Some games give us the chance to create whole worlds. How do creative toys like The Sims and Minecraft turn imagination into reality?

A typical video game presents us with a goal to achieve and rules to follow. Other games behave rather like toys. They do not have a victory condition. They do not have a goal and no “You win!” screen. Instead, they give us a set of tools or a box of toys to play with freely.

The first big success of this kind was The Sims by Maxis in 2000. Will Wright originally wanted to develop a home planning tool, that would let us interactively test our virtual house with virtual people – the so called Sims. How would a morning routine look like? Would the living room be big enough for a family? However, test players found it so fun to have the Sims interact with each other, that Wright decided to focus on the social aspect.

Today, we can create whole neighborhoods full of virtual humans (or aliens and vampires) that live there for generations. We can create happy families that send their young adults off to college to become doctors, lawyers, or scientists. We can have them celebrate weddings in public parks with all their friends, who have unique personalities and skills. And then we can invite them to our swimming pool, remove all exits, and watch them exhaustedly swim for the short rest of their lives. The choice is ours.

A very different kind of creative toy is Minecraft. When it was first released by Markus “Notch” Persson as a public alpha in 2009, the game featured a procedurally-generated 3D world constisting of one cubic meter sized blocks, some animals and monsters, and the ability to interact with both. The famous crafting system, in which we combine multiple items in certain patterns to create new tools, were actually not part of the first release.

Exploring and forming the open world was the main appeal of the game. To this day, there are few good games that allow us to burrow into hillsides, build giant towers or statues, and completely change the landscape by creating or flattening mountains and oceans.

Whereas the main titles of The Sims constrict us to playing more or less alone, Minecraft allows us to freely play in this world together. Regardless whether online or at LAN parties, multiplayer servers have functioned as centers of creativity. Some of us have recreated real or fictional landmarks, thought of new game modes, or even created functional computers inside the game.

If you want to develop creative toys, do not focus on a challenge or an end goal. Just think of a simple context and imagine what would be fun to do in a given situation. Then create the tools and features, that would make this fun possible or easier. Minecraft offers a creative mode, in which we can fly and have infinite materials. The Sims features cheat codes for practically infinite money. Both ways circumvent the sometimes tedious challenges, that stand in the way of creativity. Embrace these ways! If possible, also add a multiplayer mode that allows your players to be creative together.

What are your favorite experiences with creative toys? Share them in the comments below! I look forward to reading them. In the mean time, I build the house of my dreams.

(Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash)