Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Grind

There has been a lot of talk about grinding lately. Beta players found Final Fantasy XIV grindy. People talked about grinding heroics in World of Warcraft. And Larísa even found progression raiding in WoW a grind. But what exactly is The Grind? And why do we play that way?

I don't know if there is a generally accepted definition of The Grind, but my version would look something like this: "The Grind is doing an unfun activity in a game repeatedly, in order to get a reward which allows access to fun content". That has been parodied by South Park in their Make Love Not Warcraft episode in the kids killing 65,340,285 level 1 boars. Killing the same mob over and over is one of the most typical forms of grinding. It often is a possible way to level up (although killing 65 million level 1 boars usually won't work), but games in which this is the most effective way to level will often be described as grindy.

And there we stumble upon an important truth: Grinding is very often by choice, because The Grind happens to be the most efficient way to advance your character. In most cases it is not that there are no other activities in the game, often there are even other ways to advance. But one activity is often more efficient than another activity, so players follow the most efficient path, which leads them to repeat the same activity over and over, instead of seeking out a variety of different activities, which would advance them slower, but be more fun.

Imagine you play a MMORPG for a year, about 20 hours per week, for a total of 1,000 hours, and then stop playing. Does it really matter what you "achieved" in the game during that time? Given that there is no win condition, does it matter how far exactly you got, how efficient you were in advancing your character? I would rather say the premise is that you'll spend 1,000 hours of unproductive activity, for your personal entertainment. As levels or epics aren't worth anything outside of the confines of the game, being more efficient in gaining them has no value. It's like trying to be more efficient in watching TV by recording everything and then watching it in fast forward. You get through content faster, but that only diminishes the entertainment value of the content and serves no purpose whatsoever. Isn't game activity A which amuses you but isn't very effective in gaining levels/gold/gear better than activity B which is effective but not fun?

If you can do whatever you want, there is no grind. The promise of fun later if you grind now is an illusion. The joy of the reward lasts only for a very short time, while you wasted hours of your valuable free time with unfun grinding. That gold making guide telling you what is the best method for making gold in World of Warcraft is misleading you. The *best* method for making gold is the one that is most fun to you. And that might well be doing many different things, from daily quests, to fishing, to gathering herbs, to running dungeons, to playing the auction house, each for as long as your having fun, and then switching to something else. And the same is true for the best way to level up in this or that MMORPG: Most of the time you have various options, and its better to try everything, and switch between activities, than to do the same activity for hours on end.

The Grind is a consequence of the false worship of the cult of efficiency. Once you realize that it is by definition impossible to win a MMORPG, and efficiency gets you nowhere, you are set free to play whatever way is fun for you, and The Grind just disappears in a puff of smoke. If there is no fun activity in the game, why would you even want to play it in the first place?

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