The Phylomon Project tries to “do whatever Pokemon does so well, but with the reality of biodiversity and ecology providing the content.” Which would be great, if they appeared to understand what the thing Pokemon does so well is.
I don’t mean to slam the project. They’re already about ten steps ahead of most educational game designers! They’ve chosen an appropriate game reference for the type of learning they’re hoping to achieve. Learning about real-world species has elements of collecting, categorizing and memorizing, just like Pokemon – and unlike certain other projects, kids’ independent engagement with Pokemon is more than just wishful thinking. It’s an excellent choice.
The original study that inspired their project is also pretty great. Kids are capable of learning to recognize many different species, but they’re exposed to more Pokemon species than real ones. By age eight, kids are more likely to recognize a randomly selected Pokemon than animals in their real-world environment.
As it stands, the Phylomon Project can do a lot to fix the issue of exposure. Kids who play Pokemon have cards in their possession. They can pull them out and look at them as often as they want. Encounters with real-world plants and animals are far more contingent (and, for kids who live in big cities, unlikely). Solution? Give kids real-world species in their pocket. It might not be the same as seeing a real-world hare, oak tree, or beetle, but its not-the-same-ness is both good and bad. Bad, in that a picture can only represent the lush, messy, stinky, surprising experience of the natural world. Good, in that it opens a new form of relationship to nature, a proprietary affection that doesn’t need legal or physical ownership at the root of commitment.
Here’s the thing they’re missing, though. Kids’ engagement with Pokemon isn’t just about the having. It’s about the doing. The collecting is a crucial piece of Pokemon play, but it’s given context by the existence of battle and care-taking as ongoing activities. Kids don’t pay attention to Pokemon cards just because they’ve got some, but rather because they expect to have to do something with them at some point in the future. Use shapes attention – and right now the Phylomon cards don’t seem to have any use.
That’s not to say uses for the cards can’t be retro-fitted. They probably can! But if the project leaders consider how they expect kids to use their cards, it will help shape what kids actually pay attention to about the cards, what information belongs on the cards, and even what they think is important for kids to know.
In short, what Pokemon does well is give meaning and use to arbitrary information. The Phylomon Project needs to consider how they’ll do the same!