(See conflict of interest disclaimer.)

Many Facebook games (e.g. most or all entrants in the farm genre) could be considered sandbox games; and one of my most eye-opening experiences in spending time on Facebook is just how different those sandbox games can be from console sandbox games. Console sandbox games constantly give you very direct suggestions as to how to spend your time: yes, you can simply drive around San Andreas enjoying yourself, but there are always missions trying to force you to do something quite specific. Or you can drive around Paradise City just seeing where roads lead you, taking jumps, crashing into your friends; but there are at least ten more concrete ways that the game suggests you spend your time. And, in either case, there’s a distinct lack of sand with which to build castles: you can wander around the environment fairly freely, but your ability to actually shape that environment is quite limited.

In contrast, consider Social City, which I’ll use as an example both because it’s the Facebook sandbox game that I’ve played the most (though I wasn’t involved in any of the design discussions or anything) and because I think it’s a particularly good example of the genre. Sure, there are ways that the game suggests that you spend your time: you might want to build contracts in your factories in order to make you money, you might want to have people move into your city so that you can build more factories. And, when you dip into the store, you’ll discover that there are also leisure buildings that you can buy, in order to increase your citizens’ happiness, in order to allow more people to move in, in order to let you build more factories to make more money.

But that’s not really the point of the game: that’s a very bare-bones set of goals and mechanisms that the game presents you with, certainly not enough to hold the interest of somebody used to games with any real complexity to their mechanics. So, when leafing around in the store, you’ll inevitably start to think about considerations other than how much a building will help increase your populace: you start to think about whether that’s a type of building that you want to have in your city, which part of the city it belongs in, what other buildings you want to place near it.

One of the most charming aspects of Social City is the animations that each building has: you don’t just see a house, you see a house whose inhabitant is lounging in a hammock, mowing the lawn, playing with a bow and arrow. (And there are people walking around town on the sidewalks, too.) This helps reinforce the fantasy that you’re playing with a real city with real inhabitants, where your choice of buildings and building locations helps shape the city that they’re living in. And this directly affected how I built out my city: I made sure that the factories weren’t right next to the residential areas (especially the standalone houses), but I also made sure that both were close to places where people could go to grab a bite to eat. I made a central town square with the most important municipal buildings, I created both an upscale shopping district and a less upscale shopping district, and I’m building a water park / zoo / exercise area on the outskirts of town. From the point of view of the in-game numbers, this is all irrelevant—this isn’t Sim City, you can put buildings where you want and the game will behave the same—but it matters to me.

Or rather, it matters to us. As far as I can tell, Social City has taken the lead in the list of games that Playdom employees play with their kids, and Miranda was fascinated by it as soon as she saw it. So we’ve developed a ritual where I will spend the week earning money in the game but not spending it, and then on the weekend we’ll talk about how to spend that money, how we want to next evolve our city. I also really enjoy looking at other people’s cities, seeing how others have made different design choices than Miranda and I have and how their design choices have changed as they’ve built up their cities.

The upshot is a game that feels a lot more like playing with Lego than any console sandbox game ever did. (Your choices are quite a bit more restrictive than when playing with Lego bricks, but there’s more than enough variation that the cities of all of my twenty-odd friends who are playing the game look quite different from each other.) In fact, I’m wondering how the term “sandbox game” ever got used for games like Grand Theft Auto, given how little that series feels like a sandbox to me: the closest console analogy isn’t sandbox games, it’s games like Animal Crossing, though even that game is a good deal more structured than Social City. Returning to Friday’s discussion of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, a game like Social City is so much farther on the intrinsic side of the intrinsic/extrinsic motivator split than games for core gamers are as to make them almost incommensurable in that regard.

And, while I do think that Social City does a particularly good job of nourishing intrinsic motivators that its players might have, it’s far from unique in that regard. Much of the discussion of FarmVille on core gamers’ web sites focuses on the externally visible extrinsic motivators of the game’s gifts and wall posts; but when looking at dedicated FarmVille players’ farms, I’m sure they feel the desire to sculpt a habitable environment just as strongly as I do.

Give these games a try, and look beyond the traditional game mechanisms and motivator chains that they contain. You’ll learn something, and you may be surprised at the unexpected pleasures you’ll find in them.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.