(Getting Back Into the Game, Part Two)
by Steven Croop
Beyond the immediate ramifications of playing a game in a massively multiplayer mode, it is the exoticism of the grind that draws, repels, and fascinates. Those that dismiss MMORPGs as addictive, money-drudging wastes of time point to the grind as the root of all masochism, while those that devote themselves to the genre take pleasure in sharing a common goal with other players through competition and cooperation. The grind is present in any game where new abilities must be earned; experience points have become the standard measure of progress in a grind, but it can take indirect forms - just cutting a swath through a gang of tough enemies in a first-person shooter to get a new gun or the next level can be construed as a grind.
However, the term "grind" exists in a separate connotative sense outside of just playing the game. It suggests playing the game for a reason outside of its express purpose, that the game has taken the player on an unrelated detour and force him to deal with the matter at hand before allowing him back on the main path. But not just MMORPGs have this element, and it is not always a negative element. Strictly linear storytelling is no longer in vogue, simply because gamers believe games can do more now than they could then. Games are expected to be more sophisticated, and sidestories, backstories, upwards and downwards stories, and inside-out stories are the fast track to sophistication. And don't forget the sand for the sandbox.
A grind is that speedbump in story progression that is just too painfully obvious to bear, the unsuccessful attempt to tell the player "why don't you do this for a little while instead." Grinds tend to be quantitative, a strict line that must be crossed. They can be enforced explicitly - get 3000 gold pieces for this new sword-or indirect - being forced to backtrack to an easier section of the game to build up a character enough that he can survive the next boss fight. Games implement these basic ideas in complicated webs that necessitate grinding, requiring that multiple quantitative goals be fulfilled before qualitative progress is attained.
The desire to foreshorten or circumvent the pursuit of a number led to the rise of online peer support communities for these offline games, where players could ask questions of others with prior experience of the grind particular to a certain game, creating a playerbase that could deal with the grind in an ever more informed and efficient manner. The coalition of players sought to hasten the quantitative means to the qualitative end as a way to outsmart the game. MMORPGs kept this online community intact but transplanted the game itself to the internet. As the integral purpose of the community, the grind accompanied the RPG in its foray into the online world, and became an end in and of itself.
While MMORPGs deliver endgame content, they can never come to an end like offline games can. Their storylines must remain perpetual, as a function of the writing and mechanics. As the end of the game dissolved, the grind took on new importance as the point of the game. The shift from RPG to MMORPG was also a shift from the qualitative to the quantitative. The grind became perpetual, and success was measured by who could get the most the fastest. Gamers thus entered a new age of gaming masochism, as exemplified by the MMORPG.