MMOGs: we grind because we love it

Grinding: all massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) have it. Some more than others, but it is always there. Go forth and slay 50 rats. Collect 10 copper pieces, 32 rat pelts, 19 rat tails. Turn in same. Repeat 245 times. Graduate to killing skeletons. Repeat 895 times. Ding! You leveled! Now go forth and slay 2,655 ghouls…. It is like factory work, but without the pay cheque. In fact, we actually pay someone else for the privilege of doing this, and call it “entertainment”.

You’d think we’d hate it, that these types of games would never catch on, yet tens of millions of players log in every day, strap on their virtual swords, and head out to slay another few thousand denizens of the countryside in pursuit of the elusive level. Every new massively multiplayer online game that comes out perpetuates the grinding “feature”. It is weird, doubly so because I seem to be afflicted by the same behavioral quirk as all the millions of people playing MMOGs. There has to be some reason why…

The best explanation I’ve found of why so many of us put up with it was in this article on Wired that I read earlier today. Here is a quote that sums it up:

there’s something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you’ll level up. It doesn’t require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you’ll do better; play 50, you’ll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.

The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this. Many are precisely the opposite, in fact. When you go to your job at the office, there’s little or no linkage between effort and achievement: You slave like a madman all year long, only to watch the glad-handing frat guy hired two months ago get promoted above you. And if you’re a really serious nerd, the logic that governs interpersonal relationships — marriage, kids, your parents — is even more abstruse: Things can actually get worse the more time and effort you put into them.

But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can’t believe what a totally awesome deal we’re getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.

That actually makes a lot of sense to me. I suspect that a majority of gamers who play games like WoW, EverQuest 2, Age of Conan and so on would hear the truth in these words, if they were honest with themselves. But something tells me that most of us wouldn’t admit we actually like grinding.

6 thoughts on “MMOGs: we grind because we love it”

  1. I don’t know whether people “love it”… addicted gamblers do not really love gambling, but their pleqasure centres are triggered at just the right tima and just the right amount to create a feed back loop. In nature, our mokey ancestors never had to deal with reward stimulus that came in standard amounts with predictable regularity.

    I don’t have much interest in games that require “grinding” because I can get reward stimulus at work, or in my garden or building something for the house.

    Plants don’t play politics, wood and screws don’t suddenly up and leaveto have their emotional needs met. Rewards *are* proportional to the effort involved and are real, tangible and often lasting in the real physical world.

    Personally, this trumps any satisfaction I may get from leveling up.

    Which of course is why I don’t really play MMOG’s I guess; my brain isn’t wired the ‘right’ way. I do play BF2, and I do get satisfaction on the days I do well as opposed to the days I just spawn, die, and spew friendly fire 😉

    But for the most part, it, like all computer games is a “mindless” diversion, the mental equivalent of Jogging or swimming laps vs competing in an actual race.

  2. You aren’t a MMO gamer, Chris, so your perspective is not really what the article I refer to was targeted towards. The 20 million or so gamers who do play massively multiplayer online games are the ones who keep coming back to the grind. That’s what it was talking about.

    As for working in the yard: how much meaning or “tangibility” you derive from it is purely your perspective. I personally find it rather pointless: I can put in 40 hours in the yard, or I can hire someone for a day and they can accomplish the same thing. The “mindless” action of pushing a plant into the dirt is far less enjoyable to me than the “mindless” action of shooting a collection of lifelike pixels with my virtual gun. You’ve been conditioned to see a greater value in that dirt and that plant, but I’ve been conditioned differently.

    I also think you missed the point that the *only* thing that differentiates successful MMOG players from unsuccessful ones is time. Nothing else: not talent, not money, not reflexes, not looks, and not luck. Just time. If I put in 40 hours in the yard, I’ll end up with something rather ugly. But someone who has a talent for such things can accomplish much more in a fraction of the time. If I put in 400 hours, my result will still be ugly. Likewise if I try to sketch, play the guitar, craft a cabinet, or sing. If I spend thousands of hours, I might discover that I am one of the 0.00001% of the population who can uncover a hidden talent through overwhelming effort- given the percentages, though, it is far more likely that I’ll discover I’m a talentless schmuck.

    Not so with MMOGs. Talent, with some exceptions like running a guild, planning combat strategies, or managing a large raid, has almost nothing to do with it. The direct relationship between time invested and results is quite a bit different from anything in “real” life. I’m not saying this “grind” aspect makes MMOGs wonderful: quite the contrary. But the idea that it is the direct correlation between the repetitive action and the consistently “rewarding” result that draws players in is intriguing to me. And the question raised as to whether you could have a successful MMOG without the grind is particularly interesting: thus far, the answer seems to be “no”.

    As an aside, I find your comment about games being a mindless diversion, like the relationship between jogging “and an actual race” humorous. To me, there is nothing more pointless than competitive sport. Jogging or swimming laps is the important part, competing is just a an ego trip. And interestingly, in MMOs I’m not that fond of grinding to be “first to max level”: I prefer the exploring, the story, the discovery of the world more than I enjoy the cool loot or level. The journey rather than the “winners podium”, the jogging rather than competing in the race. Note that I’m not saying that I am not competitive: as you know, quite the contrary is true. I just don’t go looking for it.

  3. I know I don’t play MMO’s but I still think my opinion has value; specifically because I serve as a control, as someone that knows what a MMORG is but doesn’t play MMORG’s.

    I think the article is a good explanation of why I don’t play… I don’t get any reward out of the “grind”. None. Zippo. It simply does not activate the reward centres of my brain. It’s like Kirk in the last Trek movie before he died… when he jumped the horse and realized none of it was real because he wasn’t afraid. And all those games require me to expend vast amounts of time on something I get absolutely no enjoyment out of.

    He got no sense of satisfaction or reward out of it. And that’s the way my brain works… Again, that isn’t to say it’s better. I also can’t spend 80 hours bludgeoning a problem to death like you can. Just wired different.

    I’m not saying there is a problem with getting a sense of reward from Grinding, but I must say it is a shame that we can’t figure out a way to give people that same sense of reward in the real, as opposed to virtual, world.

    Is the satisfaction gained from Grinding a universal function? Or is it just that because all the games feature grinding they attract a certain type of neurology? Are computer gamers in general predisposed to that sort of reward stimulus mechanism.

    Again to refer to gambling: both you and I have been in the casino, played a bit of money and went “meh.” We don’t get anything out of it. Obviously massive numbers of people do … and that to is similar in terms of repetitive action leading to “reward.” Talent has nothing to do with it… but their are factors of chance and a delusional thought that one can beat the odds long term that differ.

    Maybe Grinding applies to gamblers that want a sure thing? But still don’t concern themselves with the physical mature of the reward. Gamblers always talk about winning, but never mention how much they spent. Grinders – probably- never really ask themselves what sort of accomplishment they really have achieved. After all if it is only a factor of time, not skill, talent or luck all that they have achieved is to show how long they spent in front of a computer doing a repetitive task instead of doing something else.

    For me, the very fact that anyone, given enough time, can achieve the same thing.. that a bot could achieve it… means to me it *isn’t* an achievement. I get no sense of accomplishment. Thus no reward, no enjoyment. Again, for me, its much like playing a slot machine … even when I win $20 I remember I paid $25 and haven’t achieved anything.

    As for the comparison to jogging or swimming laps vs an actual race, I wasn’t referring to the competition but to the existence of clear goals and objectives. ( In other words, there is no pretense of achievement like I mentioned in the previous paragraph. The pleasure is in the activity itself.)

    A guy out jogging ( not training ) is just exercising his muscles. He’s kind of got his body on idle, keeping it active but not really demanding any specific objective from it.

    For me, the games I play are the mental equivalent. They do require that I use my mental faculties… most all my recreational activities do. Like you I’ve got great brain, crappy physique 😉 I find that “natural athletes” tend to still do athletic things to relax, they just don’t have any particular goals or benchmarks or things that they have to achieve.

    So for me “mindless” games are like that: I use my brain but I’m not *working* my brain. I guess another analogy might be the difference between singing on a stage or recording studio, and singing in the shower just for the hell of it. All three are singing, but the singer probably finds the last less stressful and more relaxing.

  4. Don’t mistake me, Chris- I wasn’t saying you weren’t entitled to your opinion. Rather, I was saying that the article wasn’t about “why everyone should enjoy grinding”, but rather “why do people who enjoy MMOGs tolerate the grinding?” Since you don’t enjoy massively multiplayer games, it is sort of a moot point in your case. Sort of like an article asking “why do people who love gardening put up with all the annual replanting?” My response, although valid in itself, wouldn’t really be germane to the question itself 🙂

    What the article says has some truth for people who *do* enjoy MMOGs. I don’t particularly enjoy grinding, but just like with wood carving, practicing the guitar, or learning to dance: you have to “grind” to get to the good stuff 😉 With MMOGs, the grinding in and of itself delivers the “improvement”: you aren’t really honing a skill, and as such everyone is on a equal playing field. Unlike those other things I mentioned that require grinding, no special skill will suddenly catapult you over everyone else.

    Would I have stuck at practicing the piano if I *knew*, with near certainty, that I could achieve mastery with (say) 1000 hours of practice? Quite probably. Instead, I realized after perhaps 500 hours that, even after 10,000 hours, I’d still be at best “adequate”. Yet someone with a moderate amount of talent or someone who started practicing at 5 when their brain and nervous system was still malleable could be “adequate” after 500 hours. Is that really even handed or fair? Probably not, but that describes most of life- the piano effort may have been worth it, just to test myself, but the result was not unexpected. MMOG grinding is comforting in that regard: predictable, even handed, fair- put your time in, you can rest assured of a certain level of progress. That is what the article’s thesis is. It is a point of view I hadn’t really assembled in quite that way myself.

    “the pleasure is in the activity itself”. I think that is a key phrase. Truthfully, very few people have any great talent at anything. The lucky ones find a small number of things that genuinely give them pleasure simply through the doing. To go back to my piano learning exercise- if I felt true joy every time I sat down and plinked my stumbling way through a piece of trivial music, that would have been another reason to stick at it. Instead, I heard every missed note as a failure. The act of making bad music didn’t inspire joy: only when the music was “good” did I feel happy in the process.

    Interestingly, I liken the things you derive enjoyment out of- say, building a pond, or planting some shrubbery, to “mechanical” actions: they can be performed by machines. Doing them poorly (which is what I would do) wouldn’t inspire joy. Likewise, you say the things I derive enjoyment from are “mechanical”: computer games in this case. Even when I play a computer game poorly I, for the most part, still extract some joy from the process.

    Probably part of that is that I don’t see any particular superiority to something being “in the real world”. The things I can do in the real world are as transient as the things I do in a virtual or non-physical world. You place greater value on the physical thing because it interests you more. I place less value on it because it interests me less. I respect people with real world skills, but that doesn’t mean I have any desire to emulate them. At least partly because I’ve learned that trying physical things leads to disappointment and frustration for me.

    I craft a piece of software, or an application design, or an infrastructure configuration. It has no physical existence, yet I am every bit as satisfied and proud of it as you are of your garden or what have you. Even the frustrations are “enjoyable”, because I know I can overcome them. Yet because what I craft is non-physical, I am called to task to defend what I do. “Why can’t you do something useful like dig a ditch or build a bridge?” Is the bridge intrinsically more valuable, more important? According to some, yes.

    The games I play are a casual extension of that for me. In the same way that writing a personal journal might be for a professional writer, the computer games I play exercise some of the same mental muscle that writing software does.

    All people with much in the way of mental capacity needs some “down time”. For some that means completely changing domains: if their day job is quantum physics, when they get home they want to refinish their dining room table or build lawn furniture. For another person, it might simply downshifting: quantum physics during the day, soduko when they get home. But generally the “relax” or down time activity is less stressful, less goal oriented, more personal.

    Just because what someone does, whether in their “day job” or for fun, produces something physical doesn’t mean it is “better”, at least not in my perception of the world. I suppose if a person’s day job was digging ditches and their “relax” job was working in a shelter helping junkies recover from heroin addiction, they could have some sense of moral superiority about their “pastime”. But planting something in a real garden versus something in a virtual one? Both serve primarily to bring enjoyment/relaxation/comfort to the person organizing the garden, and in my perspective neither has any particular claim to superiority.

    I’ve meandered all over the place here- typical for talking about opinions and emotions. In conclusion:

  5. “Probably part of that is that I don’t see any particular superiority to something being “in the real world”. The things I can do in the real world are as transient as the things I do in a virtual or non-physical world. You place greater value on the physical thing because it interests you more. I place less value on it because it interests me less. I respect people with real world skills, but that doesn’t mean I have any desire to emulate them. At least partly because I’ve learned that trying physical things leads to disappointment and frustration for me.”

    Someone who writes a peice of software is creating something. Someone that performs well on stage is creating something, be that something as intangible as the enjoyment of the audience members.

    Honestly, you respect somone with real world skills… do have as much respect for someone who’s claim to fame is that they are an umptieth level shaman in WOW?

    Knowing full well that anyone that put in the same amount of time could be an umptieth level shaman, and knowing that except within the specified confines of one virtual game world none of the powers or abilities inherent in that title will do anyone any good?

    To me it’s more than just that it’s physical or real world ( and remember that can things quite intaqngible,) it’s that the reward of grinding, doesn’t have a lot of value. As you say, you don’t put 1000’s of hours into practicing piano because even if you did, you would still probably be mediocre. You don’t feel rewarded. Similarily I can’t imagin spending 1000’s of hours grinding to become the highest level shaman WoW has ever seen, because I don’t see much point to being the highest level shaman ever.

    On the other hand, I can spend hours running around getting blown to bits in BF2 ( kill ration is about 5-1 in favour of the other guys 🙂 ) and I don’t care if I get new moves, or weapons really. I just enjoy running around getting blown up 😀

    I suspect the fellow did hit the nail on the head, that people grind because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. Obvioulsy a lot of peopleget that sense, and they also, judging by the tone of the writer, don’t get that sense in the rest of their lives.

    Which to me is unfortunate, because I tend to think that it’s a waste of skills talent and potential. Society tends to only reward and recognize superlative performance ( or the ability to lie about it convincingly )

    In your comments above you talk about the average person not really being good at much of anything or lacking talent etc etc. I don’t accept that. They may never stand out from teh grand mass of humanity, because they are “average”, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot do good and worthwile things, and indeed excel in their own particular manner.
    Oh well, I have to go and excel at work … break time is over! 😉

  6. You raise good points, Chris- interesting discussion!

    I agree that an upteenth level shaman in WoW doesn’t impress me as much as someone with certain real world skills. However, it *does* impress me more or less as much as a golfer who plays below par, a weekend softball player who holds the league title for most consecutive outs, a gardner who’s petunias are the biggest on the block, a card player with the highest bridge score, or anything else of that nature. Fairly or not, I rate those kinds of “pastime” abilities no better than I do a virtual pastime.

    Where do I draw the line between a simple pastime and something that really is “valuable”? I don’t have any written rules, but like art, “I know it when I see it” 🙂

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