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

– – –

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 as you know has seen 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.

– – –

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.

Related Topics


David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at


  1. Brenda

    What a clever concept! Sounds like an awesome idea, I’m just worried for the increased level of internet addiction that could occur. haha

  2. Alex L

    I suggest using Digg and Slashdot as meme-drivers if you’d like it to spread. A simple project website would be good too.

  3. Scott

    Digg is for 15 year olds, /. is dated mostly old bitter system admins. Get everyone to bookmark in and stumbleupon those are promotions that last days/months not minutes. BTW reddit is good more of an older crowd.

  4. Churmy Fan

    I think plants will be a challenge since cartoons are simplified and the difference between plant species is generally less obvious than animals. There could be ways to get around that though…

  5. Churmy Fan

    I just had an idea. If ultimately these characters are supposed to appeal to children (and i’m thinking elementary school kids), then why not get THEM to decide on which designs they like best? We should come up with a bunch of drawings and run them by all the local elementary school and get a vote.

  6. Miriam Lawrence

    You might want to check out these cards, which I read about on a parenting web site. I’m planning to try them out on my kids, who are Pokemon fiends but also love nature. They seem to have really jumped on this concept.

  7. — Weltschmerz

    […] Joanne Fox and David Ng to discuss potential support and ideas that OLT could contribute to their get-your-biodiversity-easy-as-Pokémon project, where they will try to use Pokemon principles that appeal to kids (cards collecting, memorization […]

  8. Ele

    Maybe children should have to gather a network of cards which work together, ecologically (i.e. predators, prey, including plants). Get your lesson about sustainability in there too.

  9. David Ng

    Hi Ele, Totally! If you want more info on the project, do send me an email. I can be reached at db at interchange dot ubc dot ca


  10. H.C. O'Neill

    I’ve worked on designing and playtesting collectible card games before, specifically the Rage CCG which involves werewolves battling ecological destruction. (see website)

    If you really want kids to play with them, you will need more than just animals. An easy way to incorporate that in is to allow animals to be enhanced with features. Most CCGs use Keywords of some sort to put various creatures in classes (example: Grass Pokemon) so it would be easy to incorporate Latin names as keywords that control what various creatures do.

    to be the most


    First off: DO NOT USE THE TAPPING MECHANIC. It’s rampant in most collectible card games, but Wizards of the Coast has it patented so if you use it, their lawyers will come devour your soul. You’ll have to come up with some other mechanic.

  11. H.C. O'Neill

    Your comment box is impossible to deal with as you can only do two paragraphs before it goes off the edge and becomes inaccessible. it makes it nearly impossible to write coherent comments that are longer than that. (see above, part of it dropped off screen and I couldn’t edit it anymore. ARG.)

    I HAVE done game design for 9 different CCG expansions. Drop me an e-mail and I can help you design something fun, educational, AND playable as an actual game.
    (I also do wildlife illustration. Here’s a nice mourning dove: )

  12. Shagufta Pasta

    Hi there, what helps is writing your comment elsewhere, and then copying and pasting. =)

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