bleg: origin of term “sandbox”?

You know how everyone is always saying “sandbox this” and “sandbox that”?  Where did that term come from, and when?  What’s the earliest recorded mention?

I’m asking because Ron Edwards asserts (PDF) that “sandbox” is one of those terms that everyone throws around, mostly by way of example–“Oh, you know, like Keep on the Borderlands!”–that probably could use some more examination, and I think he’s right.  I’m wondering what it was originally coined to encompass.

My own exposure to the idea behind it, if not the term, is the “Techniques of Story and Campaign Design” in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (TSR 1986) where Doug Niles compares Linear, Open, and Matrix style games; this advice was rehashed in the 2e era in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide (TSR 1990 by Jaquays and Connors).  I’m presuming if the term had been around in 1986, Niles would have used it, if only as a touchstone.

But I’m wondering if there are earlier mentions of these ideas, and specifically the term “sandbox.”  Any thoughts?

14 Responses to “bleg: origin of term “sandbox”?”

  1. 1 Grosa Prap
    October 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I’m probably crit failing a Wisdom roll here and playing Captain Obvious, but I’m wondering if you realize the origin of the word is from the sand filled boxes most children’s play areas contain.


    I don’t know when ‘officially’ people started using it as a metaphor for ‘open design’ but given the origin of RPG’s themselves were tied to miniature war games which themselves were played in their own raised sandboxes, I would wager that the term has been around for far longer than RPG’s in general.

  2. October 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Is it possibly borrowed from the video gaming industry. I was curious about your question and did a little web searching and stumbled across this article on the history of sandbox video games.


    The article throws out some early examples, but states the term sandbox wasn’t used until around 2000 with the release of The Sims and Grand Theft Auto III. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t site any sources, so I’m not really sure how authoritative we can consider it.

    (from page three — http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4081/the_history_and_theory_of_sandbox_.php?page=3)

    Encouraging Player Experimentation

    The metaphor of the “sandbox game” finally emerged at the turn of the century, around the publication The Sims and the following year, Grand Theft Auto III, the two games which are traditionally considered the two original and canonical “sandbox” games.

    The invention of the term did indeed accompany a new development in game design, but this was not, as the term suggests, player freedom, which was already available by any number of means: non-linearity; the lack of objectives or central storyline; automatic variation of the game-world and game-behavior.

    There is also the concept of a “Sandbox” in software development — A place where programmers can muck around with code without jeopardizing the core…Not sure of the history of that, but it potentially has some connections.

  3. 3 mikemonaco
    October 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    I was pretty annoyed by “sandbox” and a number of other shibboleths when I first found the OSR but now I use the term myself.

    Rob Conley says he & his co-conspirators started using it in the 1980s, adopting it from it’s usage in video games:

  4. 4 mikemonaco
    October 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    I don’t think it is connected to war gaming sandtables.

  5. 5 Jack Colby
    October 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    It’s generally understood to come from computer games, not RPGs.

  6. October 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    According to Robert Conley, from a recent RPGSite Thread titled “Why or What this “Sandbox” thingy”:

    “The term sandbox in the context of settings was used by the development team of the Wilderlands Boxed set to describe what you use it for. I didn’t come up with the term. I don’t remember who first used it. But we all started using it afterwards.”

    I’ve also seen Melan/Gabor Lux state the same thing.

  7. 7 Grosa Prap
    October 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    If we are going the video game route, then the following article from Gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4081/the_history_and_theory_of_sandbox_.php) would imply the term came into popular use with the publication of the Sims and Grand Theft Auto III – circa 2000 & 2001 respectively.

  8. 9 Grosa Prap
    October 24, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Conversely, if you go the Wargaming route, the same RPGSite thread referenced previously indicates this:

    “It has been used from the earliest days to refer to the playing field used by many miniature wargamers which was a table full of wet sand that could be sculpted into a variety of terrain, literally a sandbox. The sandbox as always be associated with a flexible play style whether for miniature wargaming or childhood play. It’s association with flexibility is one of the reason why it was adopted for computer games that allowed player free reign with the game world or game engine – RS Conley♦ Jul 14 at 14:45”

    So it may be a case of a word jumping genres, changing meaning slightly, then jumping into the descendant genre of it’s originator.

  9. October 24, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    I’m trying to remember what we called it back in the day,. Generally our campaigns were either epic story-lines, open-ended or a combination of both. I guess ‘open ended’ was our phrase of choice.

    Hmmm…(begins accessing deep pocket memory banks, drops into coma)

  10. 11 D. H. Boggs
    October 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I had always assumed it was a reference to open sand table wargaming, since the connection was obvious, but given the replies here, its clear that it is a term with multiple resounding referrents. Like the Nile, it has no single origin.

  11. 12 Ragboy
    November 18, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Sandbox has been a military term for a long time for, essentially, wargaming a real situation (either in the past or in the future). I have a feeling that the wargamers co-opted it from the military.

  12. 13 John Mack
    September 16, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Just as Ragboy says, it’s been a military term for a long time. From the Daily Telegraph (UK) in 1928 “A thorough groundwork of tactical knowledge has been formed by sand-table and week-end schemes during the winter.” I think this pre-dates the internet and computer gaming…

  13. 14 Simon Hooker
    April 1, 2020 at 4:37 pm

    I always thought it referred to the emergency run-off pits of sands on alpine downhill stretches into which vehicles could run and sink into if their brakes failed.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2011

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