Educational technologies often scare teachers who by their own admission are ‘digital natives’.
However, teaching with technology – and particularly computer games – is a huge way we can tap into the intrinsic motivations of our students.
In particular, it can be hard to inspire boys to get engaged in learning when their interests often lie in computer gaming and sports.
One solution is to use sandbox games to promote skills in areas as diverse literacy, mathematics, science and geography.
What is a Sandbox Game?
Sandbox games derived their title from a sandbox a child would play in.
Like a real sandbox, sandbox games allow children to explore and experiment however they like within the game’s microworld.
RPG Maker, a program that allows non-programmers to create their own 3D gameplay environments explains that sandbox games are “more as “play spaces” than games because “goals are often set by the player and not the designer”.
This means there’s rarely a clear linear ‘mission’ set out by the game designers. Instead, players can create their own fun.
Some Scholarly Definitions
My regular readers would know that I believe you should always cite a scholarly source when providing definitions (I am, after all, a college professor).
So, here are two scholarly definitions of sandbox games:
- Tavinor (2009, p. 2) notes that sandbox games are characterized by “an open fictional environment in which the player has a great deal of choice over exactly what they do.”
- McWhirter (2017, p. 66) explains that in sandbox games, “rather than follow a linear narrative players are able to discover a world before them in the way that they choose with little direct prompting from the software itself to follow a set path.”
I would argue that sandbox games have the following characteristics:
- Open-World / Microworld based: The games have been developed to be small universes through which players can navigate. The worlds usually have some pre-defined rules, such as at the most basic level, gravity. Similarly, the microworlds will have pre-set rules of which doors can be opened, which objects can be manipulated, and how characters in the microworlds can communicate. These ‘rules’ are usually restricted by the development budget and resources of the game creators.
- Non-linearity of Gameplay: Players are not forced to follow a storyline. Some games have optional storylines or missions, but players have the freedom to travel around the digital microworlds and ignore any missions set. Many games will not provide a mission at all, leaving players with the existential task of seeking their own purpose.
- Free movement and exploration: Players can freely navigate the microworlds and choose any direction they wish to move about. The worlds are at times confined only by mountain ranges, cliffs or invisible barriers that mark the edge of the worlds the developers created.
- Imagination and Creative Freedom: The creative control over how the games are used is transferred from developers to consumers. Players can use their creativity to manipulate the worlds and experiment with how their actions elicit responses within the ‘rules’ of the microworlds.
List of Popular Sandbox Games
- Grand Theft Auto – Arguably the first sandbox game, Grand Theft Auto allows players to navigate their way around cities causing trouble. Perhaps not the best game for classrooms due to its promotion of violence, theft and evasion of arrest, it does nonetheless represent one of the first non-linear video games and afforded players significant creative freedom to run amuck and create their own fun within a game’s microworld.
- The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – An open-world fantasy game in which players can freely navigate around the fictional world of Cyrodiil. While there is a loose plot and gameplay objectives, the game never ends because players can set their own objectives such as levelling-up, exploring and developing skills.
- Minecraft (Education Edition) – Perhaps the most useful sandbox game for education, Minecraft enables players to gather resources and use them to build anything they like – from castles to bridges to statues. The game’s versatile user-led gameplay helps inspire creativity in learners.
- Lego Worlds – An alternative to Minecraft, Lego Worlds brings Lego block gameplay to the computer screen. The game allows players to build Lego structures, win studs (the game’s currency) and move about in search of building resources.
- Pokémon GO – Pokemon GO was revolutionary because it brought sandbox gaming to hand-held technologies. Players use their smart phones to navigate around their physical environment (i.e. their local neighborhood) in search of creatures known as Pokemon that appear on their smart phone screens. The game was a smash hit for a short time in 2016, and was lauded for helping people lose weight by incentivising walking, but also raised concerns about walking around roads distracted by screens.
Pedagogical Benefits of Sandbox Games
Sandbox gaming is a fantastic way to bring computer game-based learning into the classroom.
As regular readers would know, I believe we need to start seeing digital play as another form of play-based learning just like outdoor play or unstructured free play in the classroom.
While sandbox gaming may not have the same fitness benefits as outdoor play, it does nonetheless have several cognitive and social benefits, such as:
- Group Work Skills: Sandbox games are often multiplayer, requiring players to trade resources, negotiate space and take turns to play.
- Creativity and Imagination: Imaginative play helps learners to develop lateral thinking skills, create their own narratives and ‘try on’ personal identities.
- Visualization: Sandbox games enable children to take the ideas in their head and visualize them within the microworlds. A child might envisage a landscape or building, but it is in the construction of the object within the game that the details and minutiae are fleshed out.
- Trial and Error: Computer games are low-risk environments where young people can experiment by designing their own worlds and literally ‘undoing’ their creations when mistakes are made.
- Computer Literacy: To successfully play a game, students need to develop skills in navigating computer interfaces. This is often a hidden benefit of gaming, as students aren’t consciously building computer literacy skills. They’re busy having fun with the game, but computer literacy skills are subtly developing in the background.
Five Ideas for Sandbox Games in Education
- Descriptive Writing: Once your students have chosen a topic to write about, get them to recreate the topic in a game such as Lego Worlds or Minecraft before writing their story. In designing their ‘world’ including characters, clothing, landscapes and buildings, students will need to think about colors, textures, styles and other minute features that will help them to be more descriptive in their writing.
- Narrative Writing: Using gameplay modes in sandbox games, have students create their own missions, goals or backstories about their characters. Consider asking your students to design a story using a sandbox game that has an orientation, complication and conclusion. Then, have the students write about the narrative once their gameplay has ended.
- Chemistry: Minecraft’s Education Edition has a Chemistry pack which teaches students “the building blocks of matter”. Students explore the Minecraft world to gather basic elements and combine them to create new compound elements. Check it out here.
- History: Have students recrate historical landscapes or buildings using a sandbox game. Ensure students stick to the historical accuracy of the things they create by ensuring students conduct background research before creating the historical worlds. See Minecraft’s history lesson plans here.
- Mathematics: The logical rules-based structure of sandbox games enables players to learn about mathematics during gameplay. Have students stack blocks to experiment with addition, subtraction, complex patterns and area and volume. Minecraft has mathematics lesson plans here.
If you’re writing an essay on sandbox games, make sure you use scholarly sources. Here are two of the best quality scholarly sources you can use:
McWhirter, A. (2017). Pokémon GO and No Man’s Sky: sandbox gaming’s next level in tech-heavy society, International Journal of Jungian Studies, 9(1): 66-71. https://doi.org/10.1080/19409052.2016.1248547
Tavinor G. (2009). The Art of Videogames. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.