Education: Go Extinct! Board Game

by Ariel Marcy

goextinct1Hi! My name is Ariel Marcy, I’m a PhD student / game designer / paleontologist at the University of Queensland and I think board games are the best way to teach biology.

Go Extinct! Quick Facts
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Games teach systems intuitively

Both biology and games thrive on system thinking and games incentivize players to think critically and strategically about the system. Board games also provide a social environment where learning from “failure” is fine – even fun! I’m probably preaching to the proverbial choir when I say that mammals learn best from this kind of play.

My game, Go Extinct! is Go Fish evolved! Players put on zoologist hats and compete to collect clades of closely related animal cards. Go Extinct! is laugh-out-loud funny and the winning strategy just happens to teach players one of the most important scientific skills: how to read an evolutionary tree.

Evolutionary trees, simply put, are sets-within-sets — e.g. humans are also mammals and also vertebrates — a simple yet rich system. In a game, this system pairs high reward with high risk, a mainstay of game design! Deductive risk-takers can steal entire sets away from opponents by using the “Ask-Again” rule for specific animals. But, ask for a specific animal the other player doesn’t have, and you’ve tipped your hand!

Therefore, the emergent low-risk strategy is also the major learning objective: identify and ask for deeper common ancestors to maximize both your mystique and your chance for a useful card. Go Extinct! can be enjoyed over again and by older audiences because of the meaningful risk/reward choices that depend on the sharpness of your memory, the luck of the draw, and how your friends choose to play!

The laugh-out-loud factor comes from the silly yet sneakily scientific nicknames for each set of animals. You might find yourself asking for someone’s “Big Babies” or their “Toothy Grinners” — punny mnemonics for traits these animals share and the various evidence scientists use to infer evolutionary relationships: physical traits, DNA, and the geographic location of fossil ancestors.

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Unlike linear formats – I’m looking at you, textbooks and lectures – games thrive on repetition without getting bogged down in detail. During a round of Go Extinct!, players will explore the branching structure of the land vertebrate evolutionary tree in a way that doesn’t get old! Therefore, the most important concepts — like identifying a common ancestor — can be reiterated over and over while smaller details — like the etymology of “Dinosaur” — can be noted with interest but not at the expense of the main learning goal. Furthermore, the game’s visuals leverage color to underscore the gradations of “related-ness” while icons call out the evidence used to infer these relationships.

The Making of the Game and of Student Science Game Designers

Game design, like science requires testing and iteration. In fact, one of the earliest prototypes was tested at the 2013 Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting!

Just like the feedback from the peer-review process, the suggestions can be “game-changers.” For example, one of people’s favorite parts of Go Extinct!, the playful nicknames, were prompted by feedback from a 7th grader. The student pointed out that kids couldn’t say the scientific names currently in use and suggested fun nicknames instead. Realizing that scientific names are really just nicknames in Latin, I ran with this suggestion.

Games not only provides an example of an engaging way to communicate complex scientific concepts, but also brings to the forefront the creativity inherent in all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields – a primary goal of my company, STEAM Galaxy Studios. Science does not rely on arts solely for communication, but like art, creativity is inherent throughout the scientific process.

One of my favorite experiences play-testing Go Extinct! was working with Jane, a middle schooler from the project-based Brightworks School, who designed her own version of the game around her favorite group of animals – cats! She based her game on the latest Felidae phylogeny – gamely interpreting the scientific literature to make scientific and design decisions. Her knowledge of evolutionary trees afterwards shone brightly at her final presentation:

Ariel mentoring Jane’s design process; Jane presenting Cat Family Go Extinct! creation!
Ariel mentoring Jane’s design process; Jane presenting Cat Family Go Extinct! creation!

What’s Next? Get Involved and Get Gaming!

STEAM Galaxy Studios is just getting started! Next up is a dinosaur-specific version of Go Extinct! and an all-new game modeling how embryos reveal evolutionary relationships called Suddenly Cute. Following up on the critiques within the National Center for Science Education’s otherwise glowing review, we are partnering with the NCSE and UC Berkeley’s UCMP to create a series of worksheets to guide students through more evolutionary concepts the game can facilitate.

Even more excitingly, we are partnering with Evidently So, an Australian-based science visualization company to create a game design platform for students and classrooms. We want to create a tool for kids to easily design their own Go Extinct!-like games around different parts of the evolutionary tree, just like Jane!

To stay on top of all the new games and classroom-supporting materials, please sign up for the sparingly-used educator mailing list!

Furthermore, we’re always looking for new play-testers, especially those willing to give games a try in their classrooms. Email me at [email protected]

Go Extinct! be purchased through or the STEAM Galaxy website. Another main objective of STEAM Galaxy Studios is to diversify engagement with STEM fields and we are committed to removing barriers to quality science materials. Educators can purchase a discounted classroom set or access the free print-and-play version through the STEAM Galaxy’s For Educators webpage. This page also includes extensive Next Generation Standards Alignment documentation.

You can read more about my work in a 1-page feature article in Science! You can learn more about how teachers have used the game in a brief review by the National Science Teachers Association and or the in-depth account by paleontologist and outreach specialist Taormina Lepore for the PLOS Paleo blog.

Visit Ariel’s website at

Follow Ariel on Twitter @aemarcy