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The Soapbox: Defining the word "grind"


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Ravious has a post about grind and content over on the blog Kill Ten Rats, which started a great discussion that immediately attracted me like a rare earth magnet. Ravious presented a fake quest example and asked readers whether it equated to grind. Like he says, grind isn't a new concept, but revisiting it has the word-nerd in me hashing it over.

Can we all agree on the term? On some level I think we can, but when it comes into use as a way to describe specific details about the grind itself or other aspects of MMOs that are affected by grind, confusion can easily set in. What I wanted to do was congeal my thoughts about this term, what its purpose is or should be, what I think it should mean, and why I dislike Wikipedia's entry on grinding. Maybe in the end we can all come to terms with it.

To get a better idea of how I'm approaching a definition for grind, you should understand that words are not meanings. Meanings live independent of the things we want to talk about. An apple could easily be called a plastic-extruded dingus. It's a sound we applied to something to help us understand the world around us. Words also allow us to transfer information. We have universal definitions for many words within our own language so that we will all be on the same page when Johnny tells Bobby, "I'm just grinding out some dailies."

"Some words will always be harder to define than others."

This doesn't mean words and definitions can't be vague, especially in MMOs and gaming. What is the definition of patch, update or content? Some words will always be harder to define than others. But I didn't see that problem with the term grind, ever. At first, my stubborn, obstinate side kicked in and -- honestly -- got a bit frustrated at all this confusion floating around. To me, grinding was always very clear-cut. There are different ways to approach different activities in MMOs, and grind seemed like a fairly simple one alongside terms like kiting and pulling.

My personal definition for grind was always in agreement with one I read on the Internet long ago: Grind is the activity of killing more than one mob at the same time to speed up XP gain. For me, this was always easy to understand. People will always feel differently about what a good, bad, boring or fun activity is, but this definition is still easily understood regardless of the players' personal feelings about any part of an MMO.

What I've experienced in my short MMO career is an extremely vague and wide-reaching idea of what grind means. Grinding is doing something repetitively, having to kill so many mobs that it's no longer fun, having to kill the same mob many times, or clicking to repeatedly craft a bunch of the same item. Those statements, even without a word to describe them, are too vague or don't need a term. Do you see the problem with statements like these? How many is many? When exactly is it not fun anymore? Don't we repeat everything at some point? They're based on how players feel about a given activity within any MMO, and those feelings are going to run the gamut. Worse yet, a player may find a quest to be a grind one day but not the next.

But maybe that's my problem. Has the meaning changed from an activity into how you approach an activity? I surfed over to Wikipedia, and sure enough, the definition there is about doing something repetitively or non-entertaining to gain access to other features or to allow players to grind faster or better. Say what? How is this definition defining anything? First off, I'll agree there may be repetitive activities that I don't enjoy much in a game I like, but I think for the most part we don't mind doing repetitive activities. It's a vague idea unto itself. Doing something non-entertaining? Why would anyone do something that is non-entertaining when he is playing games to be entertained? While I can wrap my head around the definition on Wikipedia and understand the ideas it's trying to get across, it's still a lot of vagueness. It's actually a bit confusing and bewildering on different levels. Do we really dislike killing mobs repeatedly? Do we really just quest to get past questing? Killing mobs is usually at every level of the game, so what exactly are we trying to get past? If those ideas are vague, how can we possibly use them when defining what grind means? There's also a very negative connotation to Wikipedia's definition. It assumes that grind is doing something a player dislikes. So even if we can't define grind, we at least know it's supposed to be a bad thing. But what about all that stuff we just covered about how some things we may call grind are fun to do? It feels like an ambiguous circle of talking in the round and never getting anywhere concrete.

"I really don't like the definition that Wikipedia gives."

I really don't like the definition that Wikipedia gives. If the definition for grind has shifted from an activity to a feeling, then why is it still used so much like a verb? Sally is grinding mobs. I'm grinding dailies. Bobby is grinding badges. I still see nothing but a hazy cloud of uncertainties to stumble through. Is Wikipedia saying that grind is an adjective and a verb? If so, what are its separate definitions?

I think the rest of the entry from Wikipedia could fill up many other articles, but for my purpose it seems to expand on the idea that grinding is the game mechanic by which a player progresses. Really? Are developers everywhere building games and asking themselves how they are going to implement a grind mechanic? This section sounds more like a theory of how to poorly implement a system of progression in an MMO. The remainder of the entry features examples from different MMOs. The entry for Lord of the Rings Online mentions grinding for titles. The third sentence of that entry appears to reword grind as killing large numbers of mobs. If that were true, to any degree, it adds still more confusion to a term that Wikipedians have already colored in a negative light. Do all these MMOs we enjoy employ a way to progress via a process called grind that no one likes? Yes. It's debatable, but it's yet another vague reason why grind has a poor definition.

Why does any of this matter? Because we are being fed hype and advertising every day about old and new MMOs and how they play. One of their biggest selling points is how they reduce or eliminate grind. If we don't know what grind is, doesn't it just become a method of trickery for slick marketers to use it in their favor however they see fit?

I believe the definitions I use for grinding fit comfortably next to other terms like farming, kiting, pulling, aggro and so on. They work in any MMO, and everyone can easily grasp the concepts. But words will evolve. If the word grind is in a bumpy transitional phase as its meaning is in flux, what are we to do with the old definitions? Does killing mobs repeatedly for the purpose of gaining certain items still fit comfortably in the word farm? Or is it being swallowed by this new morphing blob that grinding currently seems to be? Has the need to describe the activity of killing more than one mob at a time for the purpose of maximizing XP gain become obsolete?

Are these new terms that were brought about by MMOs changing so drastically? I tried Ragnarok and Conquer Online maybe 10 years ago, long before I became an MMO gamer. AI in those games functioned the same way as AI in current games does. Not all the terms can be used in each game, but they still all exist and have their unconfused place. I don't know of a single term created for MMOs that was dropped because the genre changed so much that we didn't need it anymore.

I think if we are going to have words and terms, their definitions should be clear and understood. That's the point of having them. Even if you utter a string of meaningless babble, you said it with a point that will be understood. That's how phrases like "I are disappoint" stick around to add to our culture and perhaps just make us laugh without describing anything really new. Aren't we dealing with a descriptive word that concerns killing monsters in MMOs?

Maybe my definition for grind isn't particularly necessary anymore, but it seems to me that this newer definition found on Wikipedia is even less desirable because it's so vague that it traps players in semantic loops that balloon outward and distract and derail conversations. Worse, MMO marketers can spin stories based on percieved feelings rather than describing how their games actually work. They shouldn't do that by co-opting and bogging down a term originally meant to simplify the idea it represents.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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