There’s Grinding, and Then There’s Grinding

When I wrote about Paper Mario: Color Splash, I described my frustration with it in terms of the ill-advised neologism grind proliferation.

It was ill-advised specifically because I made up a term, and used it in the title, without giving much of a shit about defining it in detail. That’s a bad move, because anyone who comes to the article expecting to acquire a useful turn of phrase is going to come away confused and/or disappointed. Richard Terrell actually thought that I was abusing the word grind, stretching it past its breaking point. He was proposing a definition of grinding—but he more got me thinking about definitions a through c.

So, let’s clarify.

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The canonical, uncontroversial definition of grinding is when a player chooses to repeat an in-game action in order to gain rewards, resources, or power. Classically, this takes the form of killing the same monsters in a JRPG again and again, in order to gain some experience points each time, and to eventually level up. You might also engage in this sort of repeated monster-slaying because the monster in question will sometimes, semi-randomly, drop rare or valuable weapons, or crafting materials, or what have you. So each repetition becomes a pull of the slot machine.

But here we’re already getting perilously unconventional. You might get that rare drop the very first time you kill the monster, thereby eliminating the need to intentionally repeat the in-game action—and in that case, you’re never grinding as such. But we’re usually comfortable calling that activity grinding regardless, since for however long it takes you to get your drop, your actions are identical to those endemic to a classical grind. Kill the monster, then find it again, then kill it again.

To differentiate this activity from grinding is, frankly, to produce a distinction without a difference. Which brings me to the looser definition of grinding that I had in mind when discussing Color Splash.

When you’re not choosing to grind, but you still find yourself doing what you’d be doing if you were grinding—for example, killing the same monster over and over—then we’ll sometimes call that experience grindy, or else we’ll say, this part of the game is a bit of a grind. This can happen if the game has random battles, and if those battles frequently throw the same old combinations of monsters at you. You’re not grinding, but you might as well be.

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More loosely still, this is what we mean when we talk about grinding in Minecraft. Finding a vein of iron is an experience of exploration, but once you’ve broken down that first iron block, breaking down the second, the third, the fourth—that’s at least a little grindy. Mine this block for a resource, then mine an identical block for an equal amount of an identical resource.

Critically, this activity can still be fun and engaging. Mining block after block of iron can be just as enjoyable as finding the iron in the first place, but it’s enjoyable in a way that’s markedly more repetitive, and also more resource-driven. There’s an element of deferred gratification. It’s more about what you’ll make out of the iron, twenty repetitions from now (or the new spell you’ll learn, three levels from now) than about the activity itself.

Moment to moment, absent that not-actually-promised payoff, grinding represents empty calories, in terms of what the player is putting in and what they’re getting back. Delicious, but not nutritious, and potentially a little sickening in large amounts.

That was the position that Color Splash kept putting me in. Repeated actions. Undifferentiated situations. Get paint. Get coins. Get cards. I felt like I was grinding, like I was stopping my forward momentum in order to accrue power—even though I was moving forward and the resources I was earning weren’t making me more powerful, at least not in any way that mattered. Gratification felt indefinitely deffered, and so for me, the game became a grind.

This use of the word grind seems just as useful to me, and I see it in the wild just as often. I’ll defend my use of it, then, while also admitting that I should have been clearer about how, in fact, I was using it.

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