One of the most characteristic things about today’s crop digital games is the grind. The grind, grindyness, or grinding aspect of some games is an aspect that most gamers have experienced at one time or another. But what does that mean? How do players experience it? How can designers and educators of games-based learning address the grind in our designs?
What is the grind?
The grind is the actions that players spent doing repetitive tasks in a game. This is usually done to unlock a particular game item or to gain experience points necessary to continue playing. Usually this activity is something boring, repetitive, and doesn’t add anything new to the player experience. Rather the grind is an activity that is done in order to get something. Quid pro quo.
Most modern gamers will know the grind in MMO titles like World of Warcraft where continually killing the same creatures over and over again rewards the player with currency, experience, or sometimes items.
In fact the South Park episode Make Love, Not Warcraft specifically lampoons the grind in modern MMO. In the episode the characters play World of Warcraft 21 hours a day killing a bunch of low level boars to gain enough experience points to level up their characters.
What does the grind mean for players?
Sometimes the grind is just something that players enjoy doing. But if players DO enjoy the grind, then does it mean that activity is not really a grind? An intrinsically motivating action ins a game is a cornerstone for good design. But does that mean that the player has to particularly like that action? If they don’t like performing that action in the game, then does it become a grind for those players but not for others?
These are questions that designers address in game design. Asking these questions, in addition to the level of player commitment, as well as the amount of time they invest in the game are important considerations to make.
An action shouldn’t really be a grind if a mechanic is engaging and it helps the player achieve objectives in the game. But when players are doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again is when we stray into the grind territory of games.
Why do players grind?
Sometimes players choose to grind for a host of various reasons. Some of them are evidenced by the player actions. Some of them are purposely made by the designer. However, there are some instances when the player does not really have a “good choice” and the grind is something that they pursue in the absence of that good choice.
The grind becomes a comparison between being bored with the game and being bored with the inability to progress in the game.
From another perspective, the grind for gamers is them exercising their basic abilities and agencies. The grind could be one optimized way of attaining something in the game that the designer intended. While the designer would have wanted the player to attempt to defeat 3 hard bosses in order to reach the next level, the player could may also be able to find a way to defeat 100 easy bosses in order to achieve the same thing.
In this way, the players have optimized the actions they’ve taken.
Addressing the grind from a design perspective
Because players engage in the grind (often as a last resort) to achieve some sort of in-game win or achievement, it is often hailed as a characteristic of bad game design.
But this doesn’t need to be the case. Especially when we approach game design form a games-based learning prescriptive. Sometimes the activities of our students need to address a grind in some form.
I think back to my elementary school days when I was part of a reading club. Whenever you read through 10 books you earned a free personal pan pizza. Now the objective of the designers of this program was to get more students to read. But from the students’ perspective reading 10 books would have been a serious grind. But students still did it – myself included. In this situation, their ideal players continued on towards meeting the program’s outcome which was to get students to read more. Despite the grind.
Another means of including a grind in the game addresses some of the achiever aspects of player design. It may be the designer’s intent to have the player slay 3 bosses instead of 100 smaller bosses to achieve something. But they can often incentivize different methods of play by awarding special “titles” to players who achieve a specific set of circumstances in a game like killing those 100 smaller bosses.
Think about those Steam achievements that pop up during your play when you accomplish something you weren’t event shooting for.
Getting the grind on YOUR side
Designers can find ways to mitigate the gamer grind; ways to incorporate it; and ways to avoid it. If you are interested in avoiding the grind, then you can address it through the use of player agency.
The more ways that there are for players to progress in the game, earn points, do this thing, or accomplish something that allows them to progress, then the less likely they are do something ad nauseam in order to achieve that goal. Giving the player agency in this circumstance allows them to pursue the goal according to their own plans.
Good games also involve some engaging elements such as achievements for elements that could be considered grinds. Think about my personal pan pizza example from earlier. Reading those books as a kid was a grind for me. But you better believe that getting that delicious pizza was worth it in the end.
The last way to address the grind is to continue to make player actions varied, challenging, and fun. Failing to do so ensures that your game will be a slog no matter what your players do.
Sometimes grinding out a game is something that players look forward to. Other times players do it because they don’t have another (or a better way) to achieve the goals that the designer set out for them.
Address these grinding aspects in your game design by providing your players agency to achieve the objectives that you’ve designed. Otherwise, create intrinsic and positive feedback for your players’ actions that make it so that the experience is not so grindy after all.
Dave Eng, EdD