How Sandbox Games Could Redefine the Way We Learn

In today’s age, almost everyone is familiar with sandbox games. In general, sandbox games are just games where the player has free will and creative control of how they complete the game. The most well known sandbox games are open world crafting-based games like Minecraft and Terraria, but the scope of Sandbox games is actually much wider than that. Popular games like action-adventure Grand Theft Auto and horror-survival game The Forest are also considered sandbox games because the player is in control over how they navigate the game. The free play aspect and lack of instruction in sandbox games allow for many benefits to players, but most importantly they provide the potential for sandbox games to rework the way we learn. Although the benefits are still great, the real treasure lies in how Sandbox games can be incredible teaching tools. Not only do Sandbox games have positive effects on creativity and learning for casual players, they also have great potential to be implemented in the classroom as a formal learning tool, as supported by analysis of games like Minecraft and several case studies on online gaming communities.

A player’s elaborate base in popular sandbox game Terraria

Benefits to the Casual Player

The free play aspect of sandbox games provides a slew of benefits to casual players, among them being boosts to decision-making skills, creativity, and self-control. Free play is a vital aspect of growth for children, whether it is in a game or some other form. Before looking at how free play in sandbox games affects players, it is important to examine the benefits of free play in general.

The Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at The University of Colorado conducted a study on children where they had some spend their time doing unstructured activities not coordinated by adults, and some children participating more in structured activities led by adults. The psychologists wanted to measure executive function in children and how it changes with more/less structured activity, so they measured verbal fluency as the independent variable as it corresponds with executive function well. The results of the study indicated that spending more time in structured activity caused negative effects on executive function, while more time in unstructured activity resulted in improved executive function in children.

Although the study was not conducted with video games, the same benefits theoretically should apply to sandbox games, because participating in a game like Minecraft is unstructured free play. This is supported by video game expert Randy Kulman, Ph.D. who states that the lack of predetermined outcomes in sandbox games allows players to express themselves more than if they were playing a more structured game. Kulman goes on to describe that this lack of structure allows for great benefits to creativity and decision making. He even goes on to reference how child psychologists use similar techniques that sandbox games implement in order to help in therapy. Play therapists use literal sandboxes to have children construct scenes describing events and relationships in their lives, which is considered an effective method in helping children express themselves (Kulman).

Example of a sand therapy box

This similarity in sandbox games to actual therapy practice highlights how beneficial sandbox games can be to the casual player, as anyone can experience the similar proven benefits of expressing oneself in an actual sandbox.

There are benefits to creativity, decision making, and even executive function, all rooting from the key feature of unstructured free play in these games. However, there is a flipside to this element, because even though it gives creative freedom to the player, the lack of structure means there is no clear way to move through the game, often making starting out in sandbox games much more difficult. This shared difficulty of sandbox games opens up a whole new world of potential benefits to players.

Sandbox Games and Information Literacy

The unstructured style of sandbox games makes players think harder and have to do research on how to move through the game, which has great effects on their information literacy skills. Information literacy is essentially a measure of how well a person can navigate and assess information, and deals with abilities like being able to determine what information is relevant and irrelevant to a certain task, determining if information is credible or not, and being able to effectively use found information. But how does playing a game like Minecraft actually improve your information literacy skills?

When analyzing the format of these games, it is frankly obvious that they have some sort of benefit to information literacy. For example, when starting a survival world in Minecraft (or similar sandbox games), players are placed in a random empty area with nothing to help them survive. The player has to carve their own path and figure out how to use the resources of the world to advance through the game. Even though there are some built in tutorials and such, it is nearly impossible to advance to the end of the game without some form of outside help. Whether it is through youtube videos, discussion forums, or wikis, players are almost guaranteed to have to seek information in some way. When met with an obstacle they do not know how to overcome, players have to reason that they need outside information, conduct independent research, assess the information to find out if it will help them in the game or not, and finally apply that information in the game. One may ask, how does this aspect only apply to sandbox games? There are plenty of obstacles in all video games, so why do sandbox games have a special benefit to information literacy? This is because of the free play element.

Players of other game genres obviously face obstacles where they must conduct independent research, but in sandbox games, almost any tiny task can be an obstacle that requires outside information. Players of a traditional game may need some help to defeat a difficult level or a hard boss, but inexperienced players of a game like Minecraft need to research every aspect of the game, from how to craft a starting pickaxe, how to get upgraded tools, how to get food, or literally anything else. Other games can definitely help improve information literacy skills of players, but by nature, sandbox games should significantly improve information literacy. One may be thinking, this does seem very convincing, but is there any actual evidence that a game like Minecraft causes players to build their information literacy skills? Researchers Sandra Bebbington of Bishop’s University and André Vellino of the University of Ottawa set out to answer this question.

Bebbington and Vellino conducted a study where they looked at a Minecraft discussion forum and analyzed the interactions between members of the forum and categorized interactions based on if they were seeking/analyzing information (and building their information literacy skills) or not. The researchers put posts and replies into very specific categories relating to information literacy, such as posts that assess information, posts that question an informer, or posts that correct wrong information. They also interviewed a handful of teen Minecraft players about what kind of independent research they had done for Minecraft, in order to see what kind of an impact the game had on these teens in regard to their research skills. After examining the data, the researchers found that a significant proportion of the forum posts corresponded to categories that the researchers considered to improve information literacy, and that almost all interviewees had done a significant amount of independent research on the game. These findings were enough to conclude that Minecraft helps build information-processing and research skills.

Image displaying the variety of topics being discussed in the official Minecraft forums

The benefits seen in sandbox games can potentially have great effects, especially on children who play because they can build a great foundation of research skills from a very young age, which is incredibly important in our age of limitless information. However, the research that players are doing is still all only related to the game, and while there are obviously benefits to research skills as I just discussed, the main takeaway for them is learning how to play Minecraft better. There is no guarantee that players can apply these research skills to another field. Is there a way to apply these benefits to information literacy seen in sandbox games to other fields, or to learning in general?

Potential of Sandbox Games in Education

Because of their benefits to information literacy as well as benefits of self-motivated research, sandbox games have incredible potential for education. The figure it out aspect of sandbox games makes players research better, but there is another hidden benefit to this element. When a player comes across an obstacle and needs to research how to overcome it, they are researching this information on their own time for their own interests. Research done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrates that this self-motivated research actually causes more effective learning. In this study, researchers studied an online community of Civilization III and observed how players interacted and coordinated to solve problems and discuss strategies. By analyzing the posts in the online community, they were able to determine that the community was so effective in solving problems and forming strategy for the game because the players were highly motivated to improve at the game. Learning activities can only really be effective when they align with the goals of the participator (Squire 13). This idea that self-motivated learning is superior is evidence in sandbox games. With the unstructured and unguided gameplay, players are constantly scrambling for more and more information on not just how to move through the game, but move through the game in the most efficient way. Players of sandbox games are constantly motivated to keep getting better at the game, and as they progress, are met with more unfamiliar obstacles that they need to continue to independently research. Sandbox games not only cause players to research more, it allows them to learn the information they are researching much more effectively.

The way sandbox games help one learn is obviously very effective, however, traditional school systems have students learn in the opposite way. The school system has been relentlessly criticized over recent years, as students are often unengaged and unmotivated to do the required work to perform well and actually learn what they need to. Many criticize stressful tests, large amounts of homework, long work days, or the pressure of the letter grading system as the causes for poor school performance. However, there is a root cause to all of these problems. The lack of motivation to learn what is being taught in the first place. The way the system is structured now, almost every aspect of schoolwork is associated with negativity, from homework to exams to essays. No one wants to do homework or tests, but what if there was a tool that changed these activities from ‘work’ to just learning, and made them actually enjoyable?

There is an obvious gap between the research I presented and the flaws in the school system seen today. Sandbox games can be the bridge to the gap between the information students have been observed to desire to learn (how to move through a game like Minecraft) and the academic knowledge students need to learn but typically do not want to. If academic information can be seamlessly implemented into enjoyable sandbox games, they could become one of the best methods of teaching. The way sandbox games are designed motivates players to research the game, so if academic information were to be implemented in replacement of information already in the game, it could cause players to research the desired academic information. Additionally, in this situation, the student is finding the information as a way to accomplish their own goals, which would mean they should theoretically retain this information better, as demonstrated by Squire’s research. There are already some implementations of these ideas, like with Minecraft: Education Edition as pictured below. This ability of sandbox games means there is huge potential to revolutionize the way we learn in the future.

Gameplay in Minecraft: Education Edition showcasing how chemistry is implemented into the game

Conclusion

Sandbox games are incredible tools with a wide potential, ranging from the ability to boost the creativity, decision-making, and research skills of casual players, to being leveraged as a formal learning tool. Although the benefits to casual players are significant, especially to the development of children that play, the real future is unlocking the educational possibilities in sandbox games.

Imagine a world where students walk into a class and all they have to do is just hop on a computer and start playing a game, where just the act of playing through the entire game is enough to teach them a considerable amount of academic information, where students do not need the typically negative aspects of school like tests and homework. Completion of the game or performance in certain game tasks could be enough to measure a students mastery of a subject in replacement of tests, which serve that purpose now. There are nearly endless ways academic subjects can be implemented into games. For example, a student could be required to solve a math equation in order to unlock the crafting recipe for an essential item in the game. Another way could be by seamlessly implementing lots of real world knowledge as part of the game world, so that by the time a student has mastered the game, they have memorized a significant amount of items, characters, or places, which, for example, could correspond to chemical compounds, historical figures, or geographic locations. Although some of these ideas can be implemented into other games, sandbox games are still the best type of game for education, because of the format that motivates players to research and the ease in which almost anything can be created within them, by their sandbox nature.

It is also important to mention that in order for sandbox games to actually work as a real educational tool, they have to be implemented in a specific way that actually promotes students to express themselves, experiment, and learn on their own terms. Just mixing schoolwork in with playing a sandbox game would not give the potential benefits I have discussed because the students would not be motivated to learn the information. Minecraft: Education Edition (as pictured above) has already had great success with sandbox game education, with observed impacts to problem solving skills, STEM education, and social-emotional learning (“How Minecraft Impacts Classrooms”). There is much more research and experimentation to be done on how education can be built into sandbox games as well as on ways to measure the efficacy of sandbox learning tools. But overall, my research is only the first step towards a bright future where people not only learn more, but enjoy learning because of sandbox games.

Barker, Jane E., et al. “Less-Structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-Directed Executive Functioning.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 27 May 2014, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593/full#h5.

Bebbington, Sandra, and Andre Vellino. “Can Playing Minecraft Improve Teenagers’ Information Literacy?” Journal of Information Literacy, vol. 9, no. 2, Dec. 2015, doi:10.11645/9.2.2029.

DrScients. “Minecraft Education Edition, Chemistry Update.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GsvCLL5j88.

Impact: Minecraft: Education Edition. (2020, October 13). Retrieved December 15, 2020, from https://education.minecraft.net/impact

Kulman, Randy. “Like the Real Thing, Sandbox Games Can Promote Freedom and Creativity: The Power of Play: Toca Boca.” Like the Real Thing, Sandbox Games Can Promote Freedom and Creativity, Toca Boca, 2015, tocaboca.com/magazine/sandbox-games/.

Pappas, Matt. “Sandbox Therapy .” Surviving My Past, 10 June 2016, www.survivingmypast.net/sandbox-therapy-trauma-recovery/.

Squire, Kurt D., and Levi D. Giovanetto. “The Higher Education of Gaming.” E-Learning and Digital Media, vol. 5, no. 1, 2008, pp. 2–28., doi:10.2304/elea.2008.5.1.2.

Undergraduate student at University of California, Santa Barbara

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