Simulation Sandbox Mode: Game or Toy?

Thinking back to our game design lecture about game vocabulary and what makes something a game, I remember having a question about the Sandbox Modes, specifically those found in management simulation games (e.g. Zoo Tycoon 2, Planet Coaster/Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Jurassic World Evolution). I remember wondering if Sandbox Modes, as opposed to Campaign/Career Modes, would be considered games or toys. They are obviously a subset of the larger game but offer a play style that I’ve decided fits more as a gamified-toy than as a standalone game.

Before jumping in to why I think Sandbox Modes function more like toys than like games, I want to briefly discuss what I mean when I say “Sandbox Mode” (or at least the interpretation I will be using for this discussion). If a management sim has a Sandbox Mode, it usually means the following:

  1. All items (usually unlocked gradually through gameplay in career mode) are available for use
  2. There is unlimited in-game currency
  3. There are no structured goals that a player must meet

The emphasis should be on usually. These are by no means the only things that define a Sandbox Mode, but they are the most common and most basic. Different games will give the player additional perks besides the ones listed above. I usually think of Sandbox Modes as “Play-God-with-No-Consequences Modes”.

But now let’s move on to the Ten Qualities that all games share (taken from Jesse Schell’s February 7th lecture) so we can begin determining their applicability to Sandbox Modes:

  • Q1: Games are entered willfully
  • Q2: Games have goals
  • Q3: Games have conflict
  • Q4: Games have rules
  • Q5: Games can be won and lost
  • Q6: Games are interactive
  • Q7: Games have challenge
  • Q8: Games can create their own internal value
  • Q9: Games engage players
  • Q10: Games are closed formal systems

Quickly running through these, it looks like Sandbox Modes are covered by most of these qualities: players enter into them willfully and interact with engaging scenarios of their own creation that have their own endogenous value and, even though there’s lots of freedom awarded, there are still loose rules and restrictions to what players can and cannot do in the closed, formal system. But there are a couple of very important qualities that are left out:

  • Q2: Games have goals
  • Q5: Games can be won and lost

These seem to be lacking from Sandbox Modes. Let’s start first with Q2: Games Have Goals.

Sandbox Modes Lack Goals

One could argue that Sandbox Modes do have goals, they just happen to be player-created goals. This is a very reasonable argument and one I would agree with, after all, we player-created goals are very real and very motivating. But they often exist in games on TOP of other structured goals (i.e. The goal of the game, which you’ve learned from tutorials or experience, is to get to the end of this side-scrolling level, but your own goal, that you set for yourself, is to collect all the coins in the level). Games have closed formal systems (Q10) and player-created goals exist outside that system.

Additionally, if we consider that one of the major differences between Career Modes and Sandbox Modes is the lack of set, structured goals in the latter, then it could be argued that this distinction is important to defining each of these modes. Career Modes have goals, Sandbox Modes do not.

I would also argue that children’s toys, such as a dolls in a dollhouse, have player-created goals as well but are not considered games. The goals change constantly depending on the child’s current fantasy and what they want to accomplish, but there is no given goal. Granted, toys lack the other qualities of games that Sandbox Modes possess. But if we’re thinking about how games are closed, formal systems, then these player-created goals are still external to the other qualities and mechanics.

But perhaps the biggest argument against Sandbox Modes being full, standalone games is the fact that…

Sandbox Modes Cannot Be Won or Lost

This is basically the whole point of Sandbox Modes. There’s nothing big to be struggling towards or overcoming. Yes, you can set yourself player-created goals, but there is no way for the game to verify that they have been met or not met, therefore you cannot win or lose.

Essentially, much of what makes Sandbox Modes so appealing is the lack of constraints (i.e. goals) and the inability to win or lose. These are modes meant to encourage exploration, f***ing up, and using your imagination to create wildly unrealistic scenarios (or maybe exceedingly realistic ones that even the Career Mode doesn’t capture). Sandbox Modes are there to fulfill fantasies that Career Modes cannot and are therefore defined by what the Career Modes lack: total and complete freedom.


So I guess my takeaway is that Sandbox Modes are almost games. They’re so close being games that could be released by themselves, unattached to any Career Mode or story. But I think that when it comes down to it, if a Sandbox Mode was released separately, without any more structured Career Mode with goals and win- /loss-states, people would treat it more as a toy. They would play with it off and on when they had a particular fantasy to watch play out or a spark of imagination, but may tire of it quickly. Whereas games that are only Career Modes are released all the time (i.e. basically any Mario Game or non-management sim) and they’re totally fine! They have all the necessary qualities mentioned above. All that being said though, I think management simulation games greatly benefit from having both Career and Sandbox Modes because sometimes the pressure of winning/losing and beating the goals of the game is just too much. It’s nice to be a kid again and let the tools and freedom of the Sandbox Mode help your imagination run wild. So no. Sandbox Modes aren’t games, but they are, in many ways, the best kind of toy. A gamified one.

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