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The Function of Grind in Video Games
Grind is an aspect of video games that seems to become a basic characteristic of most games that involve character progression. If, by chance, you are not aware of what grind is, it could described as performing repetitive tasks in order to gain something from the game be it more money, items or experience. One could look at the matter and see it as lazy game design. Game designers didn’t feel like putting much more creative work into their game resulting in creating a huge farm of NPC that can be killed in return for some reward. At first it would seem like it, but we should also look at some additional layers of enjoyment grinding gives us.
First of all, let’s look at the repetitive aspect. Repetition gives the player more space to train his or hers newly acquired skills. Like in life, this gives us time to learn how to use our tools in different way in a familiar environment. Of course, once we’ve exhausted all possibilities multiple times, this will surely bore the player after a certain amount of time. Yet this is only one aspect that repetition gives us. The other one is familiarity or as psychologist named it, the mere-exposure effect. (link) It a state where we feel comfortable in certain situations merely because we are familiar with them. This is also why we use the phrase “There is no place like home.” and really mean it. Transfer this into the gaming world and you get familiar NPCs that need to be killed in order to gain something. You learn their behavior, attacks, defense and feel powerful when destroying them. Repetition is also very natural for us. We breathe in rhythm, dance in rhythm, our heart beats in rhythm. Even various relaxation techniques involve repetition and rhythm. There is no reason why a video game can’t provide us with that rhythm and repetition we need to relax and feel comfortable.
The other aspect of grinding is reward. Reward in the case of grinding is anything but random. If we would look at most MMORPGs, there is a specific set of rules that sets rewards in a certain area. If a player, for example, needs to get wool in World of Warcraft, he or she knows that it can only be acquired by killing humanoid NPC from a certain level range. You can either buy the wool from other player or grind and get the wool yourself. Of course, why would game designers restrict reward to items only. There are other rewards such as experience points, reputation and kill count. Maybe the most interesting, and seemingly illogical aspect of the reward system, is achievements. Unlike the other rewards I mentioned that directly impact your character, the achievement system does nothing except gives you a thumbs up for doing something. In fact, one could interpret it as a virtual friend incorporated into a game to congratulate you on your in-game actions. Yet it proves to be successful in motivating players to play more. Achievements needn’t be grinding but do regularly come into it’s category with phrases like “You’ve caught 231/350 fishes”. One could even argue that the whole Pokemon tagline “Gotta catch ’em all!” is based solely on the achievement system and in turn, grinding.
The third aspect is chance. A a few years ago, Youtube channel Extra Credits, did an interesting presentation on the Skinner Box. Skinner was a psychologist that introduced operant conditioning. It is a system which rests on the idea that once a person makes a certain action, he or she will be rewarded, but not every time. This, in turn, creates excitement. This is exactly why casinos are so popular. They provide a chance to win money. This same aspect can be seen in games. For example, while doing raids. The player doesn’t need the money or the experience, but that one special item that the boss can give him or her. There is no way to get it except from that specific boss. This is basically a very long and exciting pull of a lever at a slot machine. One can interpret raiding as gambling with virtual rewards.
Still, should we avoid grinding in games all together? Grinding exposes our most primal urges and nourishes or takes advantage of them. Depends on how you want to look at the subject. My opinion is that it is a part of game design that should be kept but maintained at a certain level (pun intended). A game that strives to deliver an engaging story line with an interesting world design should not focus on grind as it would lose it’s credibility a a quality game. However, this doesn’t mean that grind elements shouldn’t be inserted into the game. After all, a game that completely changes every time is bound to be frustrating. Other games, on the other hand, provide only grind in the most basic of ways and this is not a bad thing at all. I’m looking at you Cookie clicker. We chose what games we want to play, but I feel that we should be aware of some factors that influence our decision as to why want to play them.