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 like 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 leveling 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 fulfillment 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.
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.