Are We Being Unfair When We Say That Grinding Sucks?

I hate feeling like a cog in the machine — like my actions don't matter, like I'm wading through tedium before I can get to the 'meaningful' part. Tedium exasperates me, makes me start thinking about depressing things like not reaching my true potential. This is true in both real life as well as in games.

So it should come as no surprise that I hate grinding in games, even though just about every title — from popular games Call of Duty to the smallest, esoteric RPGs, force me to do it. There must be a reason for the constant inclusion of the grind — either people can enjoy it, or it provides something worthwhile for game designers.

A couple of months ago I was asked to write a pitch for a show on a broadcasting network about video games. Without delving into the specifics of that, I ended up consulting a friend about Pokemon: Black and White 2 and the new badge and achievement system. I bemoaned that much of the game followed the common paradigm of levelling up, putting enough time in, and grinding enough to attain success and then on top of that gamified it all to try to make it more desirable and 'fun.' Gross.

I remarked that it reminded me of how people put up with awful jobs in real life instead of following their dreams. And then he suggested something that makes complete sense, but that I still found surprising: one can find fulfilment in 'menial' jobs, as well as humble jobs that don't aspire to be a grand thing. That, perhaps, one can learn to live with where they are in life, regardless of whether or not it matches expectations. And naturally: that there's nothing wrong with not being hyper ambitious. It all comes down to choice and perception.

I'd seen a similar response to my piece earlier in the year about Skyrim and the sickeningly neat lives games have us uphold, but only recently did I start to actively think about the merits of the grind. It gets such a bad rap, right? I mean, the word itself has a negative connotation. But if people can enjoy or appreciate a lifetime of grind, then naturally it should follow we can enjoy grinding in games.

I remarked that it reminded me of how people put up with awful jobs in real life instead of following their dreams.

First off, thinking about what they abstract, it's all about payoff. You're working hard for something, and then when you get it — the level, the item, the win — you feel like you've earned it. My resentment stems from feeling as if it's always required that you put in an arbitrary amount of time into something before you're allowed to have something in real life. But that doesn't mean I don't feel accomplished after spending hours in Borderlands 2 and getting a new, exciting skill.

I just wish I didn't have to do it all the time, for everything, for no other reason than to stretch out how much time I'm spending with a game. Most online shooters, which force me to unlock everything from cosmetics to necessary equipment, are guilty of this and I abhor it.

Grinding can also be a calming thing. You can just tune out and play, right? That can be useful after a long day at work, or wanting to get your mind off stuff. While I've definitely picked up games to shut everything out, I know that I have a preference for games that don't let my mind go blank.

Grinding can also help with pacing. I'm a fan of games that cut out all the downtime and focus on the meat, like in The Walking Dead. With longer games, you have more stuff to juggle, more stuff to digest. The sheer amount of content in Persona 4 is staggering, and I'd probably feel like I was drowning if it let me talk to everyone, all the time, without inserting some quality dungeon crawling in there to help mull over my (digital) life.

It really depends on framing. Let's consider battle music, which has an intimate tie with grinding. Battle music is crucial to a successful grindy game, often helping us get into a state of flow, into the zone. That's a good feeling. Or: battle music can remind me of muzak — the music we hear while in spaces that want us to forget that we are there, waiting, languishing or sometimes consuming. Malls. Waiting on the phone. In the elevator. Working at the cash register. Ugh, no.

When I asked Jason Schreier what he thought about grinding, the framing thing became obvious.

It's easy to hate the idea of grinding. It's easy to step back and say "Jesus christ, why did I just spend four hours walking around in a circle and mashing the attack button to take down random monsters? What am I doing with my life?"

It's also easy to love the idea of grinding. It's easy to love a world where improvement is guaranteed, where life follows a set of rules that allow you to level up and get better at your job not because of talent or luck, but because you worked at it. Effort guarantees results.

I don't think level-grinding is good, nor do I think it's bad. It's a rhythm. A flow. Sometimes it feels right, when you're pumping up levels and feeling the euphoria of achievement. And sometimes it's just boring.

Despite the negative connotation of the word, as Jason says, grinding is not inherently negative or positive. Perhaps I have been unfair to grinding, after all. What I do know is that I have an easier time appreciating a game when it gives me a reason-a strong, compelling reason-to wade through repetitive or boring game segments. If, say, I'm trying to get strong enough to rescue my best friend beloved cousin from a shadow-monster, like in Persona 4? I'm in.

Make me care, and I'll grind through just about anything.


Comments

    I love grinding. The constant feeling of progression and going from being unable to kill some basic slimes to being able to kill them in one hit is great. There is a knack to it though, games that throw bosses at you that require hundreds of hours of grinding (stares at Nest of Eagles in Last Remnant.... That was the dumbest thing I've ever played...) are a pain in the arse. And with no goal it feels pointless too, like Dragon Quest. But if you took the grinding away from Persona 4 you'd... well it'd still be awesome. But it wouldn't be as good.

    Grinding isn't inherently good or bad. If the grind is bad, it's a reflection of other problems in the game. Boring combat system, repetitive enemies, bad pacing etc.

      Grinding is as bad as game's combat system, I agree. But not many people enjoy doing the same thing over and over again really either.

    Yeah, as above, I guess it depends on what the grind is. I remember adoring Valkyria Chronicles but I ended up getting stuck at suddenly being several levels below the enemies and I couldn't advance. I did the maths and it would have taken me 3 hours of playing the same previous mission over and over and over to catch up. That's incredibly frustrating and I just gave up, I shouldn't HAVE to do that. But on the other hand, "go out and kill x enemies" can be fun if they offer you an interesting exploration experience, different places to go etc.

    90% of life is grinding..

      Some may argue that that's a pretty good reason why we might want to avoid it in our games.

    I love a good good grind. The operative word in that sentence is "Good"
    Some of it is done horribly, like D3, and the grind they've patched into GW2 since release. That's just grind with so little reward, it can't really be justified as game play.

    I don't mind grinding in some games, as said above, the feeling of progression, slowly beating enemies faster and faster...
    But some games I love have awful grinding. Take Mother on the Famicom. That game is great, but, literally, the few seconds after you leave your house to start your adventure you need to start grinding. You can't really venture more than say, 10 - 15 steps away before having to go home and rest, and you'll need to spend a fair bit of time to make it to the next town without much trouble.

    I actually enjoy grinding in most cases. I can just mute the game, and listen to music while I do it. It's actually kind of relaxing.

    We're looking at this all wrong. Yes grinding is bad because to even use the term 'grind' to refer to levelling up and progression you are saying that it is tedious and only serves to artificially lengthen playtime.

    Also if my 'grind' we mean actively repeat the same actions in order to push numbers forward then yes still bad. At that point the 'game' is now numbers where before it was probably an epic adventure about your character/s exploring and growing. Seriously how immersive is a game where mid-mission you decide to run in circles for no readily apparent gains.

    Last edited 05/01/13 4:41 pm

    I am not morally opposed to grinding, I play way too many JRPGs and MMOs and would be the proverbial kettle/pot if I did, however:
    Being forced to grind more than a level or 2 because the game has poor pacing on enemy levels or zones etc is frustrating as hell.
    Choosing to grind and being rewarded for it with an assortment of benefits is the ideal grind.

    An example of poor grind implementation was the 28-40 leveling "experience" in Vanilla WoW and BC. Effectively being stuck in a single zone (STV), limited access to dungeons and loot and a selection of rather boring quests.

    A good grind would be Final Fantasy 8. Bosses were level locked so you either needed to do some minor grinding if you were being bested or if you had grinded previously then you out-leveled them and were able to take them down easily. Standard enemies leveled up with you and by grinding you could gain access to higher level magic, different mats for better weapons and so on.

    For me, if you're using the term "grinding" then it means that you're repeatedly doing something you don't enjoy in order to access the next section of gameplay. If you enjoy what you're doing, it's not grinding.

    Basically it's the gaming equivalent of the saying:
    If you enjoy your job, you don't work a day.

    Last edited 06/01/13 5:15 am

    The term grinding is inherently bad because if it wasn't then it wouldn't be a grind.

    I will never grind in a game again. When you find yourself taking an entire day to stand in a virtual field picking blue flowers and cotton, to make a stack of bandages that get used up in twenty minutes to stay alive in a dungeon crawl, because even minor healing potions cost so much to buy in stores that it could take months of saving paltry amounts of looted gold.. which you can only get from creatures you kill in dungeons, that require vast amounts of bandages to stand up against.. you realise you hate life and yourself and you'd rather die than ever pick another blue flower. oh want to max your character level.. hope you got every night free for the next 4-5 years

    If the combat is fun, I don't mind grinding. But usually I hate grinding and even will give up on a game because it gets too repetitive.

    I normally dont like grinding, (I also put doing meaningless sidequests i.e. doing random hunts etc in the same boat) but I'd only do it if it is needed. And then i find the only way to do it is to trick my little brother to do it for me. Its worked that way ever since Pokemon Yellow.

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