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.


Why aren’t my kids gardening?

One of the benefits, or perhaps costs, of having been in the business of developing games for learning for 25 years, is that you can see trends – especially with respect to the kinds of questions that come from audiences.  There was a time, not really that long ago actually, when a talk on kids playing games online was met with skeptics who said that computers would never be cheap enough, or the Internet common enough for kids to have widespread access.


Another concern raised when talking about complex games, especially in meetings full of academics, was that young children didn’t have the cognitive ability to manipulate abstract ideas, or understand problems with multiple variables.  I remember replying once “you must not have kids” – as, in my experience, mine were more than adept at manipulating the complex relationship between two adults that (by definition) predated their existence.

In any event, in recent years perhaps the most frequent audience response when I present data on the remarkable number of minutes, hours, years that kids (now with access) are spending manipulating variables and abstract ideas on Whyville, is that all this use of the Internet is bad for children – that they should really be doing something else.

My usual response is to say that we actively design games and activities that push kids off into the real world, and that we have been in the business of ‘blended’ reality from the outset, however, I find the persistence of this particular question remarkable

–      BECAUSE –

The important question, it seems to me,  is not how much time kids are playing online games, the important question is what they aren’t doing now, that they were doing before?

Turns out, it isn’t gardening.

What they were doing was watching television.

Which raises the somewhat more specific question, is playing online games better or worse than watching television?

I won’t bore you with the abundant neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc. evidence that ACTIVE almost anything is better than almost anything passive for young minds.

I won’t even expand on my own deep held conviction that plugging into content delivered sequentially by supposedly ‘child friendly’ networks like Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network, leads to much more brain rot than children actively making their own choices as to where they go, what they see, and what they do.

And is there any doubt which of these technologies are going to be in their best eventual economic, political, and social interest?

Instead, I want to ask the question, why isn’t this obvious to everyone?

The easy and context specific answer, of course, is that often the people that ask this question in the conferences and meetings were I speak represent (or are simply parroting) the media industry’s desperate concerned that children would rather do their own thing, than “their” thing, and that they now can.  Those industries and their representatives are simply defending turf and trying to scare the rest of us off.  Understandable, but shame on them (and good luck).

However, I think that there is another reason that this concern continues to resonate.  And that reason is pretty simple actually – most of us older folks did not have access to the Internet when we were young and “impressionable”  – but we did have access to TV.  For this reason, TV is familiar; something we know how to deal with and don’t fear, the Internet in contrast seems new and scary.  In fact, when I was young, I had to defend my use of TV against my grandparents, who didn’t think that children should be allowed access to such a powerfully influential device at all.  (They were also convinced that the Beatles were going to destroy America – the verdict perhaps still out on that one).

Just to be clear, I am not advocating that as adults, parents, grandparents, teachers, government officials, game developers, etc., we simply throw up our hands and pay no attention.  The truth is that this new technology is very powerful in its ability to engage and potentially manipulate children (as well as the rest of us).  Some part of the concern over kids on the Internet is almost certainly a consequence of the other side of active vs. passive:  which is that active minds are more susceptible to manipulation (as well as learning) – We need to be vigilant about who is trying to do what to our kids using this new technology.  No matter how suspect the programming at Nickelodeon or The Cartoon Network, at least it isn’t that effective.  The Internet can be VERY effective.

But, bottom line obviously is that the cat is out of the bag on the Internet.  Our challenge now is not how to keep kids from using it – but to assure that its use is to their maximum benefit.

Gamification: Is a game by any other name still a game?

It occurred to me, as I packed my pirate outfit after Games For Change and headed to yet another airplane, that in principle, it is now entirely possible to remain continually on the road attending conferences discussing the “gamification’ of education.

In fact, considered worldwide, this is physically impossible, minus quantum tunneling  (see for example  http://elearningtech.blogspot.com/2011/11/elearning-conferences-2012.html )

However, as I have sat in the audience this spring either physically or virtually at InPlay (http://www.inplay2012.com/),  GDC (http://www.gdconf.com/) , SxSWedu (http://sxswedu.com/) taking place at the same time in the same city (Austin) as SITE (http://site.aace.org/conf/) ;  E3 (http://www.e3expo.com/); GLS (http://www.glsconference.org/2012/index.html) taking place at the same time as Games for Health (http://www.gamesforhealth.org/index.php/conferences/gfh-2012/); followed immediately by Games for Change (http://www.gamesforchange.org/) and a week later, and most recently ISTE (http://www.iste.org/conference/ISTE-2012.aspx),  I found myself pondering not so much the NP complete  (i.e. basically unsolvable) traveling salesman problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling_salesman_problem) ,  as what the heck we are all doing, and in particular, if we are really all talking about the same thing?

I have no interest, what-so-ever, in launching into an academic discourse on games and types of games, but it does seem to me that if you are promoting some form of ‘ification’  then some thought should be given to considering the operator (in this case ‘game’) that is being applied.

This may be particularly important in the case of learning, as we ARE proposing to “ify” something that already exists with its own purposes and long history (see prior post).

In figuring out if we are all on the same page, or close to it, a good place to start perhaps might be “the 100 Games Everyone Should Play” list now being crowd sourced by the “gamifiers” on http://the100.esidesign.com/.  Presumably such a list could tell us something about how we are defining games and certainly what games we ourselves value.

The current top ten:

1)   Chess

2)   Settlers of Catan

3)   Tetris

4)   Dungeons and Dragons

5)   Portal

6)   Go

7)   Civilization

8)   Sim city

9)   Super Mario Brothers

10)  Pandemic

I do not mean to claim that this is an authoritative list – crowd sourcing isn’t like that.  But the thing that is perhaps most striking to me about this list, we generated,  is how different these games are from many if not most of the so-called learning games I have seen demoed at this spring’s meetings.  First, half the games on the top 100 list explicitly depend on interaction between players, or in other words, an active social context.  Many if not most learning games are still single player.  Second, in half of the top six games (Chess, Tetris and Go), the game establishes rules, but the “narrative” or how the rules play out is provided by the human(s) playing the game.  In contrast, a nearly constant theme in gaming and learning meetings is the importance of a strong narrative to engage students (the players).  In fact, only one of the top ten games is developer narrative dominated (Super Mario).

So why then do the learning games we are constructing not include core features of the games that we ourselves appear to value?

The answer, unfortunately, I think is simple – for far too long the educational system has been dominated by content over process, by the desire to teach individuals the facts we think they need to know.  In talks over the last 25 years I have repeatedly pointed out that the close and deep connection between storyboarded video games and storyboarded curriculum is dangerous.  In both cases, the developer’s objective is to lead players through from the beginning to the end.  In the case of the traditional video game industry, start, play and finish means that players use up a game and are primed to buy the sequel, an historically good business model;  but not likely to be so good for education.

However, it is clear that the games that stand the test of time (2,000+ years for “Go” ) are either those in which the storyboarding is so sophisticated that it isn’t apparent (Sim City for example), or those in which the narrative and vitality is created by the players themselves.  In fact, it took the video game industry some time to understand that the vitality in even strongly storyboarded single shooter games came from the social context the players built, on their own, around those games.

So, the final question I would ask is whether we shouldn’t be using our own experience with games we like, to guide our development of learning games for others.  Perhaps it is more important to consider the way we like to play, before we build in too much “what we want you to know” or worse yet “what we want you to believe”.