I choose you, E. coli!

2010 May 27
by Dave

You may have noticed that I have a certain fondness for projects and ideas that integrate learning into games. I strongly feel that humans learn best through play and that there are many talented game designers who could contribute mightily to the field of education. A great example of this type of thing was brought to my attention today.

Phylo is a collectible card game (CCG, think Pokemon or Magic) that is comprised of real organisms and habitats. The goal is to teach kids and adults about ecology and improve general knowledge of the natural world. The game is still in it’s infancy. It is an open source project that is currently focused on collecting artwork, flavor text, and reality based stats. At the moment, there are about one hundred phylo cards posted on the website and a first pass at a set of rules for the game. The rules sets are open source as well and people are encouraged to make their own games using the cards.

I think this project has a good chance of becoming a useful teaching tool and a fun game. The current rules set seems to be more targeted at adult CCG fans in hopes of attracting contributors and buzz. They have some work to do to make a simplified kids game that is as compelling as Pokemon, but I think they will make it.

Unfortunately, they have crippled themselves with their licensing choices. The artwork is covered by a creative commons non-commercial/no derivative works license and the rules are covered by a creative commons non-commercial license. It is an understandable impulse for someone who is giving away their work to not want others to be able to profit from it, but this can end up severely limiting market penetration. Linux would be neither as widely used, nor as nicely polished a product as it is today if companies like Red Hat and Ubuntu had not been able to burn it to a disk, put it in a box, and sell it bundled with tech support.

Phylo would benefit greatly from a company like Wizards of the Coast participating in development, production, distribution and marketing. A commercial open source license would incentivise companies with expertise in game development to put work into Phylo that would then be available for any other versions of the game to use. Make no mistake, making a game fun is an alchemical mix of science and art that has few masters. If the people with that gift are not tapped to produced high gloss professionally made cards for sale at Toys-R-Us, then I don’t see Phylo living up to it’s considerable potential.

Hopefully I am wrong and Phylo will become a huge success. But even if it’s not, it is still an innovative harbinger of education’s future.

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