Grinding is a term used in gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive and/or non-entertaining gameplay in order to gain access to other features within the game. The most common usage is in the context of MMORPGs and console role-playing games, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Diablo II, in which it is often necessary for a character to repeatedly kill monsters, over and over again, in order to advance their character level to be able to access newer content. Grinding can also appear in other games in which features can be unlocked.
Synonyms for grinding include the figurative terms treadmilling (a comparison with exercise treadmills), pushing the bar (a reference to Skinner boxes in which animals, having learned that pushing a bar will sometimes produce a treat, will devote time to pushing the bar over and over again) and camping, a reference to "camping out" at a monster's spawn point in order to attack it as soon as it spawns or pops after being killed. Related terms include farming (in which the repetition is undertaken in order to obtain items, relating the activity to tending a farm field), and catassing (or poopsocking), which refers to extended or obsessive play sessions. Used as a noun, a grind (or treadmill) is a designed in-game aspect which requires the player to engage in grinding.
The most common form of level treadmill is the practice of killing monsters for experience points. The player constantly chases after the next level in order to be able to defeat the next slightly stronger monster. The outcome of MMORPG combat tends to depend more on the character's numerical statistics than the player's skill. Thus there is usually little for a player to do beyond clicking an attack button until he or she wins, or is forced to flee when nearing death. So whether fighting small rats or large demons, the player is performing essentially the same actions, the only difference being the larger numbers in his or her character and the monster's attributes. In the eyes of players, the player is essentially running forward while going nowhere, as on an exercise treadmill.
Why players grind
Several answers have been suggested for the question of why players grind. A major motivating factor is the player's desire to attain what appears to be the game's ultimate goal, which for many games is to reach the maximum level. There is usually little or no incentive for players to continually seek new challenges. Once they have found a means to reach their goal they will be averse to tackling new risks and instead repeatedly play through familiar content. Sometimes players might actually enjoy repetitive tasks as a way of relaxing, especially if performing the task has a persistent, positive result.
One reason that is less influenced by player choice is a lack of game content. If the player experiences all interesting content at the current level before reaching their next objective, the only alternative might be for the player to grind to the next level. "Interesting content" is key here since the player might have been given "new content" that is too similar to previous content to be considered interesting by the player. (Game designer Raph Koster gives an example of "Fireball VI" being uninteresting.)
The idea of having a designed in-game aspect which requires a player to not be entertained for a period of time seems contradictory to good sense, but has been justified in several different ways. The first is that it helps ensure a level playing field. According to the Pareto principle, players with better aim, faster reactions or more extensive tactical knowledge will quickly dominate the entire game, frustrating the now-powerless vast majority. Thus, by creating a direct correlation between in-game power and time spent grinding, every player will at least have the potential to reach the top 20% (although the Pareto principle will still apply to the amount of time spent grinding). This was explored further in Raph Koster's 2003 presentation Small Worlds.
To many critics, this attempt to guarantee an enjoyable experience to all players is exactly what is wrong with the concept of grinding: it is designed to diminish the effects of talent and skill. However, other commentators have argued that this is in itself the result of a cognitive bias: many people tend to believe they are more talented than they actually are, and thus will argue for talent to be rewarded; but since their real level of talent (especially when compared to others) is much lower, many of those who campaign for games to reward talent would find themselves the losers in a game that actually did. .
A further counter-argument is that the problem is not that talent and skill are rewarded, but that the rewards are based on relative talent and skill. If only the top 20% of a game's players are rewarded, 80% must be receiving no reward, even if objectively they are highly talented. If there is no hope in the future of these players being rewarded, they will likely leave the game, causing the population to shrink, and thus reducing the number of people who can be in the top 20%. Grinding has the benefit that, although only 20% of the population may be rewarded at any given time, 100% of the population will have the potential to be rewarded in the future, and will have no reason to quit. Ralph Koster also addressed this issue: "... the average user is below average — meaning, the median user lies below the mean on the win-loss curve, because the win-loss curve turns out to be a power-law distribution." 
A further argument, however, is that the "level playing field" effect could be provided by any time-consuming behaviour that is accessible to all and provides game advancement. It is not necessary for the behaviour to be tedious or repetitive, as the term grinding generally implies: for example, in a game where advancement is gained by killing monsters, the game could provide such a huge variety of monsters and environments that no two kills are ever the same, and as long as all players remained equally capable of killing the monsters, the same levelling-off effect would be generated. Thus, the "level playing field" effect is considered by some to be a misleading attempt to hide the real reason for grinding: unwillingness to budget sufficient content resources to produce a varied game.
Another alternative to grinds would be to remove designer-defined objectives, leaving the player free to do whatever they want. The problem with this is that many players might be confused about what they are supposed to do, or they might lack the motivation to do much of anything in the virtual world. To reflect these different playing objectives (or lack thereof), an open-ended game of this style, such as The Sims, is sometimes called a "software toy."
Players of subscription-based online games often criticize grinds as a heavy-handed attempt to gain profit. The most interesting and challenging gameplay is often only available to characters at the highest levels, who are the only ones strong enough to participate in raids or player versus player combat. The reason to add grinding is simply to increase the amount of time it takes to reach these levels, forcing the player to pay more subscription fees along the way. An example of this kind of MMORPG is Runescape, which requires players to spend massive amounts of time to achieve the highest level. Some games have made the skills available unstable and largely luck-based. This slight variance from the norm, while refreshing, has been a source of frustration among many players that worked hard on gaining the levels through grinding. In contrast, enthusiasts of the genre have objected to the term grind as an oversimplification of MMO gameplay. They argue that, like traditional role-playing games, there is no goal in MMORPGs other than to enjoy the experience. However, some would argue that in traditional RPGs, players play to act out their character as well; in fact, some players deliberately create weak characters because they find them interesting to play.
Another criticism of the entire leveling concept is that it often allows the player to avoid difficult challenges (such as strategic or reflexive challenges that one might encounter when fighting a powerful opponent) by simply spending a large amount of time battling weak characters who are easily defeated in order to gain levels (a practice known as bottomfeeding), so as to have little difficulty vanquishing the main enemy. This has been compared to having a cheating mechanism built into the game and critics have said that this mechanic leads to RPG players being more likely to avoid challenges in life itself.Template:Fact
It has also been observed that intense grinding can actively damage the role-playing aspect of a game by making nonsense of the simulated world. A classic example of this occurred in Star Wars Galaxies, where skills were improved by using them. It was therefore possible to see groups of three people, in which:
- One person was repeatedly deliberately falling over, taking a small amount of damage each time.
- A second person was healing the first, increasing their healing skill, and taking "stress" damage themselves.
- A third person was dancing for the second, relieving their "stress" damage and increasing their dancing skill.
The IGDA Online Games Special Interest Group has noted that level treadmills are part of the addictive quality of MMORPGs that caters to those who play more than 25 hours a week (hardcore gamers).
Various games' approaches to counter issues of grinding
- The Lord of the Rings Online features a "title system" in which players are rewarded special titles, and often new abilities, for killing massive quantities of particular types of enemies. This can make grinding both lucrative and enjoyable, as the player benefits from the added experience points and can receive a title they can show off to other players. For example, killing large amounts of Warg grants the player the "Warg-Slayer" title. Killing even more Warg results in more advanced titles, such as "Warg Foe" and so on. This system also exists in City of Heroes/City of Villains, where these "titles" are named "badges".
- Guild Wars tries to reduce grinding by using a very low maximum level (20) which can be reached within 24 hours of playing the game. Equipment with maximum statistics is also easy to obtain. Players can still improve themselves by searching for rare equipment (with the same statistics, but different looks), or gathering points for titles, which are mostly 'for looks'. The whole game was designed around being a challenge even when you're at the maximum level with the best equipment, but without huge gaps between hard core and casual players so both could enjoy the same challenges. The more you play, the better your stuff looks, but your character won't be stronger than others.
- Eve-Online features a system that does not require continuous play to increase character skill. Characters are plugged in to their ship's computer and are trained at a rate based on their attributes. Attributes can be enhanced via skills or cybernetic implants to decrease training time. Training occurs continuously, in real time, whether the player is logged in or not. Some of the advanced skills can take as long as a month or more of to reach the next level. Players still have to grind for ISK(money), minerals, and NPC faction standing.
- Sorens, Neil (2007-03-26). "Rethinking the MMO". Gamasutra.
- Lawley, Liz (2006-08-05). "In Praise of the Grind". Terra Nova. "[...] I want to relax, to clear my mind, to do something repetitive that provides visible (to me, not to you) and lasting evidence of my efforts [...]"
- Koster, Raph (2007-04-23). "The game without treadmills".
- Koster, Raph (2003). "Small Worlds: Competitive and Cooperative Structures in Online Worlds".
- Dunin, Elonka (ed.) (March 2003). "IGDA Online Games White Paper, 2nd Edition" (PDF).
- M, Adam. Why do smart people grind?. newsgroup gmane.comp.games.mud.devel. 2009-01-18. URL:http://muddev.wishes.net/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=31078&start=0&st=0&sk=t&sd=a. Accessed: 2009-01-18. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5dvTdrc1U)
- Experience point
- Level (computer and video games)
- Progress Quest
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