Both Sim City and Minecraft, and probably other games too, offer a ‘creative’ or ‘sandbox’ mode. This means that the game turns off all the monsters and disasters and gives you unlimited access to materials. With all that potential wealth at your fingertips, why would people play any other way?
During my recent bout of Sim City playing, I at first resisted the urge to play in the sandbox. I did manage to build a good city with a somewhat stable budget, but large problems loomed. The coal that made the city so much money was running out and the ground pollution caused by the mining and the trash was slowly seeping across the land towards my dwindling water supply. Random tornadoes and Godzilla had ruined important structures. ( I could go on detailing the various strategies to handle those problems – but I haven’t figured it all out yet.)
It got really frustrating, so I started a new city, this time in sandbox mode, and it was good. Ah – the perfect city – clean energy, low taxes, lots of education for all those happy little sims. Lovely.
Funny thing though… I haven’t played since the day I built that city.
I haven’t played Minecraft in ages. In Minecraft’s normal mode there are Creepers. These monsters do nothing but chase after you and blow you up. The explosion scatters all the precious materials that you have gathered around the area where you died, potentially losing them forever. If you happen to be standing next to the awesome structure you’ve just spent hours building, they blow that up too. All the other monsters in Minecraft I can deal with, but the Creepers freak me out. So I play in creative mode and build sprawling manor houses or majestic castles, and then… After a moment or two of admiring my work, I turn the game off.
It is hard to go back to normal mode, with its money problems and lack of resources after playing in creative mode. But there is something about watching in horror as a tornado rips through the really expensive hospital you just plopped down (and, yes, Plop is the word they use in Sim City to place a structure on the ground – weirdos.) that, while making you want to punch a hole in your monitor, also makes you want to keep playing, in an, “I’ll show you,,” sort of way.
It is the monsters that make the games interesting. Games without challenges might be easy and stress free, but they’re not addictive. They don’t wake you up in the middle of the night with a mind full of ideas on how to solve the latest crisis. We’ve all got these gigantic, problem-solving brains – if we aren’t using them to solve problems, well, what’s the point?
Next time I play Sim City, I’ll go back to my original, troubled city and see what I can come up with to fix it. The perfect sandbox city will hover in my memory as the goal for ‘reality,’ but I doubt I’ll ever play in it again. Perfect is Boring.