The Sandbox Paradox

The summer before my senior year of high school I took a collegiate creative writing course. One of the neat — and scary — things about that class was that since creativity was involved, it was not uncommon to be assigned essays without predetermined themes. This was a derivation from the middle-high school style of paper writing I was used to, in which main ideas and details were cut up, moved around in cookie cutter fashion, fitted to the five paragraph format, and sprinkled with transition words. Bake at 350° F for 8–12 minutes, let cool, and there’s your A+.

One of the last assignments was a 1,000 word minimum essay on absolutely anything you felt like writing about. Easy, right? Finally a writing assignment that would be enjoyable. It would be work, of course, but at least it would be on a topic I was passionate about. Or so I thought.

Instead I found myself starting at a blank Google Doc approximately two hours before the essay was due (midnight). There were so many things I could choose to write about, and I could write and talk about all of them for hours. But because of that, I couldn’t definitely pick which one to write about.

So I chose to write about exactly that. That feeling of not knowing what to write about.

The Essay

The following is copy-pasted from that Google Doc I handed in that night.

Approximately three minutes before beginning to write this story, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to write about. Those of you who participate in the literary world might identify this as the infamous “writer’s block” — the inability to decide what to write. But what I’ve realized over the years is that writer’s block extends to far more than just writing. In fact, writer’s block presents itself to us in almost every facet of our daily lives, in a phenomenon I call the “Sandbox Paradox.” In its simplest form, the Sandbox Paradox can be described in one sentence:

When presented with infinite choices, you can no longer make one.

It seems illogical. You can choose from anything! Surely you’ll find at least one thing that you like! Alas, that is apparently not human nature. To me, this leads to many colossal questions about the fate of humanity in the future. But first, I would like to share with you some of the adventures I’ve had throughout my life insofar that has led me to recognize the Sandbox Paradox’s existence.

Here’s one I think most of you can understand. Open up YouTube and, without looking at anything but the search bar, type in anything you want and pick a video and watch it. Perhaps some of you have a pre-existing thought floating around, something that you’ve been wanting to see. For you, it won’t be difficult to complete this challenge. But I think that some of you will also halt in front of the search bar, your mind blank, unable to think of anything that you’d want to see at this time. This is Sandbox Paradox. At your fingertips, you have the power to watch anything from two Roombas chasing each other around with knives duct-taped to their sides to a former NASA employee explaining the math behind lunar orbit trajectories. And yet, there you are, fingers paralyzed. You’ll also notice that YouTube capitalizes on this: On almost every page, there is some sort of “Recommended” or “Trending” list. These are videos that you didn’t want to watch before, but might want to now that you’ve been notified of their existence.

This next example is more personal to me, and my first major encounter with the paradox. Around 2008, my dad took a college class on Visual Basic (a programming language). The class mandated that each student had to buy a particular 800 page book on the language — a book that was subsequently handed down to nine-year-old-me. I ripped through the textbook in about a month; the largest literary challenge I had undertaken at that point in my life. Eventually, I reached a point where I felt proficient enough to deviate from the exercises and try making my own application from scratch. I installed the programming environment on our old Compaq family desktop, launched it with textbook and keyboard in hand, and prepared to change the world. Except, of course, I didn’t (at least, not yet!) The reason is because, along with proficient skills, you also need an incredible idea to convert into reality. That day, I was hit with the Sandbox Paradox. I felt like I had the power to develop anything, and because of that, I had no idea what to develop.

Around 2011, I got my first modern smartphone — the iPhone 4. Being the tech addict I am, I immediately explored every dialog, page, app, and setting iOS (the iPhone Operating System) had to offer. But the excitement soon wore off after a few days — after all, there’s only so much joy you can derive from looking at your calendar, or the time in different places around the globe. No, the real excitement lay inside the App Store: a portal that could turn the device in my hand into almost any tool, game, or utility that mankind had ever invented. With exuberance, I unlocked the phone, tapped the App Store icon, entered the search tab, brought up the keyboard, and then… stonewalled by Sandbox Paradox. Once again, I had the power to turn my phone into anything I wanted to be — and because of that, I had no idea what I wanted it to be.

For my final example, I would like to refer to the scenario that led me to name this happening the Sandbox Paradox. In many video games, there is a so-called sandbox mode. In sandbox mode, any of the regular restrictions (physics, timing, cash, experience, etc.) are tossed out the window in order to allow the player to derive maximum pleasure from the game by being able to do anything they want. If you want flying cars, you get flying cars. If you want atomic propane tanks, you get atomic propane tanks. And if you want to choreograph fights between thousands of different virtual characters, you can do that, too. However, people rarely spend more time in sandbox mode than the other, restrictive modes — why? Because sandbox mode gets boring really quickly! There is no challenge to beat, no difficulty to overcome, no achievement to get when you already have the ability to accomplish anything. Thus, we get the name Sandbox Paradox: In a virtual sandbox, armed with the ability to do anything, you choose to stop playing because it becomes boring.

In the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that Sandbox Paradox “…leads to many colossal questions about the fate of humanity in the future.” Here’s what I mean: Right now, if you live in a first world country, you have an almost infinite amount of food options. Sandbox Paradox dictates that, due to this, you will have difficulty picking what to eat. But as society edges closer to utopia, what other decisions would you have difficulty making? If you no longer have to work to secure shelter and food, what will you do with your time? If there are no problems left to solve, what is the point of existing? Sandbox Paradox also dictates that we’ll get bored if there are no challenges or achievements left to conquer. So then, will we ever even reach utopia? Will humanity always be on an asymptote to perfection, always striving for better but never reaching best?

So that’s Sandbox Paradox…and thus ends the story of how I wrote an essay about not knowing what to write an essay about.

Aftermath

The essay did pretty well. I think I got an A on it, but its real impact came well after the semester had concluded. I find myself sending this to friends every once in a while, because I think it’s a really common feeling to experience, especially in today’s age where the tiniest desire for almost any type of knowledge can be instantly gratified through Google and countless other sources.

Of course The Sandbox Paradox had been explored before I stumbled upon it. You may know it as Writer’s Block, or the Illusion of Choice, or whatever else people call this thing (please tell me if you, too, have a catchy name for it). But I called it the Sandbox Paradox mainly because of my experience with sandbox modes in video games I had played.

Thanks for reading! Please let me know what you thought of my writing and the concept in general in the comments below. 👋🏻