During the summer of 2009, my girlfriend at the time was working at a camp in another state. We’d talk on the phone during the evenings, and during those conversations I’d usually play a game. I was making my way through the first InFamous at the time, climbing towers or breaking into power substations—whatever it was that you did to reveal sections of the map. I didn’t want to progress the story any—to do so would require actually paying attention to the game, and not the conversation with my girlfriend. No, I spent most of that time mindlessly running (or was it flying? Power-line sliding? Wow, I really don’t remember that game very well) from point to point, beating up a few baddies and unlocking a new swath of the map. It was perfect passive progression.
Grinding in games can mean a lot of different things. It’s most often used in reference to RPG levelling systems—killing thousands of boars to hit level 60 in World of Warcraft, if you will—but really can refer to any sort of easily-repeatable task that nets some amount of progression. Sometimes it’s doing the same battles over and over, sometimes it’s mining ore or chopping trees, sometimes it’s just clicking until a number goes up.
During my WoW days, my raiding guild needed to outfit our entire roster with shadow-resist gear in order to progress on a boss in Black Temple, so I spent countless hours killing Shadow Elementals in Netherstorm, harvesting the materials we needed to craft our gear. More recently, I got to floor 500 or so in an endless Slay the Spire run with a nigh-unbeatable first-turn kill deck. At that point I wasn’t really playing anymore, just pressing a few buttons in a specific sequence, but the enemies would die and I’d move to the next floor. Wash, rinse, repeat.
In RPGs, I like to over-level all at once, then crush through the story without worrying about hitting a level gate later on. I prefer that approach over the start-stop of having to keep my level high enough to keep progressing. I’d much rather find a nice easily-repeatable high-experience area where I can zone out for a few hours, then get back to the story without interruption.
Most recently, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy 14. After beating the main story (and the fantastic recent expansion, Shadowbringers), I wanted to keep making progress on my character. So I turned to the game’s gathering and crafting jobs. After work, it’s nice to spend an hour or two mindlessly running from node to node mining ore, zoning out to decompress from the day. Then later in the evening, I’ll tap a few keys every 30 seconds or so to smelt that ore into ingots while watching TV with my partner—and levelling up my crafting professions, of course.
There’s something relaxing about this mindless form of playing. Like how Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson describes going fishing: “It’s like yoga except I still get to kill something.” Or in this case, I’m still making progress in the game.
That’s really what it comes down to—progression. I’ve come to realise I’m a very goal-oriented type of player. I love working towards an objective, whether it’s levelling a character, unlocking zones of the map, or just mining a bunch of ore.
With grinding, it’s a way to work on that progression without having to dedicate much headspace. I can throw on a TV show, or chat on the phone—still making progress in the game, but without having the need to really pay attention.
Interestingly I don’t really play games wholly built around grinding-type actions in this same way. I love Stardew Valley to death, with more than 300 hours across several playthroughs on multiple platforms. But despite it consisting of almost entirely these sort of passive activities—planting and watering crops, fishing, digging through the mines—it’s not the sort of game that I zone out while playing. I approach it more with a min/max style, wanting to optimise my farm for maximum production. There’s no room for distraction when you have to consider optimal crop placements, watering patterns, grow times, and make sure your grange display wins top prize at the town fair.
To me the grind is for a departure from the main game, not the game itself. The one part of Stardew Valley that I do grind is the mine—the combat zone where I can dig deeper and deeper underground to find rarer and more expensive ore. I’ve been guilty of letting my farm fall into disrepair in order to forge deeper into those caves. I had to see the floor number keep going up.