During my first few years a faculty member, when I was balancing impossibly heavy teaching loads with an impossibly demanding family (hey, I love my kids, but having two under five is challenging!), I didn't use summers to do research and course development. Instead, I used them to clear my mind, to get much-needed downtime. I developed a habit that to everyone else seemed extremely odd...I'd sit on our lawn, literally for hours at a time, tracing the stems of creeping, flowering weeds to their tap roots and then pulling them out.
It was indescribably satisfying, this mindless task. When I found a particularly wide ranging cluster and yanked it out by the roots, I felt triumphant. Everybody who saw me do this thought I was nuts. By the end of the summer, I would only have cleared a few visible patches of lawn, mostly in places where I could sit in the shade of a tree while I worked. But the point wasn't really to eradicate every weed...it was to engage in an activity that felt at once mindless and productive, something that gave me bite-sized victories and could be stopped and restarted easily when toddlers demanded my attention. I could talk on the phone while I did this, or chat with neighbors. I could be social, but I was safe from emails on my computer and laundry in my basement.
Now we have a lawn service, so there are no creeping weeds in our lawn. That's okay, though, because I've got World of Warcraft. And unlike many of my "serious" gamer friends, I love the leveling grind of WoW. It's why I prefer a PvE server to a PvP server, in fact, since it's hard to get into the zen-like grind-mind I enjoy when I'm constantly being ganked. And it's why I so resent being ganked, in fact...those players are interrupting my cleansing trance, my "I don't need to think very hard about this" downtime activity. It's as though a neighbor's dog had come charging onto my lawn while I was peacefully weeding, and nipped me. No blood drawn, no real harm done...but not enjoyable in any way.
I spend far too much of my personal and professional life strategizing, dealing with intellectually and emotionally challenging situations. I don't want to replicate that stress in a game environment...instead, I want to relax, to clear my mind, to do something repetitive that provides visible (to me, not to you) and lasting evidence of my efforts...however small that evidence may be.
Not everybody plays this way, I know. There are plenty of people who want to think about strategy and interaction, who find the grind tedious and off-putting. Probably more of those people than there are people like me (after all, you don't see a lot of people hand-weeding their lawns these days). But not everybody suffers through a grind as just a way to get that status-enhancing "massive, glowing, meat cleaver of a sword." Really. And to assume that when designing games is a mistake. Honestly, who plays Katamari _just_ to get a bigger star in the sky, or the praise of the King of the Cosmos? The fun is in the rolling, not in the status. For me, the same is true for MMORPGs. It's the process, even (especially) the mindless parts, that makes these games so endlessly attractive to me.
Comments on In Praise of the Grind:
You didn't have to pay for the privelage of pulling out your own weeds.
If grindy MMOGs were free, maybe I'd have a little more charity in my heart.
Posted Aug 5, 2006 5:54:46 PM | link
Darn it, before Pat Morita died they should have made a new Karate Kid movie where Miyagi harnesses the untapped power of a WoW player and turns him or her into a bona fide fighting machine. That's what we call transfer!
Posted Aug 5, 2006 6:00:32 PM | link
Wax on--Wax off! Grinding is the new needlepoint!
Lisa mentioned "flow" (I think) in the last thread -- is there another term to describe this kind of optimal state of mental-physical exertion? I think the notion of happily losing oneself in one's physical work (note that the work/play distinction doesn't apply here, does it?) is probably very old.
(Personally, though, I find washing dishes works better for me than mouse-clicking.)
Posted Aug 5, 2006 6:11:24 PM | link
I didn't have to pay for the privilege of picking the weeds, no. But I also was limited in when I could do the picking...not at night, not when it rained, not when it was blisteringly hot, not when my kids were sick and needed me close by, and not for the 9 months of the year that lawns don't grow here in Rochester, nY. With WoW, I've got weeds-on-demand. :) In a hotel room on the road, in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, even in the winter when the weeds are under two feet of snow.
And the social options when weeding were severely limited. With WoW, I'm paying for the convenience of being able to play when and where I want, in an aesthetically pleasing way, surrounded (virtually) by people I enjoy socializing with. That's worth a lot.
Posted Aug 5, 2006 6:17:54 PM | link
There is a cure for thy ailment--
Animal Crossing ftw
Posted Aug 5, 2006 6:40:49 PM | link
More importantly, nobody *made* money off of your weed grinding.
Perhaps Blizzard would make more money if they cut back on creative staff in favor of subscribers who are happy paying for the grind.
Somehow I doubt it.
Posted Aug 5, 2006 7:26:05 PM | link
Again, very interesting distinctions of work/play, fun/not-fun, depending on who you are and what you do. I, too, find (at times) release/reflief in the Zen of the Grind. It can be meditative and appealing in a Homer Simpson-like, "Bed goes up, bed goes down" kind of way, and the Pavlovian reward system works -- even when you know it's happening. A pellet! The Happy God Cylinder granted me another pellet! Push on bar... push push push...
Weeding, whittling, grinding, sanding, knitting, nail polishing/painting, sorting the Legos, tying flies, scrapbooking... there are all kinds of hobbies and play that work on that level of repetitive, enjoyable, minimalist activity.
Here's the thing that worries me a bit about grinding in WoW as opposed to real life grinding; when you are done, y'aint got nothin' to show for it. Yes, I know. I'm making a distinction (again) between real and virtual, between the value of play in one realm and the value of play in another. And what, really, is the value difference between a magical sword of swashbuckling +9 and a shiny ball of dirt?
Well... the shiny ball of dirt lives in two places; the real world, and the world of imagination. It has both intrisic, physical value, and metaphoric, implied value. What troubles me, to a certain extent, about the products of pure "grind time" in MMOs/VWs, is that they have, essentially, no intrinsic value.
That need not be the case. In Second Life, for example, if you want something, you can't grind for it (excepting the practice of camp/money chairing, which I find irrational and frightening on some subcoscious level); you have to earn it or build it. Earning it generally means doing something in-game that amounts to roleplaying, which may be grinding (to you), but will both develop some kind of social skill, and provide a service to others. Building an object will improve your 3D building, Photoshop, Poser or scripting skills. There may be many other ways that a game/VW system could put "grind time" to use in ways that actually improved the player, rather than just click-click-clicking on the bar to get a pellet.
Again... I don't have a problem with the push-bar-get-pellet program. I enjoy it, too. But at the end of the summer, it's nice to say, "Look fewer weeds," or, "See? Sweater for baby." At the end of the game, it would be nice to say, "Hey... I'm marginally better at Photoshop," or "I helped organize assets in order to build a huge 3D replica of the Taj Mahal."
Also... I've often noticed that what people enjoy doing most in games is different than what they do during the day at work. Manage people in an office environment at the strategy level? Probably not going to want to be a guild leader and do that crap on your down time. Spend all day without any contact with people in a solo job where contact with others is limited? You're probably going to want to be as social as possible. Is "The Man" keeping you down? Go PvP baby.
Posted Aug 5, 2006 8:36:30 PM | link
Andy, great post, but prepare for the gankage when the economists weigh in.
Posted Aug 5, 2006 10:36:34 PM | link
You didn't have to pay for the privelage of pulling out your own weeds.
If grindy MMOGs were free, maybe I'd have a little more charity in my heart.
MUDs were just as grindy, and that didn't stop people from playing them. *shrugs* Though, Nato Welch may have a point. I find it hard to believe that factors in, though.
Posted Aug 6, 2006 4:15:35 AM | link
More troubling than 'empty grinding' to me is the way the MMORPGs like WoW reinforce a rabid drive to acquire *things* and the way they implicitly promote the notion that acquisition of stuff is the road to personal betterment.
Posted Aug 6, 2006 12:11:39 PM | link
Andy, I disagree that there isn't grinding in SL. For content creators, sure, working in PSP is creative, hard work that you can't "grind at". You've got to "skill your human" on that one.
But many of the other types of labour in SL like the land business and various services have plenty of Zen-like grind to do which I personally find immensely satisfying -- because it leads to sales with real money that really cashes out, even if in micropayments that take awhile to add up. I totally agree with the OP that there really is a deep Satoric joy in these tasks. In RL, I'd have to go back to my long-ago jobs like sorting mail at the Post Office or weeding my garden or cleaning up mailing lists to find just quite that reward-for-grinding feel.
You're right, most games don't leave you anything satisfactory for the grind. When I finally get the Afghan dog after culling pets for hours in TSO or buying them aftering skill-grinding or money-making in the monotonous job-objects, I don't keep that inner being satisfaction for long, because I can't really get anybody else to enjoy the Afghan dog with me except inside the game. And frankly, the being-joy wanes in a few days as I look around and realize that ok, I've got the Afghan dog, but somebody else has the Tiger Cat, and I really need to go after that if I want to be in the elite.
In vain, do I try to impress the folks at work or the family reunion that I have that Afghan dog. My Afghan dog still lies in inventory on the TSO servers, exemplary of days of grind and cull, but who enjoys his beloved shaggy face and silken bark? I'm torn between thinking I better go and try to get *all the stuff* to reach perfection or be eternally doomed to *never having even half the stuff*. My son once commented to me about a guy he saw who was at the very apex of Runescape and had all the skills and rares that he must be bored because he had nothing left to do except scramble to be on top -- that flatness was something felt he didn't want to experience. He opted to leave Runescape and leave some of that top aspirational stuff empty and unfulfilled so that he could ever retain in his heart that feeling of a prize still to be gotten in Runescape, so that it's magic wouldn't diminish for him.
In SL, however, there is *real life money to be made*. I can put out rental boxes, which can get tedious adjusting their various terms, I can push excess prims off, check prims, answer routine correspondence, and keep 10 other windows going. The great thing about SL rentals is that I can be on a RL work conference call and if someone needs their TV deeded or has their lot prim-bombed by kids who need to be ejected, I can go and click and push with minimal thought and effort, just as I might have once kept Yahoo's Librarian and its burning letters going on a screen while I listened to someone drone through their monthly reports.
Gosh, if only there was a way to turn off that ambient noise in SL like the "kaching" of the cash register and the "dink" of rezzing stuff while online on Skype talking at work. They really need to work on that.
I could never pursue my chosen SL occupation if it didn't so easily meld with work and kids and relatives calling and constant interruptions. SL is the multi-taskers' dream. And if you come home from work after a long day of difficult meetings, it's very soothing to just go around putting vacant lots into SEARCH and having them "kaching" with an occupany a few hours later. I love it, and so do thousands of other people doing this sort of thing there.
Posted Aug 6, 2006 7:01:28 PM | link
"More troubling than 'empty grinding' to me is the way the MMORPGs like WoW reinforce a rabid drive to acquire *things* and the way they implicitly promote the notion that acquisition of stuff is the road to personal betterment."
Yes, and the road to getting stuff is long, tedious and repetitious. Some conspiracy minded individuals theorize that first person shooters are created by the army to raise a generation of computer savvy killers for future service. If you extend that logic to MMOG's you end up with a scenario where giant business conglomerates are raising a generation of mindless worker drones.
Posted Aug 7, 2006 7:24:54 AM | link
lewy> If you extend that logic to MMOG's you end up with a scenario where giant business conglomerates are raising a generation of mindless worker drones.<
Or maybe acquisition addicted consumer drones? I don’t think that requires any conscious conspiracy theory though. Just the observation that Diku MUDs are a successful abstraction of the familiar “consumer game”. With the office grind being replaced by the monster grind. MMOGs need “grind” because we come to them already convinced that acquisition without effort is “wrong”.
Posted Aug 7, 2006 12:08:24 PM | link
What would the "anti-grind" look like? An MMO based on mercy and/or grace, humility, or poverty-as-virtue for example?
Interesting. The World of Beatitudes Craft.
Posted Aug 7, 2006 3:09:03 PM | link
Great post. It's good to see someone point out that there can be pleasure in grind activity.
I spend most of my days managing software developers. It requires a lot of interaction with difficult people, which for an introvert like me is pretty stressful. To de-stress, I like to do creative/abstract/theoretical stuff -- I "work" in my head, developing systems. That's fun for me.
And yet both of those things call for constantly focused mental effort, and sometimes that just gets tiring. Which means there are times when it's satisfying and pleasurable to "switch the brain off" and do some simple, repetitive, manual task. The brain gets a rest but I still accomplish something.
In that sense, the PvE grind has some value. Why, then, is grinding still routinely considered a problem instead of a virtue?
My guess is that it's because many MMOGs implement grinding as a viable way to advance in the main game. Instead of being something you can do when you want a break from the main game, grinding is made either a way -- or even the way -- to get ahead in the game world.
If it's "the" way to advance (i.e., the only way), then only Achievers will play the game; the Explorers and Socializers aren't interested in full-time grinding. If those kinds of players matter, then grinding is a serious problem.
But even if it's just "a" way to advance, you'll still have people doing it full-time (and getting tired of it and complaining about it) because the other ways to advance are perceived as more complicated. Some (many?) people will choose the straight line path between two points, even if it's much slower than a path that requires planning.
It would be interesting to see more MMOGs designed so that grindish activities didn't contribute to primary ability advancement, but were ways to accomplish simple but useful tasks (like pulling weeds) that you could do to take a break from "work."
Clearly, every serious MMOG needs some kind of fishing mini-game. ;-)
Posted Aug 7, 2006 4:07:25 PM | link
"I'd sit on our lawn, literally for hours at a time, tracing the stems of creeping, flowering weeds to their tap roots and then pulling them out. It was indescribably satisfying, this mindless task. When I found a particularly wide ranging cluster and yanked it out by the roots, I felt triumphant."
Sounds a lot like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to me.
"The typical OCD sufferer performs tasks (or compulsions) to seek relief from obsessions. To others, these tasks may appear odd and unnecessary. But for the sufferer, such tasks can feel critically important, and must be performed in particular ways to ward off dire consequences and to stop the stress from building up."
Of course, suggesting that "the grind" may contribute to a psychological disorder on a pro-MMORPG website isn't going to win many friends. Flame on.
Posted Aug 7, 2006 4:38:29 PM | link
Like most of you, I spend my entire working day looking at the PC. Then the communicating part of my day looking at a PC. When I finally get to the enjoyable bit of my day I want something that excites me, that stimulates me. When I need Zen like mindless activity I do something that is at least productive to my everyday life: washing dishes, fencing drills, gym, clean up, meditate... there are PLENTY of plugged-out activities I can do off the PC, and frankly if I want zen I'd rather not do it in the same posture I do the rest of my stuff during the day, with my eyes getting redder, and headache getting worse. There is a body attached to that PC and it needs far more off-PC time than I give it. My internal damage control beeps faintly yet frequently. No matter how many angles I try to take on it, the idea of plugging out while looking at a screen doing mindless things in WoW just does not make any sense...to me. But that's just a subjective opinion to a subjective post.
What does bother me is that repetitive quests and tasks are the main (if not only) activity in WoW, not to mention the only way to get ahead. If you guys are happy doing repetitive mindless tasks, that's great, but let's have that as one option of activity, not the only option. Give the rest of us something non-mindless to do, PRIOR to end-game raiding. Give the rest of us something more tactical/puzzle like/exilerating than kill x owlbeasts, or retrieve item y from mob z from level 1 to level 60. I EXPECT other options from an MMOG of WoW's stature (for example). Let's not even start talking about the options available to me at 60 when not a mega raid...
Get into a battleground! I hear a couple of voices at the back yell. Ok fair enough I'm given a modest mini-game to occupy my time. But even that mini-game is laden with the fruits of the grind. The grinding epic christmas tree is going to be no match for my non-grindy half blue half green self. So even in the mini-game, it's not a matter of my personal skill, but a result of my grinding power. Excitement gone down the drain again.
Fair enough, grinding is the new needle-point. But to take the issue out of the subjective "I like this and I like that" discussion, does it have to be needle-point for all?
Posted Aug 7, 2006 5:52:14 PM | link
I couldn't agree more with the original post. For years now I've been making the point on various EQ boards, and often in in-game conversions, that playing EQ is the virtual equivalent of whittling or knitting. I consider EQ and similar MMOs to be primarily something I do with my hands while listening to the radio or chatting.
I used to make mirrors. It was a great hobby. I mainly used driftwood and found objects, so it allowed me to spend hours beachcombing, followed by hours sanding, varnishing and polishing - all zen-like activities. After a couple of years, though, I had a house full of mirrors and people kept suggesting I start to find a market for them, exhibit them, or otherwise find some use for them. Making mirrors ceased to be a relaxing, mind-freeing passtime and became another mildly annoying kind of "work".
It seems to me that the absence of a final, physical product makes MMOs more satisfying in this respect than equivalent real-world activities. You don't end up with an endless succession of jerseys and scarves that make your relatives dread the thought of a package from you; you don't fill your house with countless lumps of wood in the shape of animals that collect dust and annoy your wife; your end result is neatly invisible and intangible.
There is a huge market for real-world activities like this - ScoubiDou, Beading, Airfix Modelling, Kniting, Needlepoint, Painting-by-Numbers, Wordsearch, Whittling...I have always seen PvE MMOs as primarily an addition to this genre of activities, even in the more apparently "active" or "thrilling" aspects. Only PvP (which I strongly dislike) seems to me to step outside the category of virtual thumb-twiddling, by dint of it's relative unpredictability, lack of control and potential for making you feel strong emotions unwillingly.
Posted Aug 7, 2006 7:13:02 PM | link
Call that a grind? Tuh! If it had been true grindage then the roots would have got thinner and more fragile as you got better at it, plus the density of available weeds would have shrunk just as it took longer and longer to remove each one.
After a while, you would have had to queue for each weed behind a bunch of other folks, taking your turn every time it regrew.
Eventually, it would have required you and thirty-nine neighbours, with exact balances of gender, race, religion and income-group, each equipped with only the most expensive of gardening gloves and garden shears, up to three hours to complete the task. Only one person would have been allowed to actually pull the weed and another to hold it for the rest of the time spent removing it, while a third person would constantly swear at the top of their voice at people not to stand on any other weeds. Nobody want want any left-handed people around, as they are gimped.
Posted Aug 8, 2006 9:45:28 AM | link
The appeal for grinding is the same for gambling: infrequent positive reinforcement with minimal investment.
Mindless grinding for drops is the same, whether it's hitting the slots or the instances.
Is this "bad" for the player? Only if immersion to the expense of "real life" is deemed "bad."
Anyway, I still hold the contention that MMORPG's are just primarily grown men playing with dolls. Virtually every player action in the game is aimed at the ultimate goal to get new clothes and accessories for the "doll." Er, I mean G.I. Joe. Er, I mean "action figure." Er, I mean "avatar."
Not that there's anything wrong with 29 yr. old men making US$60K annually rushing home to play Barbies with their friends.
Posted Aug 8, 2006 1:15:40 PM | link
The idea that the work-reward cycle isn’t the only motivator behind players of most MMORPGS is something I hadn’t considered. Thanks for the insight.
But I can’t help wondering: are MMORPGS attractive in a different way? You cite Katamari as a non-MMO example, but is it only less attractive in that it lacks the social interaction? And if so, is that social interaction more satisfying than an IRC client plugged into Katamari would be? Why?
Posted Aug 8, 2006 2:28:07 PM | link
People find enjoyment in different pastimes. Some grown men play with virtual dolls on the computer. Some grown men throw balls and hit them with sticks down at the baseball field along with friends. Some grown men roll balls down a lane with the goal of knocking down things down at the bowling alley. And don't forget grown women, who have their pastimes too.
It's all activities we find enjoyment in, and I hardly see a difference between them, save that they grant a feeling of well-being to those who participate. Hopefully. :)
Posted Aug 9, 2006 8:36:46 AM | link
>MMOGs need “grind” because we come to them already convinced that acquisition without effort is “wrong”.<
Acquisition without effort is just illogical in the context of a game. My gripe is that the effort in MMOG's is boring and tedious. Recently I've become addicted to Guitar Hero. I "force" myself to play an hour each day and the hour inevitably stretches out to two or three because the gameplay is so fun. (I force myself because I get together to play with friends on weekends and a friend's wife is becoming insanely good. I refuse to be clobbered by someone with Hello Kitty stickers on her guitar--a mere beatdown is far more palatable.) There's effort involved in practicing, but the effort is itself gratifying. I finally got five stars on expert mode for "Stellar" yesterday and when I saw my score I let out a whoop--I was concentrating so intently that I had no idea how well I was doing until the song was over. By contrast in MMOG's people pay other people to level their characters.
"It's all activities we find enjoyment in, and I hardly see a difference between them, save that they grant a feeling of well-being to those who participate."
For a male playing football is inherently respectable. Playing with dolls isn't, so there is no small amount of irony there.
Appearance does matter. If the graphics for the most uber equipment in WoW was changed to look like a clown suit the bitching on the player forums would reach a fever pitch.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 11:42:26 AM | link
"For a male playing football is inherently respectable. Playing with dolls isn't, so there is no small amount of irony there."
Many (not all) males play football because it is an evolved form of a primitive expression. You are the best male in the herd...at least, you aim to prove that.
Many (not all) males come home and play with "dolls" for the very same reason. There is no way to truly gauge which is the superior activity aside from public bias and stereotypes.
The male on the field is the one who was perhaps born with or is more inclined to physical domination, while the one behind the computer is more interested in mental domination.
On a side note, while some men are playing with dolls there are other men who, having no dolls of their own, like to just sit around and talk about men playing with dolls. Not that theres anything wrong with sitting around and writing...i mean talking about other men playing with dolls.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 2:38:37 PM | link
>Many (not all) males come home and play with "dolls" for the very same reason. There is no way to truly gauge which is the superior activity aside from public bias and stereotypes.
The male on the field is the one who was perhaps born with or is more inclined to physical domination, while the one behind the computer is more interested in mental domination.<
Public bias and stereotypes are precisely the issue however. Viewed in that context MMOG's are a distinctly unmanly pursuit which makes all of the juvenile posturing and strutting which participants often engage in even more ironic.
As for the mental domination part, I'd say that PvP rewards teamwork and cooperation first and foremost. By contrast the PvE raids I've been on have mostly been about rote memorization and drill.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 4:41:58 PM | link
I've done my own share of grinding in the past. There were times when it was soothing (like playing Civ 3 on the easiest setting) and allowed me to unwind. What originally attracted me to video games in general though was being able to take on abilities that I would never have in real life.
The MUD that I really cut my teeth on was a Diku derivative. I enjoyed exploring the world, finding new and more powerful equipment, trying out all of the skills and spells, and learning how to do my best with my current class. Once all of that content had been consumed though, it occured to me. Everything I was doing was ultimately meaningless.
I'm somewhere in the middle of gamer skill, meaning there are people better and worse than me. As long as I put in enough time, I could have the level 100 multi-remorted race and class I wanted. So could everyone else. My personal style, skill, and knowledge was inferior to the time spent grinding.
I don't think it's the mindlessness of grind that makes it hard for some of us to tolerate. It's the fact that the game could just be taking scripts I wrote and my character would do just as well. What about the excitement of testing my skill and guts against a powerful beast? Meh, I'm a level 100 paladin and this ghoul dies from 3 hits from my holy avenger. Click, click, click, next.
It's not the Zen-like moments that we regret, it's the moments when we feel that clicking the mouse is no more significant than if we were just tapping our fingers on the mousepad.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 5:12:33 AM | link