Keyword Sandbox II
Goals within Games: The Importance of Player-Generated Goals in Sandbox Games
When we think about video games, we generally think of them as goal-oriented activities from which we derive enjoyment by working towards its goal. As Galloway writes in Gaming, “a game is an activity defined by rules in which players try to reach some sort of goal” (1). A goal within a video game “contains an imperative: in a game, some of the possible outcomes are assigned positive values, and players should work towards these positive outcomes” (as qtd. in Juul). Because goals communicate to the player what ought to be valued, it is important to examine goals within games as both a reflection and definition of important social imperatives. Games that give goals explicitly through the game narrative should be examined because they attempt to tell the player what it means to win or what ought to be valued. But it can sometimes be more interesting to look at the implicit goals within a game because they allow the player to bring in his expectations about games or social norms in order to give the game meaning. These goals can involve getting a high score or seeing all the endings to the game, which is not explicitly stated by the game itself but is inferred by the player. Examining these sorts of goals can play a more reflective role by explaining why a player chose a certain goal.
This ability for the player to determine the goals is better exemplified by the ‘sandbox game’. As their name might suggest, the term ‘sandbox’ is used loosely to describe games that are made less linear by allowing the player freedom to change the course of action within the game. Like a child in a sandbox, the player is given a set of tools (the rules and mechanics within a game) to do just about anything within the confines of the game environment. Sandbox games either have no explicit goals at all, or present goals within the game narrative that can be ignored by the player, thus allowing the player to decide what the goal and value of the game ought to be. Sandbox games, then, are “expressive games, games that let the player use them in many different ways, games that allow for many different playing styles, for players pursuing personal agendas” (Juul). But because these ‘personal agendas’ are often “socially generated and determined” (Woods), we can use sandbox games as a way to examine how and why goals are created and inferred from games, and from this recognize social norms and values.
For example, our preconceptions about families and what society constructs as the ideal family can shape how we create goals in the popular sandbox simulation game The Sims. The Sims is a game in which the player is allowed to design and control people (called Sims), form social relations between Sims, and build homes for the Sims. The game is very much like a virtual dollhouse (which I would argue is also played under the influence of social norms), except that the dolls are given a bit of sentience. The game does not specifically tell the player what a great Sims family must contain, nor does it provide any explicit goal for the player, leaving the player free to decide the goal of the game. But there is a “path of least resistance where purchasing more items for the Sims and trying to make their personalities match leads them to become happier” (Juul). That is, the game’s procedure makes it such that the game is simply easier to play if the nuclear family is formed, and a consumerist mindset adopted. If my goal is simply to make the Sims happy, why is it also almost necessary that my Sims be financially successful and have a significant other? Our own ideals about the components of a happy family as well as the game’s mechanics tend to shape our actions. As a sandbox game, The Sims does not restrict you from playing with other goals in mind, but the game tends to push the player towards a specific playing style that reflects these expectations. Even within the sandbox games that are completely goalless, there are goals that we tend to adopt because we expect them from the scenario presented to us.
Unfortunately, there are also other types of sandbox games that do not give the player as much freedom to define and express his values because they have explicit goals (albeit they are usually not enforced in the same way that they are in linear games). This arises from the view that games are still seen as necessarily goal-based. For some, such as Neil Sorens, game designer and CEO of Dancing Robot Studios, explicit goals are seen as a part of “any good sandbox game”. Sandbox games need
an assortment of concrete goals (Aspirations) [for the player] to achieve. These goals, which are noticeably absent or unstated/unrecognized in many older sandbox games… are beneficial for multiple reasons, as intuition or any basic game design book will tell you… Make sure the player sees the humorous, unusual, or otherwise noteworthy situations, chains of events, and accomplishments that emerge (4).
Sorens insists that the game itself provide input to the player on possible goals, or point out the player’s achievements explicitly, as any ‘basic game’ should. The game takes on the role of attempting to define value for the player; by describing accomplishments it is implying that there may be a way to play the sandbox game to ‘succeed’. If The Sims were to congratulate players when a Sims family gave birth to new child, it would be furthering constructions of the ideal family and the heterosexual couple. As opposed to the player inferring from social experiences that the goal of the Sims is to build families and have children, the explicit goal takes away this bit of reflection on the player’s part and instead defines the goal for the player. So how can explicit goals benefit sandbox games? Are game consumers seen as too dense to create goals for themselves?
The sandbox game Shadow of the Colossus for the Playstation 2 can help explain this because it is a good example of a completely open exploratory environment that presents the player with optional explicit goals in order for the video game to feel like a game at all. Shadow has an expansive and beautifully rendered game environment that is completely free for the player to explore, but there is not much action within this environment. The core of the game lies within the goals that the narrative provides, namely solving a series of puzzles in order to kill the Colossi and rescue the main character’s girlfriend. As is defined by the sandbox genre, the player is given the choice to “do nothing in particular, of [his] own free will, or move forward and be the ‘gamer’" (Waugh 1). If the player decides to ignore the in-game goals and explore the environment, an action that generally would not be described as ‘winning’ the game, he is not penalized for this diversion. But playing without these goals is seen as empty, and depressing. There is no obvious action or reward outside the "game" - the gamey game - that the game puts before you… The game tempts you into horrible, destructive, and ultimately tragic action because it's the only meaning, the only action handed you on a platter (Waugh 1).
Within Shadow of the Colossus, the player is expected to kill the twelve boss-like Colossi in game-like fashion, though each is a unique monster that the player can climb and explore in the same way that the landscape can be explored. Because we are used to games that have goals, especially those that involve defeating bosses, we infer that the goal of the game is to defeat the Colossi.
It is important to look at the goals presented in video games because every game has one in some form. Because explicit goals are the “outcomes [that] are officially sanctioned in the game as better than others” (Juul), they can tell us about what society values. Within the sandbox game genre, the player will generate a goal that is just as often shaped by the narrative of the game as it is by social norms, and will reflect what ought to be valued within the game. An analogy of all the different types of goals in sandbox games can be summed up by returning to the sandbox image: though the player has been placed into the sandbox, he can build sandcastles because he has learned that material success and the symbols of royalty are valued, or he might wait for a passerby to suggest he build a cat instead. But he may also decide to just explore the sandbox, without any goals in mind. The sandbox game allows for the player to project his values into the game in a way that he cannot within linear games.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Cambridge: MIT, 2007.
Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Juul, Jesper. "Without a goal". Videogame/Player/Text. Eds. Tanya Krzywinska and Barry Atkins. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/>
Sorens, Neil. “Stories from the Sandbox”. Gamasutra. 14 Feb. 2008. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3539/stories_from_the_sandbox.php>
Waugh, Eric-Jon Rössel. “Ambition and Compulsory Design in Animal Crossing”. 1 May 2007. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/368/ambition_and_compulsory_design_in_.php>
Woods, Stewart. “Loading the Dice: The Challenge of Serious Video Games”. Game Studies. Vol. 4, Issue 1. Nov. 2004. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://gamestudies.org/0401/woods/>