Vanished Edu-Game: 11 Yr Old Rylan Reports “Back from the Future”

June 20, 2011 Mission? Make learning fun. Investigators? Preteens. GameQuest? STEM studies, deeply rooted in gaming fun.

I’ve been saving this post about MIT MediaLab/Education Arcade’s Vanished game for today’s opening of the Games For Change festival in NYC, since their keynote speaker Al Gore has been taking questions @G4C on Twitter about best practices to engage youth, and I want to link lob this one their way as a stellar example for comment.

To me, fun participatory learning games like Vanished bridge online collaborative clues with offline research and critical thinking and they could easily end up the secret sidewinder to amp up kids’ interest in science and STEM.

A cross between a sci-fi detective mystery about how to save planet earth and keep our eco-systems from vanishing and a living lab scavenger hunt in kids’ real world environs to unlock secrets, hear from Smithsonian scientists firsthand and mythbust via museum fact-finding, the Vanished ‘gamification’ of education exemplifies how we can use media as a tool for building collective knowledge for humanity.

Though Vanished has ‘vanished’ (it was a 2-month pilot beginning in April funded by NSF, partnering with the Smithsonian Institution) I’ve interviewed an 11-year old girl who exemplifies the exact age and gender MIT Media Lab is targeting to help stem the middle-school exodus of females from these core fields.

Rylan has played Vanished from the get-go, joining several thousand kids (about 4,000 messages were posting daily online) in a call to action for data collection and problem-solving to piece together the mystery of what happened to our big ol’ blue marble in ‘back from the future’ mode.

The premise is simple…

Visitors from the future want to know:

“What event occurred between our time and theirs that led to the loss of civilization’s historical records?”

“…Students must decode clues in hidden messages, and in response find and provide information about Earth’s current condition, such as temperature and species data, to help people in the future deduce what wound up happening.”

In essence, sci-fi narrative meets hypothesis-reasoning in a solutions-based game of thrill-seeking and fun.

I tell ya, if I were an 11-14 year old, I’d sure prefer an alien visit to ask important questions and inspire me to don a detective hat to figure out red herrings and obstacles designed to pull kids off track (from hackers distorting data to missing logs and ‘what will happen today with Project Phoenix’ style suspense) rather than regurgitating formulas for test prep and finite textbook snorefests.

Stale, institutional confinement of subject matter in a digital age of peer to peer informal learning and participatory media will need overhauled into alternatives for learning that WORK…

I’m hoping educational games like Vanished will open all the windows and doors to the mind to let some fresh thinking in and let the breezes of innovation flow freely…

Vanished is one of those ideas that could be built upon, turned into different storylines and subjects to be scaled systemically…part ‘Institute for the Future’ SuperStruct gaming mindset and part thought leader projects like Doug Engelbart’s “Program for the Future” or  fellow NextNow collaboratory colleague Mei Lin Fung’s Future Talk series on BlipTV…it’s really poised to tackle the ‘what ifs’ kids love to ask.

We truly have the chance to alter the landscape of learning and ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ bridging between online info and scaling en masse and hands-on exploration and nature discovery offline in the real world. Exciting times!

There are so many meaningful ways to use media and impart STEM with productive peer learning that make sense beyond the textbook though…

Just look at a few of our Shaping Youth posts alone:

Whether it’s deploying practical, hands-on fun, like Project Raceway, the RealityTV style media premise for teens to crowdsource lower mileage and eco-standards…

…Or games for change involving nonprofits in virtual worlds like the prior Elf Island/Xeko-eco ways of transfering knowledge gain from online games to real world scenarios that make a difference…

…Or using mainstream movies like this post I wrote about a flick and float poolside summer fun showing of Night At the Museum turning into a Night of History fun to uncork kids fascination, or Ice Age and Hoot as eco-springboards to unplug as kidvid for larger learning convos to get out and explore nature, the opportunities for flipping the media into positive horizons and changing the channel of influence toward solutions-based thinking is grand.

I’ll hush and let 11-year old Rylan tell you HER experience within the Vanished game but when Games for Change opens today bringing together some of the best and brightest bigwigs to solve some pressing problems on the planet I’m hopeful they’ll have plenty of projects being designed with youth like Rylan in mind…It’s the perfect place for storytelling innovation to actually ‘show and tell’ how this type of prototype unfolds and scales with extended outreach.

Contributors often experiment far beyond the sustainability, STEM, exergaming and health disciplines to address complex conundrums ranging from geopolitical food supplies to human rights and civility. (sex ed/reproductive rights, an end to child trafficking etc) And though it’s not all about the ‘serious games market’ as the genre is often called, the Games for Change festival really points toward raising the collective knowledge IQ of humanity overall.

Ideally, isn’t that what education should do to make us better citizens of the planet? I have a feeling the Vanished aliens of Project Phoenix would concur.  

Prelude STEM Q&A with Rylan, Age 11, Female/6th Grader-American Student Living in Germany (Note: Special Thanks to Dr. Jen Shewmaker of Don’t Conform, Transform who happens to be my media literacy colleague and Rylan’s mom! I appreciate you both allowing me to have unbridled access and hope you don’t feel like to much of a scientific ‘guinea pig’ with MY own countless research questions!)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: When did you first start liking science? Have you always liked it or did you have someone in your life that helped guide you in that direction? (if so who/when?)

Rylan: I’m 11 now, and honestly I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like science. I can remember when I was four, and I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt and dinosaurs, but I don’t know what inspired that. I think I was probably just curious about things.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Was there ever a positive or negative stereotype attached to liking science and being female? Were you a ‘why’ girl taking things apart in hands-on experiments?

Rylan: I can’t think of any times when stereotypes actually affected me or I even heard them. I was always encouraged to like science, and the closest I ever experienced to stereotypes was other girls’ lack of interest in science.

And yes, I did ask many ‘why?’ questions; I was, and still am, very curious about the world around me and the reasons for things. My science experience was rather half-and-half. I went to lots of museums and observed things, but I also went to a lot of science camps and experimented.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Were there any personal challenges being in a diff timezone in Germany and interacting w/other players in the Vanished game in the US? How could they make that work better globally?

Rylan: It was difficult being in a different timezone…the video conferences that took place were between 11pm-1am my time, but I can’t really think of any reasonable solutions to this. It would be easier if more important things like that happened on weekends though, so that I could stay up without having to worry about school the next day. It would also be nice if there was 24/7 comment validation, though that’s kind of unreasonable to ask.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Do you like science in school? What could they do to ‘teach it better?’ (Are any of your classmates teaming with you in playing Vanished?

Rylan: I do like science, but I think it would be better if we did more experiments and research, instead of just reading a textbook. I find textbooks boring, because while they are sometimes necessary, I prefer finding things out myself, not being told. As far as I know, none of my friends played Vanished, though I’m not 100% sure.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What kind of science communities online (if any) have you been involved with? Do you know about Zoey’s Room for girls, or do you use MIT’s Scratch to animate, or do you follow PBS Kids’ SciGirls or Ruby Skye Private Investigator etc  or do virtual worlds or social media?)

Rylan: At school, we do computer programming and scratch during ICT (Information and Communication Technology), and I enjoy both of them. But I don’t go to science sites.

Rylan Reports On Her Specific Experience Playing Vanished

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How did you find out about the Vanished game? And was it ‘user friendly’ to jump right in?

Rylan: My mom told me about it, and she found out from Twitter. I found it fairly easy to understand; I logged in the 1st day and immediately started playing. It was also nice because whenever you are gone for long periods of time, you can look at the recap.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: It says you can “spend as much or as little time as you want” How often do you log in and play the game? What’s the time commitment to get something out of it in your opinion?

Rylan: At the beginning of the game, I got on almost every day. Now I get on about twice a week. In total, I’ve probably spent around 10< hours on it. Personally, I think you should spend at least half of that time to get something out of it.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Does it feel more like a school project for education or a game to play to collaborate with friends? What’s the vibe?

Have you met other kids online that you’ll stay in touch with through social media? (Skype, FB, etc)

Does it ‘feel’ like you are learning? Or is it more ‘discovery’ where you surprise yourself by what you learn?

Rylan: I think it feels like a mission. It makes you feel like you have this responsibility to fulfill, like you need to get on and help.

I certainly met some people who I liked, but none I really connected to that much. There wasn’t really any opportunity to just chat.

You had to do a lot of research, so some of it was definitely learning. But there were some games on the website that were actually math based, English based, etc, but they didn’t have that ‘learning game’ feel to them. Some actually felt like video games.

The game has made me realize how much there is to know, like with the scientist who studies bees, and how little I actually do know. I’ve started paying more attention to details and really focusing on things, and I feel like I’ve already found out so much.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Did Vanished build in ‘incentives’ for you to play longer within the game (rewards, badges, etc?)

Rylan: Yes; they have points that you can earn by doing good research, watching videos, playing games, and a lot of other things.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Did you figure out how the document depository works? (e.g. I read “Every time you earn achievements, you also earn points you can spend on unlocking documents. Paying to unlock documents doesn’t decrease your achievement points.”) Did that work for you?

Rylan: Yes; I spent around 3,000 points on that. I thought it was smart how you had to use teamwork to figure everything out.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: I heard you got to talk directly with a scientist …tell us ‘how it worked’—(e.g. did they have a way to ‘pick’ a scientist to speak with by interest category to interview as part of the game to reveal new findings?)

Rylan: The video conference I participated in was the one with the Smithsonian Paleoecologist, and you could submit questions that might have been read and answered by the scientist, who was on live streamed video. The scientist was chosen because of his field to help us in the game. At the beginning of the video conference, most questions were by people curious about his field of study. After three or so of these, questions started moving towards the topic we were talking about; how volcanoes can affect the climate and animals.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Would that be an interesting ‘reward’ for game play? (being able to speak to a real scientist in your area of interest, to glean their expertise, either in-game or unrelated in the ‘real world’)

Rylan: Definitely! I was really excited to participate, because I have been fascinated by paleontology since I was very little.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Did you like the narrative Vanished created? How would you change it with your own plot twists?

Rylan: I liked in Vanished how they started off saying ‘we’ve been hacked! Do such and such to help us figure out what’s going on!’ instead of just saying ‘Do this and this will happen and go to this website’. I think it’s more interesting that way. If it were me however, I would have used an asteroid strike instead of a disease to kill off humans, because I am very fascinated by asteroids. (of note, this interview was prior to game end)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What was the most surprising plot twist to you and how did you shift the way you were thinking to problem-solve differently?

Rylan: There were a lot of them! I was actually very surprised when I logged in today to find out the Project Phoenix team were aliens! Guess I’m not as insightful as I like to think. Anyway, at the beginning of Vanished, it was more English- (verbal/vocab) centered. Then it changed with locating possible asteroids and such, and you had to use math.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What’s your passion area within science (e.g. archeology, marine bio/animals, eco-systems, geology, physics, anthropology etc)

How many areas of science did they try to cover in Vanished and interconnect with other areas? Did you find your interests broadened or changed?

Rylan: …Oh wow… I have a lot of interests in science. Paleontology first and foremost, but I’m also interested in chemistry, and the study of volcanoes, but I’m not sure what you would call that. Same with asteroids. My new fascinations are volcanoes and asteroids, but I’m even more interested in computer programming than I was before (which is really saying something), though you might not consider the latter a science.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What was your most frustrating part of the experience?

Rylan: Honestly, my biggest problem was probably not doing the best. I know that probably sounds conceited, but school is really easy for me, and I’m used to doing the best because of that. It was definitely hard for me to come into an environment where I’m being exceptionally challenged and I’m not the best. But it was a very good experience for me, and I’m glad I joined in.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Is there ANY product placement in the game? (e.g. do they promote any other companies or eco-environmental brands to make it be more realistic to spin off of ‘headline news’ —like BP oil spill, setbacks with global conflict etc?)

Rylan: No, not obviously. I noticed it definitely promotes MIT and the Smithsonian, but that’s just because I’m impressed by what I’ve seen of them.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Once it’s over, would you like to see MIT create a ‘sequel’ like a hit movie blockbuster? Or is it better to create an entirely new science game with a similar style but a different topic?

Rylan: I am already missing Vanished! I would like to see a separate game personally, because I would enjoy researching different topics.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Do you have any interest in being a game designer? (also what did you think of the students at MIT and their role guiding the game with finals underway, did they rotate teams to interact w/the 5000 players, etc?)

Rylan: Yes. Last summer I went to a camp on animation. I was taught how to make simple cartoons, and this year at school we’re studying programming. I really appreciated how much effort all of the students put into it; it was greatly appreciated when I received feed back from them, and it was nice how all of them got on and posted.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Thanks, Rylan…I hope all middle-school girls read this and see what a blast you had playing.

I couldn’t embed the students videos Rylan mentioned, to give you a feel for the normalcy of ‘real people, real time, real finals…real pizza.’ (True confessions, I logged in as a preteen as a ‘scientist in training to play’ in order to check out the investigations set up) So I can echo her enthusiasm, the students were fun and funny, approachable, aspirational role models and a great fit for ‘mentoring’ in a livestream peer to peer format.

Here are a couple of videos to give you a feel for this fabulous MIT Vanished STEM gaming project.

And here’s the full demo presentation at 2011 Sandbox Summit taped by dedicated colleague and uber-helpful edutech enthusiast Scott Traylor of

Related Resources

I Was  Adventures in Science/Tweens

MIT Education Arcade: Moving Learning Games Forward

MIT Creates the One Video Game You’ll Be Thrilled to See Your Kid Get Hooked On (Fast Company)

Jane McGonigal Slides at GDC2011 (Gamification/FutureLab.Net)

Jane (author of Reality is Broken, Director of Game R&D at

Games For Change Festival 2011 June 20-22! (Livestream)

#G4C2011 Games for  Change Twitter Hashtag (to follow tweets)

The Smithsonian & MIT Help Your Kids Get ‘Vanished’ (Alternate Reality Gaming Network)

Wired/Geek Dad On Vanished/MIT

Related Reading on Shaping Youth/STEM Specific

Starting from Scratch: Making STEM Easy, Kid-Friendly & Fun

Wise Women & Alice 3.0: Geek Chic For Girls (pt.1)

BrainCake: Teen Girls Talk Tech & Worldchanging (pt.2)

DigiGirlz: Teen Girls Build Community Online & Off (pt.3)

Shaping Youth Sponsors She’s Geeky: WIT & Wisdom Flourish

Project Raceway: ShopGirls Build STEM Eco-Marathon Car

She’s Geeky: Techno Leaders Converge

She’s Geeky:Vlogging with Ryanne Hodson at She’s Geeky

Media Moms, Engineers, Purple Tornadoes At She’s Geeky

She’s Geeky and Proud of It  (My first Shaping Youth geekery)

Misguided Media: Space station takes a backseat to Britney?

Kids Online UNconference: Kaliya Hamlin, Joi Podgorny

Shaping Youth Interviews Girl Mogul Founder/Geek Chic

Related Games For Good/Eco Kids/ Shaping Youth

40 SY eco posts worth recycling

The Great Turtle Race

Inspiring Kids As Stewards of the Planet

Inspiring Kids With Green Media

Nature Rocks: Reconnecting Families with Planet Earth!

Nim’s Island: Shaping Youth Through Imagination & Adventure

Xeko/Elf Island: A Virtual World To Be Wild About

Xeko/Elf  Island GoodQuest to Help Polar Bears

If Kids Could Be Dolphins: The Power of Creative Play

Greentrepreneurs: Recycle Bank Shows Kids it Pays to Be Green

S.F. Oil Spill Prompts Altruism & Activism in Kids

Kids Bring Home the Message to Cool the Earth

Digital Activism: Kids Stump for Change (World Wildlife Fund)

When Art Meets Earth: Wyland’s Murals Inspire Kids to Care

Shaping Youth Joins Eco-Literacy Coalition: NCLI

More in Shaping Youth’s EcoKids/Environment Archives Here…

Inspire Kids With Green Media: Kid-Vid & Games Galore

Nim’s Island: Shaping Youth Through Imagination & Adventure

Kids Plant Virtually Trees to Benefit Real Trees in Dizzywood

Seeding Virtual Worlds: Kids Going Green in Dizzywood

When Green Gets Jaded: Marketing Hope to Kids

How to Turn People Green

Planting Earthseeds Via The Magic School Bus: Eco-Media For Kids



  1. Oh man, this was so great to read, as a developer of Vanished. People who are at Games for Change this week can come to talk to some of the developers (Jason Haas, Caitlin Feeley, and Dana Tenneson) – we’ll be there for FarmBlitz, a financial education game.

    Rylan! Thanks for being such a diligent player (and for saying such smart, funny things here)! We’d love to make sequels too!

  2. I hope i wont go to far away from the topic but for me games did very good in terms of education.

    Am Italian, and most of my English lessons took place in front of my PC playing “Fallout 2” .

    That RPG game literally skyrocketed my vocabulary as i was forced to understand what characters was saying, and what the plot was about.

  3. Excellent! Glad to hear it…I think that MIT role play game is a prototype for MANY digital innovation daring feats of lifelong learning to come! Good luck w/your language skills…you’re doin’ just great w/your English, judging from the comment above!

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