Using Card Games to Bring a Sense of Play to Informal Science Learning

This Fall the Museum will be launching our first Science Card Game program (more details later and registration notification sign-up here). This grew, in part, from a number of Digital Playgrounds I blogged about last spring, such as the awesome paleo game Bone Wars (which I critiqued here). This post is about the process this summer of incorporating some of these games into our regularly scheduled programs.

As we learned about more and more card games designed to teach science, our toolkit expanded for teaching these topics. When we developed the curriculum for July’s Capturing Dinosaurs, we knew we wanted to use Bone Wars to introduce the history of the field AND to introduce the practice of comparative fossil anatomy. I addressed this in an earlier post, but in short, the youth loved the game (so much so that much of their free times during lunches was spent playing yet another round) and we learned that the post-game processing and framing of the game was crucial to move the youth from re-focusing on the sensational aspects of the history towards the ethical lessons underneath AND the comparative fossil anatomy components.

One way we encouraged this deeper understanding was through a digital badging system which offered a badge associated with the game that required a reflective post. Below is one example from a successful submission which demonstrates how playing the game in a social context then personally reflecting on it allowed at least this youth to make the connections we were after:

[The Bone Wars] benefited the field of Paleontology, since it established ethics of the field from the early stage (This probably is the most important thing in science). It is important that correction of studies should be taken as an effort to advance in science, instead of a personal attack.

As a result of the popularity of the game within Capturing Dinosaurs, I found myself in August in front of a group of middle school youth in a two week long program (focused on collecting and examining fossils of extinct marine life, touring museum collections and interviewing scientists to make inferences about how an extinct Late Cretaceous animal, such as a Mosasaur, might have looked and behaved, and then recreating it in a virtual world of Second Life). I was asked to spend two hours with the teens and lead them in a round of Bone Wars. I then allowed the instructors to handle the post-game processing – addressing both the ethical issues in the history of the field and making connections between the science practice modeled through the gameplay and how it related to their activities to date within their summer program. This model worked out well – most of the youth had a great time playing and I didn’t have to pretend to know much as a newcomer about their learning process in the program.


I have no idea what the youth were like in the program before and after I left. But I had a sense that it might have been similar to what I saw within Capturing Dinosaurs the month earlier. Playing the game had clear educational components – transferring both content knowledge and an introduction to a set of skills – but there is another area of impact I am still struggling to put into words.

Yes, of course they were playing a game but, at a broader level, playing the game introduced a sense of play into their informal science learning experience. The game created what is often referred to as a “magic circle.” Based on a concept first proposed by Johan Huizinga, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman expand on the idea in their seminal book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, arguing that “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins” and that “the term magic circle is appropriate because there is in fact something genuinely magical that happens when a game begins.”

What I wish I could describe here is that magic. The play allows youth to step out of their “student” or “learner” roles and be more creative in their interaction with the content and each other. They take on roles and engage in behaviors that are not necessarily aligned with their time outside the game (I recall one youth, who liked to make “stupid” jokes and then get teased for it, relishing his ability to “tease” back through his aggressive gameplay). They can be competitive, in a safe and agreed upon way, that lets them show different sides of their personalities and bond through the interactions. It can also raise the emotional stake of their experience – one youth grew upset when stuck with a bad hand; he didn’t care so much that he lost but that the game never gave him a chance to win.

The point, however, is not so much just to play more games in our programs. I think, rather, the point is to figure out the complicated process of creating magic circles within our programs to encourage what a sense of play can engender amongst youth learners, in their relationship with the content, the instructors, our Museum, and each other.

I think for that reason I was asked today to travel an hour or so north along the Hudson to lead 40 youth in a different type of game within the gorgeous Black Rock Forest. There I met youth who were staying all week as part of an intensive introduction to their year as part of the SRMP program (in which they do research alongside Museum scientists). After spending the morning laying traps for turtles (tomorrow they will tag them, take blood samples, measure them, and add the data to an ongoing research study), I was tasked with giving them something fun and educational to do.

With the assistance of my son, we introduced them to the card game Phylo.
I can (and probably should) write an extensive critique of Phylo. It is a unique, at times frustrating, always fascinating game. And the process behind the game’s (on-going) creation is just as rich. So while I can’t do it justice here, I will say this in short: when my son and I introduced it to the SRMPers this afternoon, one girl responded, “It’s Pokemon!” And, in fact, youth’s ability to geek out and absorb detailed information from Pokemon cards inspired the creation by a Canadian scientist of this biodiversity-focused collectible card game. Developed through an innovative crowd-sourced initiative, bringing together game designers, artists, programmers and scientific institutions, the deck we played today was released this summer by the Beaty Biodiversty Museum (which describes Phylo as “a card game that celebrates ecosystems in all their awesomeness.”)

Phylo challenges players to build food chains, pay attention to climates and terrains, and avoid ecological pitfalls.¬† My son and I played a demo game, to model how it worked, and then gave each of the ten groups of four their own copy (you can download your own here). We learned this technique from Bone Wars – since the best way to learn a game is to play it, but we can’t play the game with each youth, the next best method¬† is to have them watch a live game complete with narration about the rules (and strategy) sprinkled throughout.

The youth were exhausted after a day of hiking but you would never have known it from watching them play. And it was clear this was due, in part, to their having entered a “magic circle”. I had to return home soon after, so I can’t say how long the magic lasted, but I left the decks behind so during the week they can choose, during their free time, to remind themselves of how it felt and figure out, on their own, how to integrate it into their learning experience throughout their trip.





About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to Using Card Games to Bring a Sense of Play to Informal Science Learning

  1. It’s awesome someone is writing about how games can be used in science in the way you are here.

    As a game designer, with many prototypes of nature games, including cards, I spend a lot of time on the “magic circle” aspects of the games – where play is more than play. When the content of the game is able to relay information in a seamless passive learning way which is enhanced by play then there is magic indeed.

    Optimally, games have many layers if they are well designed. Providing directed play – via rules, and open ended play, where questions about how things relate and why is that can come out for discussion. Social learning in groups is the magic circle, crowdsourcing questions and answers.

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