Whyville and Numedeon


Late last summer I posted a technology based explanation for Why Whyville exists.  Recently, I was asked to provide:

 “a comprehensive understanding of what Numedeon (the company that runs Whyville) does and what it aims to achieve “

I hope readers find the answers not only uncharacteristically brief but also interesting:


The Problem:  What is the primary problem we are trying to solve?  

Numedeon Inc. was born not so much in response to a specific problem, but instead as a result of what we saw as an enormous opportunity to use the Internet to positively support and affect the lives of children.  In launching Whyville.net in 1999, Numedeon established the first virtual world Internet site that used games, social networking and a strong community structure to engage children directly, providing a platform for our users to explore and understand an ever widening set of issues relevant to their lives and futures.  Now having engaged literally millions of children, Numedeon continues to be driven by the opportunity and the need to address subjects that improve children’s lives, from nutrition, to social responsibility to mental health.  Numedeon also increasingly plays a role in helping more traditional organizations including governmental organizations; NGOs and schools reach and engage a generation of children now generally referred to as “digital natives”.

Entrepreneurial Insight: What is the core revelation informing your approach?   

In the mid 1980s, Numedeon’s founders were already inventing how to directly engage children using online play (i.e. games) on networked computers.  Learning from our users, we soon realized that the Internet was most effective not as “push”, but instead as  “pull” technology.   While most efforts to influence children then and even today continue to push information at them, Numedeon’s social game-based technology pulls them in, in the process making the learning their own.  Critically, through this process we also learned that success depends on forging an active partnership with our users, allowing them ownership through their own creative participation.

The Program Model:  What are the key elements and how do they fit together? 
14 years later, Numedeon is still involved in actively running, managing and expanding one of the largest and most engaging virtual world spaces for children on the Internet.  Half of our employees are responsible for running our sophisticated community management system, judged by many to be the best on the Internet.  The rest of the company is involved in designing and building new Whyville learning projects in collaboration with an ever-growing list of sponsors, many of whom have already been working with us for many years (e.g. The Getty Museum, NASA, the CDC, WHOI, the Field Museum).   In addition, every member of the company spends time in Whyville (as the famous “CityWorkers”), interacting with and learning from our users.   Increasingly, Numedeon is also providing support for teachers and schools using Whyville in their classrooms.
Direct Impact: What are the primary results of your organization’s work?
With 7.5 million registered users, Whyville.net is one of the largest virtual worlds of any kind and absolutely one of the largest serving education.  With an average of 30 minutes per login, Whyville is also one of the stickiest sites on the Internet for kids.  Depending on the time of year, use ranges from 100,000 to 300,000 uniques per month, average age 13, and 72% female.   On average users stay active for more than a year, with many engaged over multiple years.  With the company’s focus on learning impact, our virtual world engine provides a wealth of detailed use information.   Typically, Whyville activities attract hundreds of thousands of users, playing millions of games.  The company also has an open door policy towards academic research, making Whyville one of the most independently studied educational web sites.   Whyville has already been the subject of one book with a second currently in development.  (I am writing one as well  JB  ).

Systemic Impact:  articulate your theory about how, in the long-term, macro-level change might result from your work.

Arguably, nothing has greater potential for positive systemic social impact than effective education.  For 14 years, Numedeon has been a principle innovator in the use of digital technology to deeply engage children in learning.  However, when Whyville launched in 1999, few teachers, schools or parents understood the potential educational power of social gaming or virtual world technology.  Accordingly, Whyville was launched as an informal educational website with no direct connection to the formal education system.  Now 14 years later, Whyville’s use in the schools is growing, and Numedeon is receiving increasing support for classroom-based interventions.  As the nation’s educational system continues to “go digital”, our years of accumulated expertise, metrics, and large Internet foot print put us in a unique position to influence the dramatic changes sure to result, while also providing a wide range of organizations more effective mechanisms to directly reach the children they seek to serve.


Vision:   Where will the world be in 2050 and how will you have contributed?

The structure of the modern educational system, its schools, classrooms, and textbooks were established in the 15th and 16th centuries (see Momento Mori below) to deal with a fundamental problem in scalability:  Growing populations needing to be educated by a still small number of educators.  The Internet provides a fundamentally new way to scale learning, the consequences of which for 2050 are already manifest now.  The Internet breaks the distinction between formal and informal education, bringing the real world into the classroom and vice versa.  Web-based learning is self-paced, and learner-centered with children seeking their own achievement levels.  Information no longer needs to be distilled into a textbook for distribution.  Progress can be measured by actual achievement, rather than indirectly through paper and pen assessments.    And perhaps most importantly, social play will once again be the basis for learning, engaging children across national and geo-political boundaries.  These are all features of Whyville today.


Personal Story:  Why are you here? On the face of it, we are here because two Caltech students, Mark Dinan (physics) and Dr. Jennifer Sun (visual psychophysics), decided that a life in science was not likely to be as rewarding as a life spent improving children’s wellbeing.  While Caltech students, both decided to work for the Caltech Precollege Science Initiative, co-directed for 17 years by our other founder, Dr. Jim Bower, as a hands-on science intervention in California Public Schools.  For his part, Dr. Bower’s interest in educational reform considerably predates his professional interest as a neurobiologist building computer models of the brain.  However, given his computational expertise, in the early 1980s, he already anticipated the power of simulation/game-based learning.   As a former student at Antioch College, Dr. Bower had also experienced first hand the power of student centered inquiry-based instruction.  As the son of a minister deeply involved in the civil rights movement and a psychiatric social worker employed in poor inner city school districts, Dr. Bower was raised in a family that believed both in giving back, as well as in the power of learning and education to change human lives.  Whyville’s success reflects the unique contributions, but shared motivations of its founders.


Critical Decisions:  Why are you still here?

Numedeon’s founders have made a long series of difficult business decisions over the last 14 years to keep the company alive.  At the start, we had to decide whether our decidedly social entrepreneurial intent was best organized as a non-profit or for-profit.  After years sustaining long-term projects with short-term grants, we decided to give sustainability in the marketplace a try.  Second, founded during the rising days of the dot.com bubble, we could have raised considerable development money in exchange for a loss of corporate control.  Suspecting that we were well ahead of the market, and wanting the freedom to develop our approach without the complications of venture capital, we decided to bootstrap the company instead.  That decision, which we do not regret, gave us the freedom we needed, but at some cost in stress.  Through it all, the principle metric that has sustained and directed us, is the enthusiasm of our users.


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