Why do Players Act Crazy? Thoughts on Exploratory Play in Simulation Sandboxes

Why Do Players Act Crazy?

Why do players act crazy?

Have you ever seen people play games like Garry’s Mod, Black & White, or GTA? I have been trying to figure out the purpose of the most purposeless play I have seen in games. That is the non-sequitur exploratory play found in simulation sandbox games.

I’m hoping to draw a big red circle around the silly glee of play and remind those working in my area not to lose sight of why play is awesome. If it wasn’t so amazing, we wouldn’t bother with creating these fields of research in the first place. Most of the stuff I have read on simulation- and game-based learning doesn’t mention the concept of exploratory play, even in cases where it is directly relevant to the study. In fact, they are mostly dry and joyless.

The studies on exploratory play reveal that it is actually a powerful self-motivated behaviour for learning about the structure and behaviour of the systems we encounter. So it is a shame it has been neglected in the vast majority of studies on game/simulation-based learning.

You can find my review of what we know about why players act crazy, how they learn from it, and why they do it most often in sim sandbox games, here:


Tornqvist, D. (2014). Exploratory Play in Simulation Sandbox Games: A Review of What We Know About Why Players Act Crazy. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 4(2), 78-95.

Cheat Sheet Summary:

What is Exploratory Play?

Why do we observe it so often in sim sandboxes?

Sim Sandbox Relationship

The paper goes into detail on the motivational and cognitive psychology of this non-sequitur form of play.

One might ask, “Surely, isn’t all play exploratory?” This is a really interesting question and the paper delves right into it. But in short there are many forms of play.

An example of play that inspired my study comes from birgirpall:

After doing my research I actually think very little of his behaviour is exploratory. Most of it is probably better described as transgressive play or even just comedic play. Think about the difference between Goat Simulator or Kissing Simulator (encouraging comedic situations), versus SimCity or Civilisation (encouraging thoughtful exploratory interventions).

Transgressive Play

The goal in this kind of play appears to be violating the magic circle, disobeying the game‘s instructions/objectives, searching for ways to break immersion, and straight up bug-hunting.

Comedic Play

The goal in comedic play seems to be a kind of roleplaying: The player leverages their immersion in the game to generate humour. They suspend disbelief on one level, but on another level they are knowingly orchestrating a situation which is utterly hilarious (but of course it is only hilarious from the perspective of pretending the game world is a plausible and reasonable world).

Contrast this with the behaviour described by Francis (2006). Most of it is best described as exploratory play rather than transgressive or comedic:

“Combine soldier seems to be trying to make a catapult. Dr Kleiner says “Imma make a robot”, summons a large metal sphere and paints eyes on it. I, as Judith Mossman, wonder if I can make a tombstone into a plasma-jet powered hoverboard. Thanks to hoverballs – a new gizmo to keep any construction stable at the altitude of your choice – it takes about 20 seconds. Kleiner attaches two long blades to his spherical friend, it takes off and starts spinning dangerously. A new player shoots my floating grave with the Duplicator gun to create a copy, and attaches a spinning blade to the front. Kleiner zooms by on a pimped-out hovering airboat, jets of flame streaming from its rear and an intent look on his bespectacled face. The Combine steps into his own catapult and is slammed straight into a support post, sending his body cartwheeling over the apex to land with a thud four feet away. The catapult catches fire.”

However, since transgressive play is about breaking the game for amusement, comedic play is about amusement, and exploratory play often involves searching for extreme circumstances and the boundaries of the game, then perhaps transgressive play is merely the region of overlap between comedic and exploratory play?

The Deeper Question

The existence of exploratory play seems to question the very idea that there is any meaningful difference between the observable properties of an object, and the uses of that object. Some cognitive scientists insist on a sharp distinction (eg Keller et al. 1994, Rubin, 2001; Rubin, Fein & Vandenberg, 1983 cited in Turnbull & Jenvey, 2006). But others do not:

Dreyfus (1996), Gibson (1979) and Norman (1998) consider perception of objects in terms of perceived affordances: We don’t perceive objective and neutral properties of objects but properties relevant to us and how we can use or interact with objects. We don’t see a cylinder that is knee height, we see a place to sit. We don’t see a geometric protrusion from a cup, we see a handle with the capacity to be grasped. And therefore perhaps the questions addressed by exploration and play are in fact the same questions. This very abstract philosophical idea (ecological and embodied perception) has been refined and formalised into some very precise predictive models of behaviour based on dynamical systems theory (Warren, 2006). By the way, anyone interested in exploratory play really ought to look into system dynamics (see eg Sterman, 2000; Adams & Dormans, 2012).

Conversely, there is considerable evidence that learning about a system from passive observation alone, without interaction, ranges from difficult to impossible (Gopnik & Schulz, 2007; Gopnik & Wellman, 2012; Keller et al., 1994; Lagnado & Sloman, 2002; Steyvers et al., 2003). So the divide between properties and uses (or exploration and play) seems quite artificial. In fact, according to Lenay et al. (2003, p7), “the empirical proof is direct: there is no perception without action” – An interesting thought! (However, see Osman, 2008, and Vandenbroucke et al., 2016)

Caution: There is a lot of confusion and disagreement about “affordances” and so you had better read some of that debate and decide for yourself whether or not I have misinterpreted or misused the concept.

One Final Point

Exploration is not randomness. Most people think of an exploratory act as an act that is essentially random. It appears spontaneous and random (often even to the explorer) while actually being very systematic. Hopefully when you read the paper this will be abundantly clear, but it is so counter-intuitive that I think it bears repeating here.

Often in studies on exploration versus exploitation, they approximate exploration as a random variable – as noise in action selection (see eg Cohen et al. 2007, Toyokawa et al. 2014). But in any realistic exploratory situation, there will be better and worse exploratory acts – some that are more optimal for increasing chances of beneficial discoveries, and some that are most likely useless. A more useful field is information foraging (Bates, 2002), which includes the distinction between searching (directed & active), browsing (undirected & active), monitoring (directed & passive), and being aware (undirected & passive).

Info Foraging

Credit Bates (2002)


Immediately it might seem intuitive for exploratory play to be a form of browsing, but often it involves addressing very specific hypotheses, although often the player is not explicitly aware of these hypotheses. So it might be a form of directed searching which is operating below conscious awareness. Then again, studies on browsing behaviour have found that the browser most often quickly develops a goal for their browsing, rather than remain truly directionless (eg Kwasnik, 1992). This sounds a lot like exploratory play. So perhaps the distinction between browsing and searching is more of a continuous spectrum.

In any case, exploration is complicated, but it is definitely not random.

Some Delicious Bread Crumbs:

My Notes & Quotes on Exploratory Play

My Notes & Quotes on Simulation Sandboxes

Examples of Exploratory Play

bigirpall on Youtube

Calhoun, A. (2010, October 18). A Sociopathic Comedy of Errors, Player Cruelty in Open World Games and Developer Savviness. Retrieved 29 March, 2012, from Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AndrewCalhoun/20101018/88273/A_Sociopathic_Comedy_of_Errors_Player_Cruelty_in_Open_World_Games_and_Developer_Savviness

Neltz. András. (18/07/2014). “It’s A Joy To Watch This Giant Minecraft Battle Robot Move”. Retrieved 18/07/2014, from: http://kotaku.com/its-a-joy-to-watch-this-giant-minecraft-battle-robot-mo-1607082536?utm_campaign=Socialflow_Kotaku_Facebook&utm_source=Kotaku_Facebook&utm_medium=Socialflow

Butler, James O. (2014). Opinion piece on what is missing in games – the state of emergent play. The Computer Games Journal 3(2b) 2014 – special edition, pp. 190-193.

Science of Exploratory Play

Cook, C., Goodman, N. D., & Schulz, L. E. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play. Cognition 120(3), 341–349.

Fenson, L., Shell, R. E. (1985). The origins of exploratory play. Early Child Development and Care, 19, 3-24.

Gopnik, A., and Schulz, L. E. (2007). Causal learning: Psychology, Philosophy and Computation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keller, H., Schneider, K., & Henderson, B. B. (1994). Curiosity and exploration. Berlin: Springer-Verlag

Big Think. (05/08/2017). “Science Isn’t Really a Method—It’s Your Brain Celebrating Danger and Uncertainty | Beau Lotto “. Retrieved 07/08/2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_BibNUzRSE

Simulation Sandbox Games

Morrison, Brice. (05/01/2011). Game Design Tutorials: Minecraft, SimCity Illustrate Sandbox Gameplay [Video File]. The Game Prodigy. Retrieved 26/04/2012, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpVHKwBpsIU

Bycer, Josh. (01/08/2013). Exploring Open World Design Beyond Sandbox Games. Retrieved 27/04/2014, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20130108/184496/Exploring_Open_World_Design_Beyond_Sandbox_Games.php

Sorens, Neil. (14/02/2008). Stories From The Sandbox. Retrieved 29/03/2012, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3539/stories_from_the_sandbox.php

Breslin, S. (2009, July 16). The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay. Retrieved 29 March, 2012, from Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4081/the_history_and_theory_of_sandbox_.php

Eilers, M. (2014, January 7). Classification Methods for Simulations and Serious Games. Retrieved 27 April, 2014, from Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/MichaelEilers/20140107/208147/Classification_Methods_for_Simulations_and_Serious_Games.php

Moss, R. (2011, June 21). From SimCity to Real Girlfriend: 20 Years of Sim Games. Retrieved 23 March, 2012, from Ars Technica: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2011/06/history-of-sim-games-part-1/1/

Pfeifer, B. (2013). Building Simulations, Part 1. Retrieved 17 August, 2013, from Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BorutPfeifer/20130813/198190/Building_Simulations_Part_1.php

Maletz, David. (03/04/2013). “Pandora’s Box Direction”. Retrieved 27/04/2014, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DavidMaletz/20130304/187764/Pandoras_Box_Direction.php

Nutt, Christian. (22/06/2012). “How Do You Put the Sim in SimCity?”. Retrieved 27/04/2014, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/172835/how_do_you_put_the_sim_in_simcity.php

Sauvé, L., Renaud, L., Kaufman, D., & Marquis, J. S. (2007). Distinguishing between games and simulations: A systematic review. Educational Technology & Society, 10 (3), 247-256.

Schwarz, E. (2011, March 1). Size isn’t the only thing that matters: An analysis of open-world and sandbox games. Retrieved 27 April, 2014, from Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EricSchwarz/20110301/89076/Size_isnt_the_only_thing_that_matters_An_analysis_of_openworld_and_sandbox_games.php

Schwarz, E. (2011). Sandboxes and the Rebirth of Grinding. Retrieved 29/03/2012, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EricSchwarz/20111107/90561/Sandboxes_and_the_Rebirth_of_Grinding.php

Glean, N. (2005). Growing Complex Games. In Proceedings of DiGRA June 2005. Changing Views: Words in Play. University of Vancouver, Vancouver, Canada. http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/06278.18009.pdf

Polack, Trent. (03/23/2009). “An Economy of Fun”. Retrieved 27/04/2014, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/TrentPolack/20090323/83588/An_Economy_of_Fun.php

Starr, Paul. (1994). Seductions of Sim: Policy as a Simulation Game. The American Prospect no. 17 (Spring 1994): 19-29.

Sylvester, T. (2013). “The Simulation Dream”. Retrieved 09/06/2013, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/TynanSylvester/20130602/193462/The_Simulation_Dream.php

Bycer, J. (2010). “From Spore to Minecraft”. Retrieved 29/03/2012, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20101226/88682/From_Spore_to_Minecraft_An_Evolution_of_open_ended_game_design.php

Sweetser, Penelope, and Wiles, Janet. “Scripting versus emergence: issues for game developers and players in game environment design.” International Journal of Intelligent Games and Simulations 4.1 (2005): 1-9.

Games for Learning

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Lukosch, H., van Bussel, R. & Sebastiaan, A. M. (2014). A Serious Game Design Combining Simulation and Sandbox Approaches. In Sebastiaan, A. M. & Riita, S (Ed.), Frontiers in Gaming Simulation (pp. 52-59). Springer International Publishing.

Pereira, L.L. & Roque, L.G. (2009). Design Guidelines for Learning Games: the Living Forest Game Design Case. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2009. Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Brunel University, West London, United Kingdom.

Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research & Development, 44(2), 43-58.

Squire, K. (2008). Open-ended video games: A model for developing learning for the interactive age. In K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning (pp. 167–198).Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Are games good for learning?

Miller, P. (2013). “What’s Next? Learning researcher James Gee on games in school”. Retrieved 01/10/2013, from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/199510/Whats_Next_Learning_researcher_James_Gee_on_games_in_school.php/

Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by design: Good video games as learning machines. E-Learning, 2 (1), 5–16.

Extra Credits. (2014, April 30). Education series. Retrieved 30/04/2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWyPLNi8rD8

Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H. and van der Spek, E. 2013. A Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive and Motivational Effects of Serious Games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 249–265.

Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., Killingsworth, S. and Bellamy, S. 2013. Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (Executive Summary), Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

de Freitas, S. (2006). Learning in immersive worlds: a review of game-based learning. Bristol, England: JISC. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/elearninginnovation/gamingreport_v3.pdf

L. McClarty, A. Orr, P. M. Frey, R. P. Dolan, V. Vassileva, and A. McVay, “A Literature Review of Gaming in Education,” Pearson Education, June 2012.

Hays, R. 2005. The Effectiveness of Instructional Games: A Literature Review and Discussion. Technical Report 2005- 004. Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.

Sitzmann, A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games, Personnel Psychology 2011, 64, pp. 489-528.

Morris B, Croker S, Zimmerman C, Gill D, Romig C: Gaming science: the “Gamification” of scientific thinking. Front Psychol 2013. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3766824/

Clark, R. E. 2001. “Educational Media”. In International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J, Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 4279-4283. Oxford: Elsevier.

Transgressive, Comedic, or Exploratory?

Aarseth, E. (2007). I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player. Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference: Situated Play. Retrieved 13 November, 2011, from http://www.digra.org/dl/db/07313.03489.pdf

PBS Game/Show (05/06/2014). Is Goat Simulator Brilliant or Stupid? [Video File]. Retrieved 08/06/2014, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOeq38sSG1c

Portnow, James & Floyd, Daniel (2014, April 16). Comedic Games – Can We Make More Funny Games? – Extra Credits [Video File]. Retrieved 23 January, 2014, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh_kdu8LnvE

Francis, T. (2006, December 9). Garry’s Mod Review: Welcome to the Jumble. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from CVG: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/152602/reviews/garrys-mod-review/?site=pcg

The Deeper Question

Dreyfus, H. L. (1996) The current relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment. In: Perspectives on embodiment, ed. H. Haber & G. Weiss.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Theory of Affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception (pp. 127-143). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (2012, May 14). Reconstructing Constructivism: Causal Models, Bayesian Learning Mechanisms, and the Theory Theory. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publicati on. doi: 10.1037/a0028044

Lagnado, D., & Sloman, S. A. (2002). Learning causal structure. In W. Gray & C. Schunn (Eds.), Proceedings of the twenty-fourth annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 560–565). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Lenay, C., Gapenne, O., Hanneton, S., 2003. Sensory substitution: limits and perspectives. In: Hatwell, Y., Streri, A., Gentaz, E. (Eds.), Touching for Knowing: Cognitive Psychology of Haptic Manual Perception. John Benjamins.

Norman, Donald A. 1998. The design of everyday things. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Steyvers, M., Tenenbaum, J. B., Wagenmakers, E. J., & Blum, B. (2003). Inferring causal networks from observations and interventions. Cognitive Science, 27 , 453–489.

Warren, W. H. (2006). The dynamics of perception and action. Psychological Review, 113, 358–389.

Rambush, J., and T. Susi. “The challenge of managing affordances in computer game play”, in Human IT vol. 9, no. 3, 2008, pp. 83-109.

Norman, Donald. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design. Interactions, May-June, 38-44.

McGrenere, J. and Ho, W. 2000, Affordances: Clarifying and evolving a concept. In Proceedings of the Graphcis Interface 2000, Canadian Human-Computer Communications Society: Toronto, 179 – 186.

Jenkins, H. S.: Gibson’s “Affordances”: Evolution of a Pivotal Concept. Journal of Scientific Psychology, pp. 34–45, Dec. 2008.

Vandenbroucke, Jan P., Alex Broadbent, and Neil Pearce. “Causality and causal inference in epidemiology: the need for a pluralistic approach.” International Journal of Epidemiology (2016): dyv341.

One Final Point

Bates, M. J. (2002). Toward an integrated model of information seeking and searching. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 3, 1-16.

Cohen J D,McClure S M,Yu A J: Should I stay or should I go? How the human brain manages the trade-off between exploitation and exploration. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 2007, 362:933-942.

KWASNIK, B. H. Descriptive Study of the Functional Components of Browsing. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the IFIP TC2\WG2.7 working conference on engineering for human-computer interaction, August 10-14, 1992, Elivuoi, Finland, 1992.

Toyokawa W, Kim H-r, Kameda T (2014) Human Collective Intelligence under Dual Exploration-Exploitation Dilemmas. PLoS ONE 9(4): e95789. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095789


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