Monday, February 15, 2010

Gameplay is not Grinding

When players discuss grinding in MMOs, someone inevitably brings up this argument:

Guess what you do in every video game created? The same thing over and over and over and over etc.
FPSs? Shoot everyone who isn’t with you.
RPGs? Level up and kill big bad monster to get super duper helmet of the bear.
RTSs? Kill the enemy.
Platformer? Jump n' duck to the end.


Grinding is more than "doing the same thing over and over". If you continue the process of reducing games to basic physical actions then calling those actions "grinds", you should go down to the level of "computer games are just repeatedly pressing buttons and moving a mouse--they're not worth playing". By that same logic, communication is just moving your body in certain ways, so it's not worth doing.

The reason we play games isn't that the actions of doing so are inherently "special" in some way--we play games because they organize those normal actions into something more, something that has meaning to us. By removing the meaning through reducing games to "grinding keypresses", you completely miss the point of playing games.

The substantial error in logic made in this reduction-based argument that suggests “grinding” is indistinct from playing a game: it claims that if A’s parts are the same as some of B’s parts, those two things are the same. In truth, If you can reduce two things in a certain way so that one thing’s elements are a subset of the other’s, you do not establish a relationship of equivalence. A chair isn’t a wooden leg. A table isn’t a wooden surface. Further, tables and chairs are different, though they both have legs. Desks and floors are different, but they both have a horizontal surface. Two objects or concepts cannot be treated as equivalent if there is relevant difference between them; there’s clearly a relevant difference between playing a game normally and grinding, though grinding can occur while playing a game.

Games are more than pressing buttons on a computer and pleasant lights and sounds emerging from the machine in response. Games are defined by the mental process of play, which leads to physical interactions with the environment. Without play, we cannot differentiate games from other arbitrary sets of rules and goals. Trying to break down games into a series of physical events misses what actually makes a game what it is: the fact that people are playing it, and that the game has meaning to them through their play.

So grinding is not simply pressing buttons repeatedly—we can break down any computer game into pressing buttons repeatedly. Grinding is when the mental process of play breaks down because it became separated from the game’s meaning. It’s similar to when a word sounds wrong and seems to lose its meaning after you say it a hundred times in a row. Grinds separate the meaning from the gameplay by the sheer force of repetition. Since game design is focused on cultivating meaning, game designers should wish to prevent game systems from devolving into grinds.


Sara Pickell said...

This post is pretty awesome.
Clicking through and seeing the discussion that spawned it is more or less making me want to bang my head against a table. I tend to have a hard time with discussions like those, too many people talking at cross purposes.

Unknown said...

Great post! It captures the problem I'm having with the end game gear grind in WoW: the min-maxing is really taking the meaning out of the concept, totally ruining the whole (and immersion).

C out

Jay Moffitt, atty. said...

The problem with video-game comments thread is that it is composed of the 1 out of 100 people who ARE NOT enjoying the video game. Thus the inherently negative nature of comments. The other 99 are happily shooting, plundering, and building.

Glyph, the Architect said...

I've never associated the term grinding with simply "doing the same thing over and over". To me, it's always meant "Doing the same thing over and over again, well past the point of boredom, with no discernible benefit to the goal you are attempting to accomplish."

Anonymous said...

@ jm
I think what jm here is missing, is the fact that a game is experienced differently over time. Also, one should not confuse the negative aspects with the positive ones. Critique is not inherently something negative.

And with an open ended game like Eve online, I personally feel the awkwardness of missing out on something. And it got worse as time went by.

In a game like Mass Effect 2, I guess most players are simply inclined to wanting to finish the game, more than being interested in some kind of critique of the game design.

Think about cancer. Yes, I will use that to construe a paralell here to my initial point about awareness.

Society at large will deal with this as a problem, but the one guy who has cancer might want to try disregard the negative aspect for as long as possible.

Perhaps it wold be a bad idea to have cancer patients running hospitals, in so far as there is a risk of them being overly practical about it and disregarding the individual opinions, the people who would want a change.

Which imo raises the question: Do gamers really think that their game is ok?

Here one should differentiate the positive aspects from the negative aspects and not simply talk about enjoyment, which imo simply abstract the exerience to something really nonsensical. Someone enjoying a game? What the hell is that supposed to mean.

Nils said...

I like your definition of 'grind' a lot.