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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.
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?