Claustrophobia, Repetition and Redundancy: The Economy and Aesthetics of User-Generated Content in Sandbox Computer Games

Peter Nelson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Computer game sandboxes have facilitated an immense wave of user-generated creative content, titles such as Roblox, Minecraft, and Garry’s Mod combine sophisticated digital tools for producing, consuming, and sharing such work, increasingly within the same software environment. The game sandbox and creation system Dreams presents a complex enfolding of creative tools, a game engine, and a game-sharing platform, where there is no importing of external media other than sound, and virtually all game content is created within the system itself. By integrating the socio-historical context of modding with the technological aesthetics of software studies, this paper identifies a dynamic tension between the precarity of the user and the precarity of the platform and examines how we might understand the works created and the system on an aesthetic level. Cultural theorists such as Sianne Ngai have pointed to aesthetic categories such as the 'zany', 'cute' and 'interesting' as affective qualities that index key social and economic structures, which can be applied to a large portion of internet culture (Ngai 2012, 1-2). As sandbox platforms evolve in complexity, this paper identifies three variations of Ngai’s aesthetic categories, claustrophobia, repetition and redundancy, which can help us understand the significance of a new generation of creative software and practice. Using Dreams (Media Molecule 2020) as a case study, I examine the functionality of the system, works created within it and its extrinsic legal and economic circumstances to form an aesthetic critique. In analysing these extrinsic circumstances, I also revisit the literature on modding and suggest that material critiques based around the economic exploitation of modders might benefit from a more balanced reading that looks at the precarity of both the users and the platform and that the dynamic tension between copyright holders and users offers a more useful and accurate socio-historical context.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGame Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • Arts and Humanities(all)

User-Defined Keywords

  • Dreams
  • aesthetics
  • user-generated content
  • modding
  • computer game sandboxes
  • visual culture
  • digital labour
  • platform studies


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