Learning In Games: Sandboxes

 

Yesterday, argued that that it’s more important for narrative art — be it literature, film, or video games — to be compelling, rather than fun or even enjoyable. Now, continuing my response to Ian Bogost’s article in The Atlantic, I will focus on one of the ways games and other interactive media can be educational or persuasive.

Bogost refers to the popular SimCity game series by Will Wright, which has endured from the days of DOS and Amiga to modern hardware platforms. Like many of Wright’s games, SimCity plays off a Montessori style in which one learns through free experimentation with objects and systems. Bogost oddly avoids the common industry jargon for such environments: sandbox games.

Games of this sort are increasingly popular as better technology and bigger budgets enable developers to simulate ever more complex systems. Articles about the rise of “open world” games on newer hardware platforms abound. Major publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft have invested heavily in open world intellectual properties.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAdXeOFCDao

Sandbox learning can be as simple as a young child pushing sand together to learn physical and artistic concepts of modeling, among other lessons. LEGOs, Lincoln Logs, and marble runs are examples of physical sandbox-style products. A chemistry set or microscope can be a “sandbox game” if the child is left to experiment freely. Spare lumber, nails, and tools can result in a similar fun.

A “game” is a form of play involving set rules and goals. While sandbox games are the most free-form and least game-like the medium allows, designers do influence the available methods of play with their products.

The key features of a compelling sandbox game are accessibility and flexibility. “Quick to learn, slow to master” is the design philosophy behind many such systems. If the player is not intimidated by difficulty or overwhelmed by options in early interactions, then he may gradually challenge himself to accomplish greater feats with the same tools and resources. Ideally, those assets can be applied in many ways, combinations, and arrangements. There is no end to what can be constructed with LEGOs or Minecraft.

The more the player accomplishes without becoming overly frustrated, the more the player dreams of doing. Sandbox video games also strive to reward player creativity through awards and opportunities for sharing with fellow players.

Contrary to the Atlantic article, the slow decline of the SimCity series has had less to do with the popularity of character-driven versus system-driven design than with increased competition, specific design choices in sequels, and — perhaps — difficulty in limiting political biases as technology enabled more specific and detailed simulations. In fact, “sim” (simulation) games continue to succeed financially as a distinct genre of products. Many industries and systems have been popularly simulated as games, from zoos and restaurants to macro-evolution and epidemiology. Flight simulators were some of the first hit computer games. Most popular simulators today are designed for mobile platforms like phones and tablets.

In my next post I’ll discuss the didactic potential of games through characters and narrative. In the meantime, any thoughts or questions?

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  1. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    I loved SimCity 2000… mid 90’s if I recall correctly.

    I also really enjoyed playing MineCraft until I thought it started to get too complex.  Games like that are fun, but the more complex they get, the more they require pretty much constant gameplay, which is unrealistic for most people with actual lives.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    There are a few big reasons I stopped playing Maxis’ games from Sim City 3000 onward:

    • The UI went downhill really fast. Sim City 2000 was very intuitive. Sim City 3000 … not so much.
    • They never published updated sequels to SimCopter or Streets of Sim City to accompany SC3000 or SC4. I loooooved building cities in SC2000 and exploring them in SimCopter.
    • They never published updated sequels to some of their other classic games. I long for a modern remake of SimEarth. I spent untold hours playing that game on my old black & white Macintosh Classic. (OTOH: Some might argue that Spore is the spiritual successor to SimEarth/SimLife…)

    Dear Electronic Arts: Please open source all the old Maxis Sim games so we can get updated Linux remakes!!!

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Ryan M:I loved SimCity 2000… mid 90′s if I recall correctly.

    I also really enjoyed playing MineCraft until I thought it started to get too complex. Games like that are fun, but the more complex they get, the more they require pretty much constant gameplay, which is unrealistic for most people with actual lives.

    That’s a perennial phenomenon with long-running strategy/sim games. It’s not enough to simply update the graphics with each version. They also have to add new “functionality” and tweak the rules of the game, otherwise people complain that the game is derivative.

    I find this is very acute with the Civilization series. With each version they make tweaks to the A.I. and to the game’s rules that make pretty huge differences to the gameplay. There are still aspects of Civ II that I prefer (like the way trading was done) to the newer versions.

    Unfortunately, this sometimes makes the newer versions of the game a little too complex and expansive for old-timers like myself, so I often end up sticking with older versions (often via DOSBox or WINE). I have every version of Civ on my primary home computer, and I still play every single one of ’em.

    On the other hand, the newer versions are also (usually) highly moddable, so there are ways to apply rules from previous versions to the latest versions of the games.

    That doesn’t help me with my longing for a new version of SimEarth, sadly…

    • #3
  4. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Apropos of Nothing: Lots and lots of these old, classic games are available for free (legally!) at archive.org. For some, you’ll need DOSBox to get them to run:

    https://archive.org/details/pc_cdrom

    There are also “abandonware” sites that offer ’em for free, but not technically legally. Two of my faves are http://www.abandonia.com and winworldpc.com/library.

    Many that aren’t available for free are available for cheap at Good Old Games (http://www.gog.com). The benefit of the GOG versions is that they’re recompiled to run properly on modern computers, so you don’t need DOSBox.

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Ryan M:[….] Games like that are fun, but the more complex they get, the more they require pretty much constant gameplay, which is unrealistic for most people with actual lives.

    Agreed. It’s a hard challenge for developers of sandbox and open world games to make them easy to pick up again after a long break. Narrative-oriented games suffer the most from hiatus.

    Of complex adventure games, the Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor are among the best for periodic play. That’s because combat can be as simple as X to attack, Y to dodge, and A to jump… with infinitely more nuance and depth available to be relearned through simple experimentation.

    • #5
  6. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    When I was a kid, Legos just came in a big pile, and you just built whatever.  Now they’re basically kits, where you’re supposed to follow the instructions to recreate what you see on the box cover.  But without the model glue, so that’s probably a good thing.

    We have a recent version of SimCity, and like it well enough.  I had a version back in the 90’s also, and I remember it containing anti-fossil fuel tendencies.  That is, if you built a coal plant for power, after a certain period of time, it would depreciate fully and disappear, leaving you powerless until you built another (and it was expensive).  If you built windmills or hydro dams, they would last forever.  And oddly, you could built a hydro dam wherever; no river required.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Aaron Miller:

    Ryan M:[….] Games like that are fun, but the more complex they get, the more they require pretty much constant gameplay, which is unrealistic for most people with actual lives.

    Agreed. It’s a hard challenge for developers of sandbox and open world games to make them easy to pick up again after a long break. Narrative-oriented games suffer the most from hiatus.

    Well, it depends. Most turn-based games can be set aside for rather long periods of time and then picked up again with very little dissonance. I can be on hiatus from a Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, or SimCity  game for ages and then pick right up where I left off with very little problem.

    When the game in question is a real-time game, like Minecraft or Kerbal Space Program, it can be more problematic (particularly if one plays multiplayer). One can’t really take a break from Kerbal in the middle of an orbital burn. Gravity is a pretty remorseless foe.

    My biggest complaint with turn-based sim games (especially older ones) is when one has pretty much accomplished everything that’s possible within the game engine. This was the biggest problem with Sim City 2000. There was only so many ways one could build a city before one started to repeat oneself. (This problem was alleviated greatly, though not perfectly, with the SimCopter and Streets of Sim City “add-on” games).

    With newer games, of course, this problem is greatly mitigated by the existence of user-created mods. Where would Kerbal Space Program be without its huge modding community? Back at the 0.1 alpha stage, most likely.

    (Hmm, I guess strictly-speaking, SimCity and Railroad Tycoon aren’t really turn-based games. It’s just that the way the passage of time is handled in those games sorta makes them feel that way, with annual reports that provide natural spots for taking a break.)

    • #7
  8. Belt Member
    Belt
    @Belt

    About 25 years ago, a friend and I stayed up until 3am playing SimCity one night during spring break.  We ended the night with the apocalypse – nuclear plant meltdown, fires, earthquakes, Godzilla!  (Ma!  Ma!  The mutants are attacking again!)  Fun times.

    It’s fun playing resource management and development games like SimCity.  And arguably the better games can teach you lessons about how to make tradeoffs.  But as a programmer, I know that those lessons are a result of conscious, deliberate decisions made in the design process, and those decisions will shape the game that gets made.

    Also, the gamers may not learn the broader lessons; they may just instead be learning how to game the game.  Then again, that’s how a lot of people get through life…

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Probable Cause:When I was a kid, Legos just came in a big pile, and you just built whatever. Now they’re basically kits, where you’re supposed to follow the instructions to recreate what you see on the box cover. But without the model glue, so that’s probably a good thing.

    The company does still make the old fashioned generic sets, under the Classic and Creator brands. They simply aren’t nearly as popular with the kids as the licensed sets are.

    There’s also the all-white/all-neutral Architectural line, and the good ‘ol Technic line.

    There are all the many other companies that make Lego-compatible bricks (since the patent for the basic bricks ran out ages ago).

    However, that all being said, I’m actually pretty hostile to the very idea that Lego is an “educational” toy in the first place. A creative toy, sure, but educational? Not really.

    After all, what knowledge/skill is being learned from Lego? Real cars, airplanes, spaceships, etc, are not built using bricks. Heck, precious few buildings are built from bricks anymore. As such, the child isn’t really learning about engineering or physics.

    If the goal is educational value, then Meccano is far superior to Lego, because it miniaturizes real-world physics and engineering concepts down to child-scale much more accurately.

    • #9
  10. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Probable Cause:And oddly, you could built a hydro dam wherever; no river required.

    Well, not quite.

    In SimCity 2000 you did need a waterfall for a hydro dam, but since you could put a river tile anywhere you wanted (not to mention the ability to raise and lower hills and mountains at will) it was pretty much a moot point as long as you had the funds.

    The ease with which one could alter the geography of one’s city was indeed a bit of a cheat.

    I agree, however, that the rapid depreciation of coal plants was pretty silly.

    Then again, since the game had no mechanics for securing sources of coal/oil/uranium for the power plants, maybe giving those plants a limited lifespan could theoretically be justified as a proxy for having to keep them supplied with fuel?

    • #10
  11. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    The only game that matters star control 2 is available as an open source project.

    http://sc2.sourceforge.net/

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Belt:It’s fun playing resource management and development games like SimCity. And arguably the better games can teach you lessons about how to make tradeoffs. But as a programmer, I know that those lessons are a result of conscious, deliberate decisions made in the design process, and those decisions will shape the game that gets made.

    This is often a complaint about the Civilization games. It’s nearly impossible to “win” the game following a peaceful strategy. The assumptions programmed into the game pretty much demand an imperialist strategy. Managing to create a healthy, stable, society that survives until the end without getting into too many wars isn’t enough to qualify as a “win”. You gotta dominate to “win”.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Guruforhire:The only game that matters star control 2 is available as an open source project.

    http://sc2.sourceforge.net/

    Hmm…

    You might like the latest entry in the Elite series:

    http://www.elitedangerous.com

    …or the open source Oolite if you don’t like paying for things. ;-)

    http://www.oolite.org/

    • #13
  14. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Maybe when I get a life again in June.

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Guruforhire:Maybe when I get a life again in June.

    There are simply too many games to be able to keep up with them all, eh?

    I read somewhere that something like 75% of the games purchased on Steam are never played.

    • #15
  16. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Misthiocracy:

    Belt:It’s fun playing resource management and development games like SimCity. And arguably the better games can teach you lessons about how to make tradeoffs. But as a programmer, I know that those lessons are a result of conscious, deliberate decisions made in the design process, and those decisions will shape the game that gets made.

    This is often a complaint about the Civilization games. It’s nearly impossible to “win” the game following a peaceful strategy. The assumptions programmed into the game pretty much demand an imperialist strategy. Managing to create a healthy, stable, society that survives until the end without getting into too many wars isn’t enough to qualify as a “win”. You gotta dominate to “win”.

    I feel they have done a much better job of making peace a viable option in Civ 5. I think I have always won that by being voted in by the city states…maybe I should play on higher difficulties, but I always hate the fact that higher difficulty just means the computer gets to cheat, rather than be smarter.

    What you should consider trying if you like a more passive strategy game is the something like Europa IV and Crusader Kings 2. While war is a big thing in both and is arguably the best/easiest way to expand it isn’t the only way. In fact you can specifically use diplomacy or intrigue to obtain marriages and gain territory, and have your allies do all the conquering.

    • #16
  17. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Misthiocracy:

    Guruforhire:Maybe when I get a life again in June.

    There are simply too many games to be able to keep up with them all, eh?

    I read somewhere that something like 75% of the games purchased on Steam are never played.

    That low. I think I fail to play like 90% of them, but when they are only like 5 bucks its hard to say no, just in case you happen to hit upon a jewel.

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Valiuth:

    Misthiocracy:

    Guruforhire:Maybe when I get a life again in June.

    There are simply too many games to be able to keep up with them all, eh?

    I read somewhere that something like 75% of the games purchased on Steam are never played.

    That low. I think I fail to play like 90% of them, but when they are only like 5 bucks its hard to say no, just in case you happen to hit upon a jewel.

    Well, one can make up statistics that prove anything. 47% of all people know that.

    • #18
  19. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Misthiocracy:

    Guruforhire:Maybe when I get a life again in June.

    There are simply too many games to be able to keep up with them all, eh?

    I read somewhere that something like 75% of the games purchased on Steam are never played.

    Grad school.  Work. Sleep.  Pretty much it for me.

    Then in October there will be a mini-guru.  So I will have like 3 months of game time.

    • #19
  20. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    Misthiocracy:Then again, since the game had no mechanics for securing sources of coal/oil/uranium for the power plants, maybe giving those plants a limited lifespan could theoretically be justified as a proxy for having to keep them supplied with fuel?

    It was funny in a way, because the sound and visual effect they used was as if someone blew up the plant.  So the first time you play, you think, “hey, I think I’m getting the hang of this…”  Then all of a sudden… boom! (literally).

    • #20
  21. Butters Member
    Butters
    @CommodoreBTC

    have you played Skylines (I have not)?

    • #21
  22. zepplinmike Member
    zepplinmike
    @zepplinmike

    Commodore BTC:have you played Skylines (I have not)?

    I’ve been playing Cities: Skylines since it came out, and it’s really great. The best part is that while the base game is really solid, it also has full Steam Workshop integration, so there are an infinite number of new (and free) buildings and features coming from the community.

    • #22
  23. Zoon Politikon Member
    Zoon Politikon
    @KristianStout

    I have always preferred strategy and resource/sim games over character drive games.  Character games are typically either totally aimless (like GTA can be) or are totally predetermined and are just encouraging you down the path of a script.

    Plus, sim games make me wonder if I am actually just a simulation that is playing a simulation.  The vertigo that offers is enjoyable.

    • #23
  24. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    One nice thing about SimCity, is that you are not entirely in control.  You don’t build buildings.  You build roads, zone land and set tax rates, as a city government would.  Then residents and business respond to your incentives.

    • #24
  25. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Loved SimCity, but only when I could cheat. Without porntipsguzzardo, it wasn’t as much fun. With unlimited money I could design cities as I wanted them to look. Unfortunately, the stupid Sims had the worst possible reaction to economic downturns: they’d take a perfectly fine (if insufficiently rented)  office building and replace it with an older one that was shabby and falling apart.

    I was curious about the latest Sim City, because it’s so detailed. But you have about 20 square blocks to work with. Makes no sense.

    Let’s not forget SimTower, which began life as an elevator sim, of all things.

    • #25
  26. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Aaron Miller:

    Ryan M:[….] Games like that are fun, but the more complex they get, the more they require pretty much constant gameplay, which is unrealistic for most people with actual lives.

    Agreed. It’s a hard challenge for developers of sandbox and open world games to make them easy to pick up again after a long break. Narrative-oriented games suffer the most from hiatus.

    Of complex adventure games, the Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor are among the best for periodic play. That’s because combat can be as simple as X to attack, Y to dodge, and A to jump… with infinitely more nuance and depth available to be relearned through simple experimentation.

    oh, don’t I know it!  I played hours upon hours of Skyrim while my first kid was an infant because he just wanted to be held all night.  I kind of want to pick it up occasionally, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what I was doing in the game, so it would be pretty difficult to play right now.  So I was just waiting for the next Elder Scrolls, which seems kind of silly.

    On the flip side of that, I was able to put down my 3ds version of Ocarina of Time for several months and then pick it back up and finish the game with no problem.  That isn’t exactly open-world, though.

    • #26
  27. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    James Lileks:Loved SimCity, but only when I could cheat. Without porntipsguzzardo, it wasn’t as much fun. With unlimited money I could design cities as I wanted them to look. Unfortunately, the stupid Sims had the worst possible reaction to economic downturns: they’d take a perfectly fine (if insufficiently rented) office building and replace it with an older one that was shabby and falling apart.

    I was curious about the latest Sim City, because it’s so detailed. But you have about 20 square blocks to work with. Makes no sense.

    Let’s not forget SimTower, which began life as an elevator sim, of all things.

    when I read porntipsguzzardo, I was thinking you were about to mention the nude patch on the original Tomb Raider.  Nothing quite like a set of boobs made out of oragami…  sexxxxy!  (yes, I did have a friend who downloaded the nude patch.  This was late high school for me, and I found it quite amusing)

    • #27
  28. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    James Lileks:Loved SimCity, but only when I could cheat. Without porntipsguzzardo, it wasn’t as much fun. With unlimited money I could design cities as I wanted them to look. [….]

    Agreed. Most game designers and avid gamers are achievement-oriented players. Their primary enjoyment is in overcoming challenges, so that is the sort of fun most games are designed for. I’m more oriented toward exploration and moment-to-moment action, so high difficulty in a game tends to get in the way.

    There was probably pressure from the publisher over the years to shift the series gameplay from free experimentation to explicit goals.

    I enjoyed The Sims 2 mostly for its architecture gameplay. The tools were intuitive to make any uneducated clown feel like an visionary architect. The average person exhibits remarkable creativity when given tools that streamline implementation and offer real-time feedback.

    Before Spore was released, I was an EA community contact and was invited to help populate the game through the Creature Creator. Designing animals and seeing them procedurally animated was a blast… not to mention designing buildings and spaceships.

    • #28
  29. TheRoyalFamily Member
    TheRoyalFamily
    @TheRoyalFamily

    Valiuth:

    Misthiocracy:

    Belt:It’s fun playing resource management and development games like SimCity. And arguably the better games can teach you lessons about how to make tradeoffs. But as a programmer, I know that those lessons are a result of conscious, deliberate decisions made in the design process, and those decisions will shape the game that gets made.

    This is often a complaint about the Civilization games. It’s nearly impossible to “win” the game following a peaceful strategy. The assumptions programmed into the game pretty much demand an imperialist strategy. Managing to create a healthy, stable, society that survives until the end without getting into too many wars isn’t enough to qualify as a “win”. You gotta dominate to “win”.

    I feel they have done a much better job of making peace a viable option in Civ 5. I think I have always won that by being voted in by the city states…maybe I should play on higher difficulties, but I always hate the fact that higher difficulty just means the computer gets to cheat, rather than be smarter.

    I’ve only gotten one conquest victory in Civ5, and that was actively racing the clock before getting some other victory. Trouble is, the more you conquer the harder it is to get other victories. And the AI won’t leave you alone. You don’t want Ghandi to get powerful to nuke you, after all.

    • #29
  30. Guy Incognito Member
    Guy Incognito
    @

    Ryan M

    I also really enjoyed playing MineCraft until I thought it started to get too complex.

    I don’t think Minecraft has gotten that complex yet, unless you include the mods in which case it’s impossible to learn :)

    • #30

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