A sandbox game is one where the player is given a lot of creative freedom to enjoy the game as they see fit rather than being forced to play it in a prescriptive manner. The name refers to the children's past time of playing in a sandbox, where there is no way to "win," and the only goal is to have fun. There are many game mechanics which add to sandbox game play like world building, open worlds, emergent game play, and user-generated content, but, in order to be a sandbox game, the game should allow the player to be creative, and, in order to distinguish it from a mere toy, it must have actual game elements.
Some games, like SimCity, are entirely designed around the sandbox concept and don't even feature a way to win, but still have enough game mechanics to prevent it from being more than an intricate toy. Others, like Ultima VII: The Black Gate, are adventures with a primary quest, but have an open world with environmental interaction, so the player can keep themselves busy playing with other things for hours.
I was a bit of a loner growing up, and I spent a lot of time playing by myself. I loved sandboxes, building blocks, Legos, and various other forms of play which focused primarily on imagination and creativity. I loved repurposing my toys for other forms of play and often erected complex miniature worlds out of them. It was several years after I became interested in video games that I started playing my first sandbox video games in the Sim series which really got me hooked. Now, as a parent, I don't really have time for sandbox games unless they're the ones I can play with my daughters.
This is a list of games that are important to me which have sandbox elements, for the full list, see the category.
|Conway's Game of Life||1970-??-??||A good example of how emergence results in emergent game play.|
|Minecraft||2011-11-18||Lots of crafting and an open world, but redstone really allows for creativity.|
|SimAnt||1991-12-06||Literally lets you dig in the sand to create your own ant colony.|
|SimCity (SNES)||1991-04-26||Takes the original game and adds more game-like elements.|
|SimCity 2000||1993-??-??||Increases the complexity of the original adding a lot more room for creative play.|
|Stardew Valley||2016-02-26||A far more intricate version of Harvest Moon.|
|Terraria||2011-05-16||Tons of crafting, lots of customization, but also a solid story line.|
|Ultima VII: The Black Gate||1992-04-16||A long twisting story, but a big open world with lots of sidequests and crafting.|
|Ultima Online||1997-09-24||No primary story, instead, tons of crafting and quests.|