Liberating the Learning Process through the 'Sandbox' game design

Too much of learning is top down, trainer led, sage on the stage – these are the traditional models of imparting knowledge into a mass audience. Originally designed for educating workers during the industrial revolution the classroom seems to be a concept we are holding onto for dear life. But why does formal learning have to be this way? The classroom is a complete contrast to how we learn informally, where the world is our sandbox, our playground, a place where we discover, we learn, we remember. Where experiences are personal, and they mean something to us.

Why can’t we take some of the principles of this free form, learner driven experience and apply it to formal learning? Well, the good news is that we can! We can create environments that encourage exploration, that encourage curiosity that lead to meaningful ‘aha’ moments and environments that can be leveraged in many ways. The secret is working with elements of Sandbox Game Design and blending them with learning outcomes.  

Many think of a sandbox game as a completely open world where anything is possible, anything is achievable and there are no limits. However a sandbox game does contain structure, it contains rules, there are tools, but you are free to play in the ways you think are best. Sandbox games can be complex; to develop, to make, to maintain, to market and promote. Only a few make the big time, Sim City, World of Warcraft and Minecraft to name a few. However, reflecting on the name of this genre, ‘sandbox’, it conjures up the most simple of play experiences. A box of sand and a person’s imagination. Another way to think about sandbox game design is to think of a football pitch; a patch of grass with white lines and goals at either end of the field. Now you can have under 11’s play on that pitch or you can have Real Madrid vs Barcelona – the environment is the same; the same grass, the same goals, the same paint, but the strategy, the style and the pace of the game will be different. This is the essence of sandbox design – creating an environment that can be leveraged for multiple abilities and multiple learning outcomes – it becomes what you make of it.

The goal of a sandbox game designer is to create a world where players keep coming back. A world which players want to explore. However, learning designers have a different goal and that is to allow learners to discover content. You can use the design of a sandbox world to pique curiosity, revealing a certain amount of information to the learner when appropriate to drive them through the experience.

Of course you probably don’t have the budget to create an open world which is representative of your business. And the good news is that you don’t need to. You just need to create a world that feels big – it’s all an illusion. You can reference wider systems and consequences in the narrative, you can visualise mountains in the distance, or use clues to suggest a sprawling city. This ‘expansive world’ will feel like a playground and learners will want to explore and see what’s round the next corner.

Games in general refocus the learning experience onto the learner

Games in general refocus the learning experience onto the learner. They place an individual in a scenario and ask them what are you going to do? This isn't a mechanic limited to sandbox games, alone, it’s very common amongst game thinking but in a more structured game you can divert a learner back onto the right track or you can reflect consequences immediately. In terms of sandbox design, a designer needs to let go of the structured learning process and realise that through experimentation with the environment and the tools, learners will find their own way through the content. Therefore, you will find time on tasks varies wildly from player to player depending on how they go about completing tasks, which path they have taken, how they prioritised information, and their own individual approach to learning. Of course a learning designer, doesn't want learners to become lost or frustrated so the key is to create a world where the content can be discovered and use good sign posting on how to find it.

Sandbox game design allows learners to explore, refine and practice skills. The design principles behind the game Unlock: Leadership for example, don’t align to any specific school of leadership; rather the environment gives players a platform to try out behaviours and strategies to develop their own leadership methodology. The game doesn't tell you how to be a good leader, the design is more about the changing role of leadership, to be a leader as part of the team and seeing the bigger picture.

Providing this context for learning is important. Most sandbox games are multiplayer and the dynamics of the players impacts on the experience of any given user: change the players and the game changes. Each player comes with their own strengths, weaknesses, experiences and expectations and change the way the game plays out.

Multiplayer sandbox games also allow players roles to change. As the players are controlling their actions and choices, roles change and adapt. Different challenges may require different strengths and a sandbox game should be flexible enough to allow learners to showcase their expertise under different circumstances.

Because sandbox games are all about the players and the context, the ‘aha’ moments vary from player to player, from team to team. Because learners are placed at the centre of the experience and we make it about how they play, we make it personal. And by making it personal, by discovering it for yourself, we can make those lessons stick.