You know what I love? Grinding. Sometimes. It depends on the game, obviously, but I don’t think grinding is as inherently bad as we often make it out to be. Repetitive tasks can be enjoyable and relaxing. They can be meaningful in and of themselves, not just for the promise of a reward. Sometimes the fun is in the process.
Those gameplay activities we call grinding are usually those that ask us to repeat the same actions over and over for some small, incremental reward that will allow us to keep repeating that same action for a little bit longer for another small, incremental reward. Usually, it’s the role-playing games that most often get called out for grinding. The player is often expected to run around in circles for hours to farm experience points and money before moving on. But then enemies get rougher, gear gets more expensive, and you have to run around in circles all over again.
It’s a carrot on a stick, dangled in front of the player: a promised reward delayed. We’ve seen grinding embraced and abused by free-to-play models, with games made deliberately grindy and monotonous, and then the player is given the option to spend money to cut straight to the reward. Such pay-to-not-play models clearly use grinding in an exploitative way, but I’m not sure grinding itself is inherently evil.
If grinding is fundamentally bad because it persistently puts off rewarding the player for their actions, then that implies that we do things in games for the reward, not for the process of playing itself. But why do we need to be rewarded? As long as we are happy to do a repetitive task simply because we find enjoyable in and of itself, is that bad? Sometimes it can be relaxing and therapeutic and, well, fun, to just mindlessly do the same things over again. Sometimes, grinding is exactly what I want to do.
Borderlands is often accused of being a grind, with its infinite guns acting less as coveted treasures and more a constant stream of ultimately forgettable rewards. For me, though, the constant new weapons aren’t shiny, material rewards I want to hoard. Rather, they are variations, for a time, on what I can do. I enjoy constantly doing the same things over and over in Borderlands because that ‘same thing’ has a different flavour to it every time I pull out a new weapon. I don’t enjoy the reward of obtaining new weapons; I enjoy the process of using them. It’s the grind itself that is the reward in Borderlands.
Another game that makes grinding feel good is Dark Souls. To be sure, once you know what you are doing in Dark Souls, once you know where to go, you don’t really have to grind at all. But newcomers (myself included) will often spend hours going up and down the same paths, as much to farm souls as because we are unsure what way we should actually go next. Yet, going up and down the same few paths over and over again in Dark Souls never really feels repetitive or empty. I think it is because of how the game-world treats time. Somehow, I always feel like I am progressing, even if I am killed and lose thousands of souls. I still feel like I’ve learned something, and I still have all the items you picked up.
In Dark Souls, you’re never not progressing. Not just because it is literally impossible to pause the game, but because as you improve your character by grinding you are also improving yourself as a player. By grinding in Dark Souls, I have intimately learned how to use my different abilities—when to block, when to parry, when to strike. As I grind, I feel like I obtain real-world skills. Grinding in Dark Souls is itself a real reward.
But, by far, the game that I’ve most enjoyed grinding in of late is Little Inferno. Little Inferno is clearly meant as a very cynical and self-aware satire of mindless, grinding gameplay, and of micro-transactions and casual game design generally. The whole games takes place in front of a fireplace. The player buys toys and other worldly objects and throws them into the fireplace to watch them burn. These objects drop money as they burn, so the player can buy more more toys to burn.
It’s a deliberately empty endeavour. The game explicitly says, at one point, “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace was designed to not matter”. The game is trying to say that this kind of repetitive gameplay is meaningless, that you never really gain anything by burning everything to ash. You can go for as long as you want, but you have nothing to show for it. This kind of gameplay doesn’t reward you, it steals your rewards away.
But the thing is, burning stuff in Little Inferno is really, really enjoyable. More enjoyable, I dare say, than simply hoarding the game’s rewards ever would be. More than the emptiness of just sitting in our lounge rooms, looking at our televisions or fireplaces, burning time or possessions, Little Inferno shows us how to liberate ourselves from the need to hoard possession. Sometimes, the process is meaningful in itself.
And that’s why I love grinding when it is implemented in the right way. More than a carrot on a stick, it show me that I don’t need a carrot at all to just enjoy the walk. Grinding can be (and often is) used poorly in games, asking the players to repeat themselves over and over for some kind of reward later on. But in some games, the process of grinding itself is meaningful. I enjoy grinding in these games not because of what I will the game’s promised I will get later, but because the repetitive acts themselves and the time I spend doing them feels meaningful. Sometimes I just want to watch things burn.