I play a lot of Sandbox Games. Minecraft being the most popular example. But when non-sandbox gamers hear about Minecraft they usually say something like, “What’s the point of that?”
I get it. We often play games that you can eventually win. Or MMO’s that, even if you never beat the game, you can gain levels or beat a hard dungeon or get a cool piece of gear and say, “I accomplished this!!!” Or we play competitive games like Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch where the point is to win as many times as you can against the best players you can. Or we play clicker games where … well the goals is to make the numbers get bigger. And actually aren’t most of our games about making the numbers get bigger?
The point of most games is to accomplish a goal. My favorite game at the moment is Zelda Breath Of The Wild (the best Zelda maybe EVER) and the point of that game is to kill Gannon. Now that goal is vague, you can play a loooooong time before ever fighting Gannon. But you can also skip almost all of the game and kill him right away. There are speed runs of people doing that in less than 1 hour. I mean they start a new game, wake up naked in the shrine of resurrection, and are killing Gannon one hour later. That’s amazing! That’s a challenge and it’s a goal they set for themselves. But for me what’s great about Zelda BotW is that there’s a huge world to explore and exploring it is FUN. That’s why I’m in there, that’s what I enjoy, exploring the world. And once I win the game, hopefully after finding close to 100% of the neat things, I’ll move on to other games.
So when someone hears I play Minecraft, or Kerbal Space Program or Farming Simulator and they ask, “What’s the point?” I know what they mean. They like to have goals to work towards. In a sandbox game you aren’t explicitly given a goal by the game. You make up your own and I love that. I like getting into Minecraft and thinking about what I want to do and then doing it. When games tell me what to do, for example when WoW gives me a quest, sometimes I think, “I don’t want to do that. I have an idea of my own that I like better.” Kerbal has a mode that gives you “missions” that are basically quests, they tell you what goals to pursue. I never play that mode. If I feel like building a colony on Mars (called Duna in Kerbal) then that’s what I’m going to do! If I wanted somebody telling me I can’t build a Mars colony I’d work for the real NASA.
On the other hand I understand why people enjoy being given a quest, goal or point. People like having direction, they enjoy a narrative or simply knowing what they’re supposed to be doing. Have you ever watched someone play Minecraft who doesn’t like sandbox games? The first thing they say is, “What am I supposed to do?” And if you answer, “Whatever you want!” they just quit the game. That’s not fun for them. What they want is a goal to work towards and to achieve. Solving problems and accomplishing goals and making progression is part of the fun for them. And sometimes for me too. As long as the task being given is enjoyable then it’s still fun. Again, the point isn’t actually to do whatever task the game is giving you it’s just to have fun. And the goals and quests are supposed to be a way to facilitate fun for people who like that sort of structure. You could argue the point is to beat the game or finish the quest or whatever but really the point is still to just have fun.
Whether a person likes open sandbox games or games with strict goals and progression probably says a lot about their psychology.
It goes beyond video games of course. What’s the point of building Lego’s or collecting Funko Pops or painting WarHammer models or watching TV or reading books or playing golf or any of our other hobbies? The point of any and all recreation is to enjoy the experience and to be revitalized in your mind and body. To rest and prepare yourself for your work or whatever challenges you face in life. If your recreation has any point beyond your personal enjoyment then you’re doing it wrong.