the presence of some other animal might affect one of those stats so that in this situation the one that lost before wins.
Here is really the opportunity to cram as much ecology as possible into the game, the rules of how to decide which species ends up in control of a specific biotype are the real hearth of this game, and the more tactical options you have here the better. Of course you should still be able to have some idea of what your options are, so it cannot be an unbounded system, but it can be very very big and nobody will think it's anything but good.

The game ends once the maximum number of environments are placed, and then the sum of different stats of the animals are computed, this is the score, and highest score wins.

The above game might be a bit to complicated to target ages around 7, but some work might get it there. At any rate this is merely a suggestion of how the outline of the game would look. Much work remains even if this is accepted as is.

If the goal here is to get children interested in various species and their respective environments, I'm not sure a card game is the answer. I can well imagine kids sitting around playing in an artificial environment with clever but unrealistically designed cards, while outside the real world still goes unnoticed. There has to be a way to connect the two, and I fear a card game is just too cardboard.

I like the idea of species characteristics being shown, and being incorporated into game rules, but there must be some means to get children to go out and actually observe. Therfore, realism in the drawings seems paramount to me, as does accuracy in the listed traits and capabilities of species.

Your game needs not only to be played and enjoyed, but also needs to inspire the forming mind to put away the cards and learn more. It's one thing to know a few hundred of animals and plants; it's another entirely to know them for real in the real world.

I'm not sure how that goal might be accomplished, but I wish you all the luck in the world. As for me, I'm going outside to check on the red-bellied woodpeckers my son spotted in our yard.

By George Motisher (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

Just a quick note - the creator of Pokemon was himself inspired by the bugs, pollywogs, and beetles he collected as a kid. It just went a little fantastical by the time it hit the market.

I think that maybe the game might be a bit like the xmen card game. In that game, the players had a team of xmen each and both fought against one group of villains, which they could attack or could be sent by one player against another. In this ecological game, there could be several ecological dangers which affect both players, and each has to protect their creatures or end the problem. They might attack each other directly (predation etc), but mostly they would do so by letting disasters affect their opponent. For example, if a disaster is "fertilizer runoff", an "algal bloom" card would be played to damage all aquatic life, which could be usefull to a mostly on land player. They would still be affected even if they damage their opponent, showing how the system is interconnected (doing something bad to any of their creatures with "Eats Fish")


By bobby mc blob (not verified) on 07 Sep 2014 #permalink


By Jason Lotti (not verified) on 27 Feb 2015 #permalink