The Serotonin Machine: On Grinding



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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 copout 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.


Mark Filipowich

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich is a writer living in Canada. Most of his writing in the last few years has focused on videogame criticism, which can be found regularly on PopMatters and The Border House. He has also been featured in Medium Difficulty, Game Church, Unwinnable, Nightmare Mode and Joystick Division. He also maintains a personal blog at big-tall-words.com. If you enjoy his work you can buy him a coffee this month through his Patreon.