17.4.15

The Grind

Grinds come with three assumptions: that the work is fairly menial or obvious, that we’re working towards a specific reward, and that it’s killing our time with fire. As opposed to life, where we assume a certain blandness in the daily grind and the nine-to-five grind, games which don’t want to be branded as flaccid failures are typically designed with human pleasure in mind. Add feral raiders to the mix, and you might as well strap a futuristic nuclear rocket to the grind’s back, laughing maniacally when a containment tube bursts, showering toxic levels of radiation on any and all it touches.

In games, the rewards can be anything imaginable. At any Game Developer's Conference, there are usually at least two presentations dealing with statistically-verified psychological methods for making resonant rewards. Especially for retention (read: keeping player at computer, preferably meeting your company's monetization goals). Equally important is the pacing, the scheduling of reward. We’ll get to B.F. Skinner's well-known box – where a pigeon or rat is cajoled with a food pellet every 10 lever presses, then every 100, then every 1000 or so presses – and free will seems to evaporate as the animals press that one lever at astonishing rates.

When you combine rewards designed to feel truly epic, truly meaningful, with schedules that involve a dozen buttons to press, in thousands of unique patterns, you're close. When the payoffs for those rewards come only after weeks, months, or years of investment, great job! You have a grind.

I did walk away from my years in Galaxies and Warcraft having met a lot of great people, going after swords and armor and whatever else. But I don’t remember a whole lot about the quests. Mostly they were just little puzzle pieces in the grind. And we’re talking something like five years in Warcraft. In three hours, the game Dear Esther gave me chills.

The indie game developer Jon Blow made a comment that I’ve always enjoyed, likening the length of games to abduction,

A movie can give you a satisfying experience in 2 hours. A painting or a sculpture can give you a satisfying experience in 10 minutes. A song can give you a satisfying experience in 3 minutes...Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome? If you spend 20 hours playing a game, but the good parts could have been condensed into 3, then didn’t you just waste 17 hours?

The design of a beautiful experience has a lot to do with how you arrange rewards, you might even say that the two are intertwined. But in some games it's clear that art – or even fun – wasn't so high a priority on a developer's list as retention. Joseph Campbell once warned against that kind of repetition, in literature. That, "the story tradition becomes so narrowed that, like an artery that is clogged, the heart begins to starve."

Game mechanics have Things to Teach, but we can’t get those things if we only ever use one bountiful recipe. Past a certain threshold, where certain games are best described in the language of human manipulation, they threaten their players personally. In our ability balance games with life. Developers might spend years building grinds. Publishers might spend half the budget on PR, to cleverly hawk grinds. Gamers may even spend thousands of hours clicking grinds. The only magic we find in them, we find in our fellow abductees.

Even though, at raid time, they can be the lobsters pulling us back down into the boiling pot.

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