This is the kind of question that you should never ask in the real-world public domain. The terms ‘grind’ and ‘grinder’ have entirely different consequences when said to 20 virtual people in a room. A gamer will openly tell you they have been grinding for the past six hours and only made seven gold and two levels out of it. A man in a pub will punch you and you’ll end up in the Daily Mail.
So what is grinding? In a nutshell, it’s when a player carries out the same task repeatedly in order to gain progression (such as experience or money.) MMORPG is the genre that comes up often when discussing grinding as these games tend to have a prolonged method of reaching the end of the game. World of Warcraft is often cited as a popular ‘grindy’ game, with 90 levels to complete and the endgame require the best gear which is gained by playing the same dungeons over and over again until you get the gear item you need.
There are two important questions to ask when discussing grinding. The first is: what constitutes grinding? Isn’t playing Call of Duty over and over again grinding? You’re just running around shooting other players on the same maps in the same game modes and levelling up as you go. Civilization V has you building the same farms and researching tech in the same fashion for the entire game, whoever does it fastest wins. Are these games ‘grindy’ games? I’d say not.
Let’s put into a real world context: you go to your job five days a week for eight hours a day. In your job, you most likely carry out the same tasks on a regular basis with little variation and at the end of the month you get money. Because you are rewarded with the money (and maybe status) you continue to work at the job, maybe levelling up when you get enough experience for a promotion. A yeah, then there’s the saying “the daily grind”. Especially for street cleaners.
If we look at the above examples and accept them as a grind then we make the term ‘grind’ useless in terms of gaming. You can’t criticise or praise a game for having grindy content if almost every game falls under that umbrella, so how else can we define it? How about environmental outcomes? If you do something in a game, it should affect the environment. Destroying a castle should result in that castle being permanently destroyed for that game instance. Here we hit a problem for multiplayer games, especially MMORPG, how the hell do you have six million players on wow permanently affecting the environment?
So does that settle it? Are MMORPGs grinding games? The answer is no, not at all. Just like my crotch, the packaging is where the true definition lies. We’ve established that most activity constitutes a grind and that it’s unfeasible to have environmental impact in multiplayer games. The way tasks are presented to the player has the biggest impact on how the player responds. Hands up if you ever played a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) and you’ll know what I mean. You didn’t level up by completing quests and doing group runs, you just killed hundreds of the exact same monsters in the exact same fashion over and over again to gain enough levels to progress.
People forget that playing the game should be entertaining; you shouldn’t just get satisfaction with levelling up. Mists of Pandaria, the latest WOW expansion, seems to understand this. Blizzard have included more cutscenes and environmental action than ever before, the “Kill x number of harpies” quests are still there but it is packaged in a way where you can usually find something to keep it fresh.
Another point to consider is skill; does a game with grindy element help create a more balanced world? A game where you have to level up to 60 to reach endgame rewards means that the more skilled players will get there first and compete with each other, rather than dominating lesser skilled players who will still get there, but at a later date. Would having no progression mean that the lesser skilled players get outcompeted and won’t be able to benefit from a game? Counter-strike seems to do well and Guild Wars 2 has done well with little endgame gear progression.
The second question is “Is it fun?” Well this again depends on packaging and presentation. If a game is interesting to play– progression aside- then does grinding matter at all? Even if you have to collect fifteen rocks in order to gain experience, as long as it is done in a creative and enjoyable manner there’s no problem. Let’s bring our real-world analogy back: the best companies to work for are the ones who make their workplace as dynamic and enjoyable as possible, Google are renowned for this as are Valve. The employees of Google and Valve still carry out the same work that anyone in their field would do, they write code, analyse systems and crunch numbers. The difference is that their workplace creates and environment where employees are happy to work and enjoy their job.
So there you go, forget the term grind. If a game is fun, it doesn’t matter if it has levelling or experience gaining mechanics, it’s fun damn it! Games that aren’t fun don’t always have grindy mechanics either; just try playing Duke Nukem Forever.