Phylo Lets You Play Like a Scientist

Phylo Lets You Play Like a Scientist


No matter how advanced technology becomes, there will always be some things that human beings just do better, such as recognizing distinctions in colors and patterns and prioritizing complex decisions. In the fields of human biology and DNA analysis, these skills are key to understanding genetic structure. Being able to recognize similarities and make distinctions within strands of genetic sequence can help scientists better understand human development and help to cure disease. But deciphering DNA strands is complicated, tedious and a lot of work, to say the least. In order to help get assistance, a research team at McGill University in Montreal have created a way to get the general public involved through gaming.

It’s called Phylo, the name taken from the prefix meaning “race”, “tribe”, or “kind”. The focus of the game is on “multiple sequence alignment”. It takes an abstracted representation of strands of DNA, RNA or proteins so that those of humans can be compared those of other species to find common evolutionary traits and instances of mutation.  These lines, which are represented by colored blocks, are laid out on a grid. The goal of the player is to move the blocks horizontally to match similar colors and trying to close existing gaps as much as possible-though removing them completely often isn’t possible. Points are deducted for mismatched colors and deducted further for gaps in the sequence. The object is to beat the computer’s attempt at analyzing the sequence before the time runs out.

The game becomes one not of just coordinating patterns, but also of decision making. Players can also choose their level of difficulty and even choose what disease they want to help study.

You can also look at the all-important leaderboard to see the highest number of completed levels.

If you play this game, pay close attention to the tutorial, because understanding the scoring system can be a little tricky. It’s clear that a lot of steps were taken to make this game as accessible as possible considering the complexity of what it’s literally trying to do. While it may not be action-packed or a triumph of design, the underlying concept shows a lot of respect for the power of gamification and how well the human brain responds to such challenges.

Phylo also creates a sense of status and community in a unique way. You’re not interacting with other players and though you can see the highest scores, you’re not in direct competition with anyone. Really the sense of pride comes from the significance of your role and the language being used to describe it. You’re not just completing a level, you’re “analyzing a sequence”, you’re not just playing a game, you’re “contributing to science”. The feeling of a community comes from seeing the work being done by the collective and being part of something bigger than yourself.

Games have been used for education, health and completing tasks and this game combines all three with the goal of the greater good for everyone. People can get together to achieve amazing things when properly motivated. As we learn more about the benefits of gamification we can expect to see more games like this in the future.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.