The Secret Reason So Many Video Games Are A Tedious Grind

As a writer, I'm known for two things: anxiety and lightning-fast reflexes. So before you dismiss what I'm about to say as "Modern video games are too hard for my old ass!" let me just stop you right there. I'm so good at games that I'm the guy who used to go to message boards, wait for someone to say they were stuck on a boss and reply, "You thought he was HARD? I beat it on my first try lol," then leave without offering any additional information.

No, this is about how today's games are in many ways built to be repetitive grinds, for reasons that aren't necessarily obvious. It has to do with the way the modern world puts us in a continuous state of anxiety and then sells us distractions, until one day you wake up and wonder where the time went.

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5
Even Simple Games Now Come With An Overwhelming To-Do List

Back in my youth, when things sucked, the appeal of games was that they were simple, even when they were brutally difficult. Kill the right bad guy or find the right secret wall, and a whole cooked turkey would flop onto the floor:

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You ate it, you recovered health. Health dropped to zero, you died. That was the appeal, because it's how we wish real life worked -- punch a bad person and a roasted ham appears. That screengrab is from Castlevania. If you play the critically acclaimed spiritual reboot that just came out (the excellent Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night), something very different happens.

In that game, you'll kill an enemy and find that it doesn't drop a turkey, or a healing potion, or even coins. You will instead win some nonsense words that sound like ingredients in a witch's cauldron ("Webbing," "Ectoplasm", "Hemp"). "What the s**t is this?" you'll exclaim. You can't eat these objects, or attack with them, or even sell them for any meaningful amount of money. That's because they are among the 350 different f*****g items that are mostly ingredients for a complex crafting and cooking system -- things you must accumulate in order to make the proverbial turkey hours down the line.

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And of course, the most useful and fun upgrades require multiple rare ingredients, and that means grinding -- standing in the same room and killing the same creatures over and over for hours. If you play mainstream games these days, you know this is all standard. When I killed my very first enemy in The Witcher 3, I received "Dog Tallow" as a reward, a crafting ingredient that sat unused in my Costco-sized backpack until I beat the game 50 hours later. I can't imagine how it smelled.

You can say that the grind is optional, that you don't have to do any of that stuff to beat the game. That's true, but it's also most of the available gameplay. The primary action-reward loop becomes meaningless if you don't plan on doing the crafting. You heroically kill a room full of enemies, and you'll feel nothing when your reward is "chitinous shell," "cockatrice stomach," and "fiend dung." None of those are made up, by the way.

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Why does this matter? Well ...

Related: 4 Video Games That Revolutionized Boring Parts Of Gaming

4
The Time Investment Is Staggering, By Design

"But those are games with fantasy and RPG elements," you might say, "of course they have all sorts of loot and gear and inventory to manage." Alright, let's look at the last game I played prior to Bloodstained, which was Spider-Man for the PS4. The primary mechanic is the classic "Beat up small bad guys until you reach a big bad guy." In theory, the rewards along the way should be increased health, strength, and additional moves to better let you kick a drug dealer and his customer off a skyscraper rooftop.

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Instead, there are about 40 different special moves to add and memorize, plus 31 suits, 23 suit mods, and 34 gadgets/upgrades. Getting them requires earning "tokens," and these can't be gained just by playing the main story or side missions. You need to grind. This involves everything from finding Peter Parker's missing backpacks around New York (55 of them!), photographing notable spots around the city (47 of those, plus 50 more secret ones), and stopping random street crime (I show 180 these on my map). Then there are outposts and labs and "Taskmaster" missions you can do over and over for better scores and more tokens. And baby, I did it all.

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Now, if you keep up with criticism of the game industry, the big controversy right now is the way games add this tedious grind so that they can charge you an additional fee to bypass it. But none of the examples I mentioned use that payment model, so that can't be the only reason. And I can't emphasize enough how much games go out of their way to add the menial stuff. The award-winning beat-em-up God Of War was packed full of items, drops, and hidden treasure chests to buy upgrades that, as this amazing video points out, have virtually zero impact on the gameplay. It's all an illusion to give you a thin excuse spend hours flipping around increasingly complicated menus and submenus instead of finishing your grand adventure.

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The grind is there because grindy games sell better, because the grind fills a need.

Related: 6 Storytelling Problems Video Games Still Can't Fix

3
Mindless Tasks Are Therapeutic ... And Addictive

When I was a teenager, I once spent a year on a hobby I'd picked up called "Bouncing a rubber ball off the wall of my bedroom." It mostly involved bouncing a rubber ball off the wall of my bedroom. I did it for hours. This was, not coincidentally, around the time I realized the world was too overwhelming for any reasonable person to survive in. When my anxiety arrived, so did my love of spending hours on a mindless task. Nothing in my life was predictable, other than the trajectory of that ball.

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I didn't learn anything while doing it. I wasn't practicing a skill or absorbing new information. I wasn't becoming a better person or -- and this is crucial -- actually having fun at all. It was just something to do, and hey, it's not like it was hurting anybody, other than my parents who had to listen to it. (Hell, if you have anxiety, your therapist will probably recommend some kind of repetitive, relatively mindless task as a way to calm yourself). But here is where I think there's a sharp distinction between good and bad ways to kill time.

If you complain that a show or game "wasted your time," some helpful genius will usually chime in with "But all entertainment is a waste of time!" I don't think that's true at all. Movies/books/shows can enrich your life, build empathy, change how you see the world. Watching sports can inspire you to greatness, playing them can teach patience and teamwork and the value of practice. Any artistic pursuit brings with it the pleasure of enhancing your skills and unlocking creative parts of your brain you didn't even know were there. Even mindlessly scrolling through Instagram is at least a form of social interaction, as is wordlessly hanging out on a porch with a friend.

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All of them let you feel something or learn something that can help you grow. But in my opinion, mindlessly collecting Spider-Man's backpacks or farming Cyhyraeth for Death Cry shard upgrades don't do any of those things. They're a form of ball-bouncing. Totally harmless fun ... unless you're a certain type of person prone to a certain emotional state.

Related: 6 Video Games That Failed Before You Pressed Start

2
Video Game Grind Seems Designed To Keep You Locked In A Cycle

The main thing about bouncing a ball off a wall is that it sucks. At some point, the part of the brain that craves novelty starts complaining and you move on. The reason most of the world is made up of somewhat functional adults is that there are some built-in limits to almost any zone-out activity. Masturbate enough and your genitals get sore. Over the long term, you just start to want more out of life. You stumble outside and see that some of your friends have already graduated medical school, then the shame and envy push you forward. You want their possessions, their social status. Your lack of progress is a wake-up call.

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What these games have done, however, is combine the therapeutic value of zone-out repetition with a false sense of progress and accomplishment. They give you possessions to accumulate, digital wealth that steadily grows, symbols of power and status that satisfy a certain part of your brain. Unlike the bouncing ball, this never gets old. You can drop out of society entirely and just stay in that state forever. I know people who have done it and I'm guessing you do, too.

I have written extensively about how modern software is designed to be addictive, to give you a steady drip-drip-drip of mild dopamine hits to keep you glued to the screen. There's no grand, evil conspiracy at play (well, beyond basic profit motive); the truth is that most addiction is avoidance behavior and they're all just giving us the escape we desperately want. But in their perfect scenario, you'd only stop playing long enough to earn money to buy more games. If you quit the grind to pursue a career or raise a family, they've failed at their job.

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Related: 5 Lost Video Game Features That Should've Become Standard

1
Success Is Actually About Knowing How To Waste Time

And here's where I have to bring some bad news: The world is tremendously unfair. There are people out there who actually get rewarded for their time-wasting habits -- lauded, even -- because by pure coincidence, they happen to be beneficial. For marathon runners, that's their stress relief. Same for sculptors and musicians. Their therapy earns them applause.

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For me, it wasn't too many years after I discovered ball-bouncing that I found out writing worked even better as my "block out the scary real world" activity. I had no expectation that it'd ever be a career (and for the first 15 years after, it wasn't). I did it because I had to, and it was lucky that other people were willing to pay for it.

So while I don't doubt that you got plenty of "Video games are a waste of time!" from the grownups in your youth, I think that's an obtuse and unhelpful version of the truth. After all, Fortnite can teach teamwork, problem-solving, and communication. RTS games sharpen all sorts of organizational and resource management skills. Brutally difficult action games like Bloodborne teach the value of persistence, and bring with them the pride of sharpening your timing, hand-eye coordination, and strategy. Even in that Spider-Man game, the main story missions include all sorts of themes about the corrupting influence of power, how to cope with flawed heroes, and how sometimes life will take away everything good in the world and replace it with a tedious Miles stealth mission.

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But those mindless collectathons, the grinding for gear drops to earn better weapons that can only be used to grind for more gear drops, the Candy Crush variants that I still play on my phone ... I think they're that other thing. They're the time suckers, the anesthesia, the "I'm doing this because it literally is less stressful than doing nothing."

The world will tell you that success is all about working instead of wasting time, but I know from experience that it's also about how you're wasting time, knowing that some of your peers are zoning out by learning to bake, or speak Japanese or code video games. If you can find a stress-relief hobby that pays you back, your chances of being successful in life, or just becoming a more interesting adult, have gone up astronomically.

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As for how you find it, I don't know. Just keep trying s**t, I guess.

You can follow Jason "David Wong" Pargin on Twitter, his Instagram, or Facebook, or Goodreads, or any of the many accounts he's forgotten about.

for more, check out How Video Games Create Realism By Boring You To Death - Escort Mission:


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