Grinding gameplay: actions vs choices

In RPGs there is a certain amount of time that a player must spend developing their character before they truly feel capable within their role. They must acquire; mechanical finesse in order to command their character, skills to modify the basic mechanics of the character to make them unique, and equipment to make them stronger. However, when this gameplay becomes a series of repetitive and tedious actions required to unlock the content that the player wishes to play it is known as grinding.

(Leveling up the Archery skill in Skyrim)

An example of excessive grinding can be seen in World of Warcraft. During the points in between unlocking major skills, the player must spend countless hours running through the same instances and dungeons looking for a specific piece of gear or simply because said dungeon is the best opportunity to farm xp (experience points). This robotic style of gameplay removes meaningful choice since the player is only following a calculated formula for success.

It is clear that some level of work will need to be done if a player wants to grow their character in a video game, this parallels the labor one must put in to grow their personal skills in the real world. It is important for both game designers and players to recognize the flaws in grinding as a gameplay experience.  Nothing more quickly douses the flame of excitement in a player than finding out that they must grind in order to have the experience they wish to play.

(MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft have had to face the difficult challenge of designing unique quests to combat the fatigue that comes from grinding)

Some games feature the ability to re-spec or re-specialize meaning that at some point, typically later in the game, the player will be able to reallocate their skills in order to experiment with different playstyles. This serves as a gentle layer of forgiveness over a players choices by not saying “you must start over”, but rather “here, you may use your progress in a different manner if you so choose”. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, allows you to do this through an expensive potion, Dark Souls 3 allows you to re-spec through the use of a difficult to obtain item. Giving the player the chance to skip past the grinding stages is an important step in providing the player with a rewarding gameplay experience.

(Re-specing in Dark Souls III)

Other genres have found ways to remove the burden of grinding through clever designs. One such genre is MOBAs; within which the player gets to enjoy the early game, mid game, and late game of a character, without investing a large amount of time grinding through repetitive tasks.

An important distinction between work and play, what we typically use to differentiate labor from flow, is choice. If the player is simply taking actions without making meaningful choices they are doing work. Just as a person will quit their job and seek out a more meaningful career if their work is unfulfilling and lacks challenge; so too will players quit games to seek out gameplay which features less grind and more play.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.

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