The Sandbox Storytelling Success of Minecraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and Me...

2016’s Stranger Things kicked off a resurgence in the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, and I am a part of that resurgence. My D&D group began in 2017, a collection of longtime friends and theatre peeps.

art by my friend Casey

 Man, there were phenomenal actors in that group. I was the “backstage” guy, so it was a bit intimidating trying to roleplay with that crowd. I think I found my niche with a studious little gnome wizard named Jor R.R. Molkien. He was a bit self-centered with tunnel vision, but he did the right thing when it came down to it. We played together for four years.


My friend who ran the campaign (the dungeon master) allowed us to create our own mini-quests and have character goals outside of the story he had been planning. He had created a vibrant collective sandbox world for the players to play in.


In videogames, I think sometimes the concepts of “sandbox” and “open” world get mixed up, usually, I think, because many sandbox games are open worlds and vice versa. But, I’d like to give a quick definition: “Open worlds” are games where there are minimal limits to a player’s decisions about where to go on the map. Players are encouraged to roam, search, explore, and select the tasks they wish to complete. “Sandboxes” are games which give the player the tools to be creative and then sets them free to employ their imaginations. There’s a bigger emphasis on players being able to change and control the gameplay.


By my definitions, it’s pretty hard to think of a game that is a sandbox without being an open world. The one I’ve come up with is The Sims. Back when I was a teen, this game gave you a plot of land. You built a house, created a family, and then you got to watch your Sims play out their lives. You got the tools to enjoy messing with (or sometimes torturing) your Sims in a million creative ways, but it was contained to the house you built. There wasn’t a huge open world to explore.


On the flip side, a game that rests in an open world but is not really a sandbox might be Marvel's Spider-Man for the PS4. You can go anywhere you want in the world, but you can’t really creatively manipulate and control the world within all that much. For example, when you web a citizen, nothing really happens and they run away. There’s not much experimentation.


A more sandbox-level game like GTA would allow you to do what you want to the citizens (however, there are consequences, such as the police chasing you down). Actions get reactions, sometimes unexpected. Often generative of the moment. And, of course, there are varying degrees to which a game can employ the elements of open world and/or sandbox gameplay.


My DM would often say, “Tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you what to roll to see if you can do it.”


I think that’s what made my longtime D&D campaign so great. My DM understood how to properly balance open world and sandbox elements, which allowed the players to collectively be a part of the shape and direction of the story.

“The path is never a straight line.”


Minecraft came at me during a whirlwind time of my life. I got swept up and carried away by major life decisions and transitions, and I think this is where my virtual life became a bigger sandbox than my real life.


I joined during the Alpha. The first time I played Minecraft, it was just block madness. I remember my first time logging into a game. I played in-browser. You could place blocks or destroy them in an instant, and it was all creative mode. This was after summer, 2010. I had just graduated college with my English Education degree. I had no job prospects. I had no idea what to do next.


But I did have a girlfriend of two years. She set her heart on moving as far away from Belleville as possible, and to that, and my choice became either get married and go with her or end it and enter the unknown of adulthood by myself.  


I scrolled back through my social media during that time... interestingly, my reading choices then were Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Stephen King’s It. Both of those books are mind-bending cornerstones of my reading life. The end of It struck me from the inside out. <Spoilers> the town caves in on itself. Derry was the monster, or one aspect of it. With the death of Pennywise, the city could not maintain itself. I remember reading that, but I was there.

I was in Belleville, Illinois, but walking down the same streets as the Loser’s Club. Would I always be here? Or would I ever leave? My friends had moved on already, to live and work across the map of the USA. The prospects of becoming a “townie” were growing. I was Mike Hanlon, the only one to stay. My rock-and-roll bandmates left. My theatre company was nearing the end. Everyone else was finding success across the map.


Meanwhile, my digital life took off. I started a Minecraft server of my very own. It was a java server, meaning, I could update it with mods or whatever I wanted. I posted the link on a Minecraft forum and people started trickling onto my server from all over the world. We built cities on one map, which I titled “Otherside.” As the owner of the server, I played god. I could cultivate the community and set goals. I could destroy. I could create. I could fly around and make others take the train.

My escape into Minecraft was perpetuated, I realize, from my real life’s lack of sandbox and open world elements. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t do anything. In fact, I barely knew what to do next, other than go to work each day at the Home Depot, watching old ladies choose between swatches of carmine to crimson (don’t paint your living room red, yo, you’ll regret it) and blending it for them in the cheapest bucket they could find (but do we really need primer?).


So, when my girlfriend decided she was going to leave, move far away from Belleville with or without me, I chose what looked like the path of adventure. I got married in October of 2010. Minecraft went into Beta in December. My new wife and I moved to Seattle in July of 2011.

At a rest stop driving from Belleville to Seattle

Leaving Southern Illinois felt like my first true “open world” reality moment. I quit my job. I sold my car (my wife’s was better). I got rid of any possession that I couldn’t deem as essential. I even remembering telling my Minecraft server to expect a hiatus while I got settled in a new city. We packed a car and drove off across America. She had a job lined up, but I didn’t. We didn’t have an apartment, either. Nobody told me what I needed to do next.


All my life, there was a track. School, mostly. Elementary, middle, high school, university. I remember seeing the giant wind turbines in Wyoming, thinking, I was as free as could be. Not sure if I really was, but the feeling was there. We stopped and bought cherries, fresh from a farm, ate them while viewing the mountain ranges of the State of Washington for the first time.


Landing in Seattle had some beautiful chaos to it. We stayed in a hostel for a few week as we sorted out the details. Our stay was in the International District, and during the Chinese Dragon Festival. The streets each day were fun to be on. I explored this new world, doing whatever I wished. Of course, I also spent time job hunting. I got hired after about 2 weeks to one the hardest places I’ve ever had to work, which was at KinderCare Learning Center. We did get an apartment, too. Our first year in Seattle had many fun things: starting-over, making all new friends, seeing completely new sights... etc. After that year, I think the open world elements scaled back quickly. I don’t think either of us were happy. What had been refreshing—not knowing anyone and starting over—became isolating and lonesome.


I dove deeper into my Minecraft server. Back to my escape. My server grew. I had hundreds of different people on each day. People built entire cities. Entire worlds.


That marriage didn’t work out. I moved back to Belleville after two years, and my perspective was fresh. Seattle was different but not that different. Belleville wasn’t Derry. A few of my friends moved back, too. As my life lost direction, my need for Minecraft slowly faded. I enjoyed having a sandbox of reality again, and wild things happened constantly.




I think what makes it easily one of the greatest games of all time is that it is not a story, but it is a platform for storytelling. It’s a reality, where storytelling elements are baked in. Secrets are threaded throughout, but the mysteries are what the players make of them. Imagine being teleported to the world of Sherlock Holmes—the atmosphere is ready, the world is populated, everything is randomly generated, and the clues have been hidden throughout. But—the clues direct the players to the mysteries the players they themselves generate. I think of this as sandbox storytelling. Minecraft is a platform, the game is whatever the players decide.


I have more to say about this, but I think I’ll end with this: My goal is to author a platform, not just a story. I want to figure out the magic that can turn a book I write into a sandbox where readers can take the lead and go wherever they want to. That’s the secret ingredient I’m working on discovering. 

A trip through a maze...

True story: I once created a maze with a hundred other people.

In a fully 3D digital world, the maze was a series of rooms or “levels” where the player would often reach one of several different doors/portals/secret passages. These paths all led to other levels. Sometimes they’d take you closer to the end, sometimes they’d take you backward.

I know there was at least one drop from way high in the sky that took you near the beginning. The maze had a hundred different levels. Each level usually contained a theme or challenge. Sometimes you can to successfully jump to the top of a mountain, over a series of platforms. A fall could mean a hot lava bath (or accidentally stumbling upon the next door).

I was just out of college when I started on making this maze. Gradually, I opened it up for people to create their own levels, which were carefully woven into the rest of the maze. Hundreds of people contributed. Some just worked with others. Some decorated. Some spend hours building their own level by themselves.

When I reflect on that time, I think about the artistry involved.

Each of those levels was beautiful, really. The decoration, mood lighting, etc.. It was all there. Most levels were pretty creepy, mysterious (as a maze should be!). Some levels were entirely based on chickens—literally the platforms would only move if a chicken would randomly step on a button or not. There was a giant chicken at the end of that level to reward you and tell you that you are, in fact, worthy.

We had creepy forest levels, dark dungeon—fight the monsters—levels, underwater glass tube levels, steel cage rooms, extremely long hallways filled with empty treasure chests, floating orbs of water in a black void that you had to swim up, a bookcase library maze, an entire level dedicated to Waluigi where you had to ride a train through a giant replica of his nose, a bamboo jungle, a level where you had to solve a mystery of a nuclear reactor in a small town, a level where you had to take a boat off a fully circular waterfall (falling toward the center of the circle), a trivia challenge level, and I know I’m forgetting a lot of it.

I think what made it special was that throughout the maze, there were signs to read. Each sign said something different. Like a poltergeist, trying a bunch of different tactics to get in your head. But the signs had personality. Going through the maze was like having a conversation with this poltergeist, but the poltergeist made you question yourself. Sometimes the signs had jack-o’-lanterns pinned to the tops, as if the pumpkin were the one speaking.

To reach the end, you had to hit the Door Level. Literally, hundreds of doors. Pick the right one, and you’d make it to the final level. The final level was a battle against monsters, of course. There was an automated final boss, too. You had to shoot arrows at particular spots of a giant Pumpkin King Monster, then run through the door to win.

I’m not sure anyone ever legit won. The maze was severely hard and confusing. Even I, the curator, easily got lost in it. The files for the maze were lost for years, but I recently managed to get it working. Still, it’s pretty glitched and non-functional. The code I used to create the portals is dead, for one thing. So, to explore you have to cheat by breaking open the walls. Some of the walls won’t even load at all, leaving empty space.

The artistry behind it. The scope. Some rooms were legit as tall as skyscrapers or as wide as entire cities, some levels CONTAINED entire cities. The people behind it. The hours spent. So many levels, all together. I think it may be one of the best art projects I ever did. I certainly put my passion into it. 

And now the maze is lost, mostly unplayable. Nobody has accessed it in years (except me). I don't have the time to fix it up. I have bigger art projects going on. I teach a creative writing class, and next semester my students will be creating a choose-your-own adventure together, building a maze with levels and rooms, leading all over. So, the maze from long ago still inspires me. I still think about who I became after I reached the end. 

AI Generated Art is Mad

DALL-E is an AI that generates images. I think it's really incredible.

I typed "tarantula made out of trees" and seconds later it generated these:

And these aren't just photos mashed together. It actually generates them. There are YouTube videos that explain it well. So, I'll just say I'm pretty amazed.

"A Monster With Hooks for Hands"

"A Scarecrow Man Turning Into A Flock Of Crows"


Here's a few more random ones I generated. But, I must say, this tech is impressive and terrifying. Either way, it's here, and it's only going to get better.

Automation is a crazy thing, but this art is better than 90% of the stuff you see in your local cafes, and generated within seconds. Why would companies in the future ever pay an artist when they can generate logos/ads through an AI? 

Everything will change. Someday, the AI generated books will be better than the ones that writers write. 


I switched jobs this past year. I stepped down as Artistic Director of Central Visual and Performing Arts High School so I could move back home to Illinois and become an English teacher.

I’ve been pretty quiet about my new job, mostly because what my former colleagues/students have been going through at CVPA. A former student entered their building with a gun and shot and killed a student and a staff member. Tried to kill more, but luckily the active shooter protocols worked well to delay him before the police got there and killed him.


I feel like I can’t go on blogging without writing and acknowledging this. I cried a lot. I screamed when the press release said the shooter’s name. I went to a balloon release and hugged a million people. I went through some depression and numb periods. Five days after this horrible tragedy, I was a best man at one of my best friend’s wedding. Two weeks after that, he was a best man at my wedding. I wished I had had time to go to more CVPA vigils and memorials, but I just didn’t with the two weddings. I feel guilty about that, even though I know there’s nothing I could do. Emotions were all over the map.


I wasn’t at CVPA during the horrible day, and I’ve tried not to push my feelings publicly much at all because I don’t want to insert myself in the narrative in any way. Even though I’m writing about this now (more in support and love for the students/staff than anything), this is not my story and I want to make that clear. I can’t imagine what the students/staff who were there... I can’t even finish that sentence. There were true heroes at work that day. None the least is the staff member who died. She was a very kind person, big heart. Loved what she did, did it all for the benefit of her students.

I have so many more things I could say, but I really don’t want to because it’s not my story. I wasn’t there. My suggestion to anyone who wants more insight is to look to the students. See their art and performances. Support them. Their voices are the key to the restoration of that community.


CVPA students and staff, you are loved and didn’t deserve this. I’m so sorry for what you’ve had to go through. My heart has been constantly there. This does not define you. I cannot wait to see you on stage, when you’re ready. This is your space, and nobody can take it from you.


I mentioned that I’ve been quiet about my new job, mostly because I don’t want to be insensitive to my former one. Things have been going really well for me there. Teaching is the best. I really love it. I put on mini-performances and make students laugh all day. Also, I can REALLY tell that my students are getting more intelligent. I feel the difference I’m making. It’s great. One of my student’s mothers brought me pumpkin muffins to parent/teacher conferences. I had a student sing a poem on my first week of class. Bonfires and football games, plays and homecomings. I might do another blog about this sometime. I guess I’ll end with that I love my students. They are hilarious. Students who took my one-semester class last semester have barged in during my lunch to tell me that they miss me. One student drew me. Some have written me letters of how they enjoy my class. One went and told my boss that I’m the first teacher they feel they’ve really enjoyed reading with. So, my new job is going well for me. Just busy all the time.


Sun, Moon, Star, Fire

click image for higher res
 Been exploring mixing up digital and traditional mediums lately. I drew a black-and-white version of this by hand, scanned it in, then used a bunch of different design programs to layer colors and textures throughout. 

Big Life Changes - summer 2022

Marriage, new job, moving across state lines.

Yeah, it’s all going to change by the end of this year.

me right before watching seniors graduate!


Easy place to start is getting married. Been living alone for quite a few years... I'm pretty good at it. Decorating my apartment the way I want, eating whatever I want, the quiet... It’s nice that there’s not constantly a TV running (I grew up with my grandparents, and they neverEVER turned off the tube).


My current job as artistic director of a performing arts high school is all about serving everyone constantly. I’m always helping teachers, staff, always working to make students’ visions for art come to life. I love it, but it can be draining.

I guess that’s why I love the quiet so much. I barely ever listen to the radio when I’m in my car (people think I’m weird, but I just need the mental clarity time). Coming back to a quiet home has helped me. It’s like meditation.

All this to say, I’m going to have to learn how to not live alone again. My fiancĂ©e lives with like 3-4 people depending on the day. She never eats dinner alone, always spending time with family. I’m very much the opposite. It will take me some mental adjustment.

So, Cari lives in a different state than me... which is why I’m moving.

I’m moving back home to Southern Illinois, finally. Been awhile. I’m looking forward to it. St. Louis is busy, busy. Lots of road rage there... The very first day I moved to STL, my Internet installer ran into my apartment and slammed the door.... Some random guy had attacked him with a coat hanger. I called the cops, and he had been trying to attack cars. 


Southern Illinois is more my speed. It’s a mix of suburbs and cornfields, shopping malls and cows. When I drive through Illinois, I always forget how peaceful it is. There’s good and bad in every community, but the spacing is bigger in the ‘burbs+rural, so you just don’t see it as often. Plus, it’s home.


Third big change is my new job. Yes, I’m leaving my position as artistic director. I'll be teaching high school English. Technically, that’s always been my background, so I’m looking forward to using my degree as I originally planned.


Starting as Technical Director and then getting promoted to Artistic Director was a great ride. I’ve learned so much, so many new skills, met so many interesting people. I had a lot of fun! It was the most work I’ve ever had to do at a job, but some days were just the best.

I think it will be interesting to go from being the department chair of the fine arts department to the new guy, low on the totem pole. I’m looking forward to worrying about my own classroom and not everyone else’s, but there will be many things I miss. I wrote my students a letter of farewell, and so many of them have come up and wished me well (or tell me they are mad at me for leaving J). It’s bittersweet.


But, starting lots of new things is pretty much my theme in 2022.

mostly melted

I miss snow. 

I tell my students, when I was their age, snow would get as deep as your knee and school could be out an entire week. All they know are the crop dustings we’ve been having. 

We get less snow every year. 

I remember building forts out of the towers that the city snow plows would put at the end of my street’s dead end. Back then... when I was a kid, you could buy orange trash bags with jack-‘o-lantern faces, but now leaves don’t fall by October (and nevermore in September). They stopped selling those, at least in this area.

Probably for the best. I’ve seen people burn leaves through January. 

The West Coast and Australia burn uncontrollably during summers, nowadays. We’re so desensitized that seeing a half-charred koala wrapped in a blanket, hauled away by vets is perfectly acceptable. I remember when a hurricane front passed over Belleville. I sat in bed, reading a book, waiting it out. 

Leave your car running in the garage, and the fumes can kill you. Highway vehicles release about 1.7 billion tons of that toxic contaminant into the air each year. 

I think the human brain can’t process numbers in the billions (I definitely cannot). But 1.7 billion is a lot-alot. Saturn is 886 million miles from the sun (average). 886 x 2 = 1772. So, if 1 mile = 1 TON of toxic fumes, then our toxicity level is about to Saturn and back... each year. What are the repercussions? Well, let’s ask our friend, Common Sense: 

He comes often recommended, and common sense is great for common problems. Fight or flight? Should I wear a coat when it’s snowing? Should I take a shortcut or the busy street? 

For complex problems—problems that aren’t understandable by just the 5 senses, you may consider shopping around for complex sense. 

You can’t look out your window and see how drinking sodas sold in plastic bottles have increased the amount of diseases in the world. Say, that particular plastic bottle is covering the bog, killing the duckweed, which starves the tadpoles, so decreases the frogs, which increases the mosquitos, which increases the spread of disease. 

Our brains barely process numbers in the billion, so why should the same common sense I use to pick out which flavor jelly to put on my toast be used to process what effect 2 Sun-to-Saturns worth of car emissions will have on the population of koalas? 

I guess, all this to say, I miss snow. 

It snowed a little today, mostly melted after a few hours. I’ve only had to scrape my car windows like 3 times this entire winter so far.


New Year post. Here's what I did in 2021...

I proposed to my girlfriend the other day. So, I’m engaged now. That’s probably the coolest thing on this list. The rest is mostly in chronological order.


In January of 2021, I became the Artistic Director of a school.


The US Capitol building was breached.


I played a lot of Stardew with Cari.


Marvel had awesome TV shows on Disney+.


I played a lot of D&D with two groups.


I got summoned for jury duty.


Did a lot of hiking with Cari (highlights: Mastodon, Pere Marquette, and Castlewood State Park)


Watched a ton of Impractical Jokers.


Went to an art gallery for a friend.


Helped Cari through a major car accident and shopping for a new one.


Went on a fantastical Disney vacation with a road trip.


Dealt with some hard times...people I care about in the hospital for extended stay. They are OK now.


Started a very serious diet and lost weight.


Worked on some seriously awesome writing projects that I can’t talk about yet.


Lots of art fairs.

Felt sad when Scruffy, cute little doggo, died.

Went to the STL Renaissance Festival.


Went to MO Games Con with Reed and Ryker.


Created a new show called PerformLAB.

Brought back live performance to my art school.


Did a ghost tour at the Fox.


Celebrated 4 years with Cari.


I put on a CommUNITY Fun Day.


Got back into Animal Crossing.


Cooked a turkey for the first time.


Got my mom a birthday lunch.


Put on a Dance concert, a play, and a Winter music concert (7 total performances) in one month.

I enjoyed Spiderman: No Way Home

Hosted a Christmas party.