Grinding - why we love (and hate) monotonous tasks

Diablo 3 grinding

You're probably familiar with the term "grinding". No, not the process of holding a coarse object against a grind stone, but the type of activity where we perform somewhat mindless tasks in pursuit of a goal. Why do we enjoy (or hate) grinding, and what characterizes a great grind?

Grinding, in games, occur for example when you need to get a certain number of enemies killed, resources collected, or experience points acquired, before you can advance further in the game.

Sometimes, especially in role playing games, some grinding may be required in order to align the player with certain milestones in the game. Since the player can't be entirely controlled in a huge open world, (as RPGs often have), they might end up in the next bossfight way before they are strong enough to take it on. Ideally, you would have wanted the player to automatically be at the right skill level by chunking up the gameplay into more tightly controlled sequences. Each sequence guaranteeing a minimal amount of skill advancement.

But, depending on development budget or resources, this might be difficult to do. Adding grinding tasks let's the player take the matter in their own hands. Some players like it, some hate it. After all, we have different tastes and preferences in gameplay and developers can't please everyone.

Other times, grinding is optional for those players who like to put in work to get ahead or make the game easier later on. Since the player can stop grinding any time they want, it creates variation and a feeling of control in the game world: "what kind of experience do I want right now?"

And then there's the grind that's forced upon us. It might be to increase the length of the game, or to cover up a lack of original game content or mechanics. I believe we players get increasingly aware of how we spend our time in games, and we get bored easily. We can sense when repetitive elements are there to try to trick us or waste our time.

Involuntary, poorly motivated grinding will hurt engagement both in a game and in life. Making it work is all about execution. Create an environment where grinding:

  • has a clear purpose.
  • leaves room for variation and surprise
  • gives enjoyable feedback
  • is voluntary
  • is not used in excess

The hard grind

I like to divide grinding into two categories: the hard and the relaxing grind. The hard grind is often also called "blissful productivity", because of the feeling of accomplishment we feel when engaged in it. The trademark of the hard grind is that it:

  • is partly or completely necessary in order to advance in the game
  • is challenging to some extent

The hard grind is more vulnerable to drop-outs because it demands focus and motivation. We put in work, in order to get a return. For an effective hard grind, we need instant and very clear feedback, regular rewards, and a goal that is desirable and achievable. Having these elements makes us willing to put in hard work, even for long periods of time, simply because we can see and feel our progress.

It may not always be blissful though. Sometimes, as you poker grinders out there can attest to, grinding is tedious, unfair and brutal. It puts our stamina and determination to the test. But if the system is well designed, we often deem our efforts worth it.

Another element to the hard grind is the social aspect. You might want to grind to get ahead of the competition, or just show off your status to other players to gain respect in the game. Being a hard worker is often perceived as admirable, both in real life and in games. Also, the hard grind can become more engaging in the form of a collaborative effort. Players in MMORPGs often help each other reach their daily grind quotas, and have a great time doing it.

The downside to hard grinding is that it's time consuming. As soon as we start to question the cost and return of the activity, we'll lose motivation. This is why hard grinding is not for everyone, and a lot of players refuse it completely.

The poker grind

The relaxing grind

In comparison to the hard grind, the relaxing grind is more casual and leisurely in nature. It's not required of us, nor is it very challenging. Examples of this are collecting resources in a MMORPG, (although getting past enemies might add some difficulty to it), or in physical reality, knitting or walking with a step counter.

The key ingredients to a pleasurable relaxing grind are, apart from the solid feedback system:

  • monotony, not requiring too much thinking or effort
  • an element of surprise, (this adds value to the hard grind as well)
  • a way for players to maximize their efficiency, as this creates a feeling of getting better at the game

There is a social aspect to this form of grinding as well. The grinding could act as a backdrop for a social gathering. Or, grinding for longer periods of time can be more enjoyable while at the same time talking to friends in the in-game chat.

The bottom line

We like repetitive tasks, but only if and when they clearly lead to a desirable result of some kind.

Any element of grinding must be well-portioned, well-designed and serve a purpose. When it is, this positive feeling of chipping away at a goal and gaining momentum is extremely powerful and should be incorporated into more aspects of our lives.