How "grinding" came to dominate video game culture
The history of grinding in video games dates back to 1975, but it didn't truly take over the industry until the rise of online gaming.
Like a second job, gamers spend hours and hours repeating the same quest, defeating the same foes, traversing the same digital landscape. It’d be mindless if it weren’t for an overarching goal: Being rewarded by the random number generator gods with a rare item as it erupts from the defeated carcass of a boss you just killed for the hundredth time.
We’re talking about “grinding,” a completist pursuit by gamers who replay the same levels, quests, and missions to slowly level up before taking on the actual next challenge that lies ahead. And what began as a gaming term has become an everyday saying, with students grinding through homework for good grades and co-workers complaining of the grind through endless paperwork in hopes of achieving a promotion.
With Destiny 2 -- one of the grindiest major video games to arrive in recent memory -- recently getting a major update in “Shadowkeep” while the original game goes free-to-play for everyone else, what better time to take a closer look at the origins of the term that’s come to define an entire industry, from blockbuster console games to addictive smartphone apps.
Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier may have put it best in a 2018 article:
“It's easy to love a world where improvement is guaranteed,” he said. “Where life follows a set of rules that allow you to level up and get better at your job not because of talent or luck, but because you worked at it. Effort guarantees results.”
For plenty of players grinding in Destiny 2 or World of Warcraft, that end result is a shiny new weapon or even a purely cosmetic upgrade to show off online, but grinding in role-playing games originated long before the internet existed. It can be traced back to the very earliest days of video game history.
The origins of grinding
Grinding in gaming is inextricably linked to roleplaying games where players work their way through expansive worlds that require constant improvement to keep up with each new challenge. So it’s no surprise that one of the first-ever RPGs helped introduce the concept of grinding into gaming in general.
In 1975, two students at the Southern Illinois University released dnd , inspired by the classic table-top game Dungeons & Dragons. In it, players created custom characters to adventure through a multi-level dungeon where they battled monsters to complete quests and find treasure. dnd is considered to be the first video game to include a boss fight in the form of a Golden Dragon that guarded a magical orb, which was considered the best loot in the game.
dnd was also one of the first games to feature non-linear progression, meaning players could return to any level of the game to look for rarer treasure or amass experience points. This unique game design at the time allowed players to repeat quests and find better gear as they readied themselves to take on the Golden Dragon. In other words, all of a sudden, it paid to repeat the same tasks over and over for incremental gain.
The concepts introduced by dnd influenced every iconic RPG that came afterward. Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979), Hydlide (1984), and Final Fantasy (1987) all required players to rinse and repeat parts of the story to unlock new areas, loot powerful gear, and defeat tougher enemies.
Grinding slowly became a fundamental aspect of single-players RPGs even though its repetitive nature has been said to be a result of poor game design, but the rise of the internet and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft added new competitive and social variables that made grinding even more tantalizing.
The internet’s effect on grinding
In 1995, the National Science Foundation Network opened the internet to game developers after initially only allowing government agencies and universities to use the network. Game creators could now build massive-scale games to support thousands and eventually millions of players.
The mid-to-late 90s were rife with MMORPG releases. Meridian 59 (1996) pioneered the genre's scope and first-person 3D graphics, which led to more mainstream titles like, EverQuest (1999), Asheron’s Call (1999), and Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996).
These titles not only required grinding to level up and become stronger, but players were encouraged to grind even more to show off their gear, skills, and strength. Gamers populated an expansive virtual world where they could show off everything they’ve worked by simply equipping new gear and walking around. It made grinding endlessly more satisfying.
Gamers today grind more than ever before
Today, the concept of grinding in an RPG has remained largely the same, but the ways it’s employed by developers can make or break a game.
Titles like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Diablo are simply refined and much larger versions of ‘90s MMORPGs. The story takes a backseat to the desire to show off the rare sword you acquired by killing an extremely difficult boss. But in the world of free-to-play mobile games, grinding has taken on even more negative connotations.
Free smartphone games like Clash of Clans and Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes require players to complete hours of monotonous tasks to advance, but also offer micro-transactions that let players skip the grind for a fee. Developers of these games call them “free-to-play” but gamers have dubbed them “pay-to-win” because choosing to grind will never get you further than choosing to spend cash instead.
However, the concept of grinding in-game treasure has also spawned exciting new genres, like loot shooters. These games take MMORPG concepts, like creating unique characters and choosing classes or skills, and fuse them with the heart-pumping action of first-person shooters like Call of Duty or Halo. The result is a game like Destiny 2.
Like their predecessors, the main storyline is second fiddle to finding the best treasure the game has to offer. Players often brag about “breaking” the games they’re playing when they find the right combination of loot and abilities and Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is another opportunity to jump online with friends and flaunt the gear they’ve grinded out.
The negative connotations of grinding will never go away. But so long as the journey is full of friends, tense voice chat moments, and piles of shining loot in the end, there will always be gamers willing to grind.
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