For several years now it’s been semi-standard practice for games to record the amount of time played. When I look at the number of hours I’ve spent playing a game I try to keep in mind a short article by Kat Chastain about the way games consume time. To summarize the already short indictment, “Gamers are junkies, games are their junk…” and before any good can come out of them, gamers must pluck out the few virtues to be found and make a generation of games that isn’t mostly a waste of time. Videogames require an entire childhood to develop the literacy to sit in front of a screen and repeat the same minute motions forever; all just to earn a victory jingle and an accompanying serotonin rush. By this reasoning, videogames are a behaviourist’s nightmare contraption, trapping their players in a spiral of false satisfaction and craving.
What system could produce a more efficient cycle of compulsion and false satisfaction than grinding? Grinding is usually associated with RPGs, or games with RPG elements, and refers to repeatedly seeking out unchallenging scenarios disconnected from the plot to improve the player-character’s stats. It’s an ugly word befitting the act it’s assigned to. Grinding is a tiresome staple of videogames, the empty carbs that consume time and suck the player into a compulsion-behaviour loop. It’s also the subject of a fascinating, if dense, conversation recently between game critics Stephen Beirne, Austen Walker, Daniel Joseph and Zack Fair on their personal blogs.
I have a confession though: most of my favourite games require a lot of grinding and—if I’m being totally honest—I like grinding. Yeah, I might just be a sucker; I refuse to take the Voight-Kampff test, I swallowed the blue pill, I can’t remember how to get to Shell Beach, I don’t care if the truth is out there or what happened to Laura Palmer; I like this cave just fine thank you very much. I’ve been duped by the illusory pleasures of grinding. But even if that is the case, I do think that grinding is capable of improving a game’s aesthetic force.
Some time ago, I was re-playing one of my favourite games, Well Known RPG. As many readers out there can attest, Well Known RPG remains a profound artistic accomplishment, prompting tears of emotion and concepts of such philosophical gravity that learned white men cannot help but harrumph thoughtfully at its mere mention. I wanted to abbreviate my playthrough, so I skipped any optional areas and rushed through encounters, puzzles and sidequests, only levelling up incidentally en route to the final dungeon. But even though I’ve made the case many times over that it’s a Good Game with a Good Story, it did not feel complete without grinding. What I hadn’t noticed about Well Known RPG in the past was how much the narrative of grinding was to the overall experience.
Grinding represents the promise that dedication can lead to improvement. One of the benefits of grinding is that it makes any game accessible. If a boss is too tough, a player can just grind to meet the challenge. Failing to master or even understand any other mechanic will never lock out a player willing to just grind out a few more levels. One can never be too weak to surmount an obstacle and there is always room for and access to development. Given that most RPGs deal in young upstarts overcoming an old regime represented by an old god or an aged despot, grinding further fits as a driving force. The old gods, the traitorous lord, the corrupt king begin far out of reach but will all be defeated by patience and effort. RPGs often adopt elements of the bildungsroman and even if there are robots and dragons, the story of young, confused people growing into wise, competent adults fits neatly onto the incremental improvements promised by grinding. It’s a fitting guiding force that mirrors the standard RPG tropes .
For example, in both The Last Story and Dragon Age II, combat in the beginning and end look and feel completely different. At first players hew through street brawls and gracelessly slam into enemy lines with only a modicum of strategy. Not only does this fit with a player learning a new game, but it also speaks to the party’s unrefined talents and humble beginnings. In the end, fighting becomes flashy, tactical and personally distant while the party of each game is accepted by the bourgeoisie and unwittingly becomes a hired gun against the groups they came from. Once again, this mirrors the player’s social elevation, as the player becomes distant from violence and death they become more important in the city’s politics . Both games only occasionally remark on the mimesis of text and subtext but in both games the cast’s subtle growth—both as grinding warriors and as characters in the plot—is the central focus of the text. Grinding reinforces not just the importance of growth, but the effects of growth on the player’s party.
Moreover, grinding has technical benefits as well. Slowly advancing up a tech tree controls pace and incrementally tutorializes sophisticating systems. While most early mechanics aim to introduce more complicated ones later on—Braid and Portal spring to mind of good examples—the techniques of The Last Story and Dragon Age II do not grow at the pace of the plot: the player must grind and therefore practice the early skills to earn the XP necessary to learn the more complicated one. Though these games fail to deliver on their biggest promises, they effectively demand a high degree of practice and learning through grinding complicated mechanics like area of effect spells and team combinations.
The various uses of Zael’s Gale technique in The Last Story or cross-class status effects in Dragon Age II would be overwhelming if they were all dropped on the player at once. However, the player must practise the primary skills necessary for complex ones. Many of these more advanced techniques remain locked unless the player repeatedly puts themselves in the conditions to practice primary skills: the player must grind to even be able to use later skills, at which point they’ve rehearsed the fundamentals in all that time spent grinding. By locking more advanced techniques behind more rudimentary ones, the player learns the game’s depth by grinding along a tech tree and personalizing their play style.
Speaking of personalization, grinding does provide players an opportunity to express themselves in a system. Developing personal strategies and styles is only possible through deliberate grinding. Without taking the time to grind, the player often doesn’t have time to personalize the available mechanics. Either mechanics are locked too late to be of use or they haven’t had had the chance to experiment and push the boundaries of their play. Prioritising a path of development requires experimenting and refining a personal style. Grinding gives the player both an opportunity to see what works for them and how; it lets them plan a course of development after they’ve learned the ins and outs of a given path.
Grinding enough gold to gain a new set of armour for one character while learning a spell for another refines the player’s party into their own unit that moves according to the player’s personally developed strategy. There’s satisfaction in overcoming a mage’s weaknesses or maximizing a weapon’s damage output because it takes planning and execution to round a party into the unit best suited for a certain player at a certain moment.
Leveling up can easily get tangled in a range of implications, which can just as easily problematize play. Levelling can make players into one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons and it can drown a game in dozens of empty hours. Even so, grinding up levels can be an essential component of a game by mirroring its narrative themes, teaching players its advanced systems and personalizing its rule set. It might seem like a cop out to reduce the conversation to “it depends” but grinding, like any design element, creates an effect in the context of the rest of the game. While I won’t deny that there are trends that make grinding into something sinister and exploitative, it can just as easily enrich a game.