["Repetition" is usually a bad word -- and in games, often associated with grinding. Can it be the path to unlocking something more rewarding for players when properly utilized? Designer Ara Shirinian considers.]
Some traits of video games, like graphical quality, seem to be inherently laudable. Whatever the metric is, outside of avant-garde subversions, nobody ever criticizes a game for "looking too good". Graphics, while arguably secondary to (yet inexorably enmeshed with) the authorship of games, are universally appreciated, especially when done better than ever before. Indeed, many popular games today are not new games; they are old games with greatly improved looks.
Replayability is another universally regarded quality. If a game was "good" the first time you played it, then it would be considered even "better" if you felt compelled to play it again, right?
No interested party, from the publishing executive to the child who is just beginning to develop discriminating taste, will be found free from the want of better graphics or more replayability. Like money, these are qualities for which more is always better, at least at face value.
A third quality that appears to belong to this set of universal positives is variety. Of particular interest to us is the variety of activity. This kind of variety is one way to increase the replayability of a game. In fact, it could be the most obvious and easiest way, in terms of planning, to ensure there is "sufficient" novelty of experience to keep the largest number of players across the gamut of skill and preference engaged.
For any imperfect system or activity of gameplay you may have developed, particularly when there are substantial doubts about its efficacy, you can choose to scrap it altogether, devote additional development effort to improving it, or leave it as-is and develop some other complementary gameplay activity as an alternative for those who tire of the first activity.
It is difficult to deny the great commercial success of games that have maximized novelty by implementing myriad disparate activities, as evidenced by the explosive popularity of so-called "sandbox" or "open world" games, which started with Grand Theft Auto III and continues with products like Skyrim or World of Warcraft.
Conversely, repetition in games is almost universally viewed with disdain. No marketer in his or her right mind would try to sell anyone on the promise of repetition. At face value, this makes perfect sense. What could ever be good about repetition? It's novelty we seek -- in games, consumer products, and life in general.
However, there can exist valuable and intrinsically good things about repetition. The reason repetition has such a bad rap may be that the good things about it are far less salient than the bad ones. We notice repetition far more often when it is bad, compared to when it's good.
Increasing Appeal By Increasing Variety: The Multiple-Trick Pony
Consider a surface comparison of this "sandbox" format, with its wide and vast repertoire of activities, against the traditional game format, which is like a pony who only knows one trick.
In the traditional game, there are lots of situations that can compel a player to give up. The game can become too hard, it can become too repetitive, it can become too boring, it can become too unfair, it can become too annoying. However arbitrary and personal the reason, any game can become unappealing to the point that the player doesn't want to play anymore.
When the experience wears thin to this point for the player, in the traditional game, the only choice is to stop playing. It could mean you give up today, but tomorrow you're reinvigorated to try again. Or, it could mean that you give up playing that game forever.
On the other hand, the sandbox game leaves you with other options. If a particular mission is too hard, you can give up on that and try a different mission. If you're tired of the mission format altogether, you can steal a taxicab and play as a taxi drive -- with a legitimate game structure wrapped around it so you're not just playing pretend. If the driving becomes too repetitive, you can explore the city and try to find hidden things in dark alleys and atop buildings. If searching aimlessly through the city becomes boring, there's still yet another activity different from all the rest waiting for you.
Because games demand performance, inadequate achievement is perhaps the most significant reason a player would want to give up (regardless of whether that evaluation of performance comes from the game or from the player). In fact, the actual scope of game choices available to any player are necessarily limited to those they feel they can play, or perform with some level of competence.
Considering that the available options of what to play are greater than ever before, the structural craze that started with GTA III showed just how effectively the sheer availability of variety can take advantage of the whimsical nature of consumers -- as well as the vast range of competency among them.
The industry, with its primary goal of accelerated profit-seeking, had no choice but to devise a way to market and design its products to attract larger and larger groups of consumers. Video games needed to offer something new to attract these big groups, something other than challenge, difficulty and depth, because in the '80s, consumers seeking challenge, difficulty and depth were all already active purchasers in the market. The industry's answer was to increase the entertainment value while decreasing the barrier to entry for all consumers as much as possible.
The industry, being an economically efficient vehicle, also sought to do these things in the cheapest and easiest way it knew how:
It increased entertainment value by offering better and better audiovisuals, and by increasing the prima facie variety of features or activities in a game.
It decreased the barrier to entry by producing games that placed fewer and fewer demands on the player.
It did not, by and large, increase or cultivate depth in gameplay while improving accessibility at the same time. While such a thing is feasible, and even heralded as a best practice of game design, in reality developing in this way is more challenging, can be more costly, and designers and teams with the requisite skill and knowledge of player psychology are rare. It was also less apparent how following such a best practice could improve sales, compared to the other methods.
In short, it was just easier to add more, better-looking content and utilize the cheapest methods that would allow more players to experience the most amount of that content, while demanding the least amount of performance from them.
We can see the consequences reflected in the biggest, most popular games of our day. However, many are left unsatisfied, and in some ways even less satisfied when compared to the games they played years ago.
We can see both sides of this very phenomenon reflected recently in the press. Consider Christian Nutt's recent interview with God of War's combat lead, as well as some of the user comments about Sony Santa Monica's philosophy of variety over depth.
Deconstructing The Repetitive Experience
There exist plenty of popular and repetitive activities, even outside of the video game world that are hardly ever described as repetitive, much less in more negative terms. Sports in general fit into this category.
After all, who has ever complained that shooting a basketball is "too repetitive"? While this activity is inherently repetitive at the most basic mechanical level, people will call it "fun", "interesting", "challenging", and even "rewarding" before they ever describe it as repetitive.
Inside the video game world it's easy to find examples of games that are highly repetitive on initial inspection, and yet produce similarly compelling, non-repetitive feelings each time.
Rock Band, Puzzle Quest, and Trials HD are just a few modern examples of popular games which feature extremely high degrees of structural repetition, like shooting a basketball. Yet these repetitive structures compel thousands to remain engaged over quite substantial periods of time.
On the other hand, we also have things like the infamous video game grind, a term typically assigned to an activity that is repetitive, uninteresting, and lacking a skill component. It's so pervasive across so many products that it's difficult to name a singular standout example (although Dragon Warrior was a seminal early example).
Real-life analogues of this include activities like ironing your clothes, washing dishes, and for many, "the tedious pattern of daily work" a.k.a. the daily grind. (1) These too, are fundamentally repetitive, uninteresting, unchallenging, and unrewarding -- at least intrinsically.
So, we have two very different-feeling classes of activities, both of which are in fact repetitive. Clearly the word repetitive is insufficient to describe how they are different, so let's deconstruct what is happening in each of these cases.
When you are shooting a basketball, or playing a level in Trials, or rocking the plastic guitar in Rock Band, on a surface level you are performing a repetitive action. Shooting the basketball requires you to face the basket, pick up the ball, and throw it with the aim of sinking the ball in the basket. Assuming that you're not trying to do it differently every time, this is essentially a loop of activity on the scale of several seconds.
Once you shoot the ball, you go pick it up and shoot again and again. In Rock Band, while a song may last for several minutes, each song itself is composed of repetitions of sequences. It's not uncommon for players to practice the same song over and over for hours. In Trials, you attempt to negotiate an obstacle course with your bike, and frequently these courses last for roughly a minute or so. As with the others, players routinely engage in repeating the same course 20 or 30 times in a session before losing interest, at least temporarily.
One distinguishing element of all of these "repetitive and interesting" activities is that they are non-trivial. You can't sink the ball in the basket every single time. You can't play the Rock Band song perfectly and with the highest score. You can't perform a flawless run in Trials and get the best possible time.
Compare this to the relative triviality of our "repetitive and uninteresting" grind activities. You could do a "bad job" or a "good job" ironing your clothes, but once you know the process, it is largely a matter of just going through the required motions to reach completion. There isn't much of a performance component.
The same is with grinding in video games, which players voluntarily suffer for the reward of accumulating some virtual statistic that in turn increases your character's power or agency in the game. It's a testament to the abject boredom involved in grinds that in many cases players devise ways of taping and rubber-banding their control devices into certain positions to allow the in-game character to perform the grind without even human intervention or attention.
So, this indicates that if there is a substantial performance component to an activity, it can be compelling and repetitive at the same time. But there is more happening here.
When there is a performance component to your activity, the implication is that you can achieve different levels of performance. You can sink the ball perfectly -- nothing but net as they say, or you can sink it in sloppy fashion, or you can miss completely. You can complete the Trials course in 50 seconds, or 120 seconds, or anywhere in between or beyond. The outcomes can vary, which is pretty interesting, and more interesting than the possible outcomes of your ironing session or RPG grind.
It is not just the variation of outcome that's the essential factor, however -- it's the fact that the player has control over the outcome, and further, that the player has the desire and capability to improve the outcome with each repetition. In between each attempt, and maybe even during, the player is learning.
(1) Spears, Richard A., Daily Grind, Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, Fourth Edition (2007).
Repetition and Learning
Learning enables one to improve their performance in any activity and repetition itself is an absolutely necessary component to continued learning. If you attempt an activity only once, it is possible to have learned something from it, but you are artificially restricting your ability to learn anything more about it by limiting your repetition.
To return to our "repetitive and uninteresting" examples for a moment, it is true that learning is involved in ironing your clothes, or grinding a character in your favorite time-wasting game. But, the depth of that learning is shallow, and its limit is quickly reached. You are simply not learning anything new when you are ironing for the hundredth time or grinding your character for three more hours to reach the next level.
Learning is satisfying, too. It empowers us; it galvanizes us to see what else we can accomplish, particularly in an operational, interactive context. It expands the breadth of what you know, as well as your awareness of what you don't know. It's a process of unpredictable exploration and discovery (and even novelty), not of a physical space, but of a mechanical, systematic one (at least in action games).
This kind of exploration is more powerful and more compelling than the exploration of physical or factual spaces. James Paul Gee, known for his advocacy of video games as superb vehicles for learning, has stated, "Learning is a deep human need, like mating and eating, and like all such needs it is meant to be deeply pleasurable to human beings." (2)
Learning + Repetition x 10,000 = Mastery
With extreme repetition comes deep knowledge as well. In fact, there are many types of deep knowledge that are only accessible through extreme repetition -- we call this mastery. This is really an immutable reality with no short cuts. You cannot become a master at chess, basketball, Rock Band or Trials without extreme practice, repetition. At the same time, the experience of performing with mastery is a uniquely sublime emotional experience par excellence, unlocked only for those who are willing to put forth the time and trouble.
When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi performed his research on what he named "flow" in the early 1970s, he interviewed a series of experts in various performance activity fields, those who had attained some level of mastery of their practice, saying, "Our respondents, whether they play chess, or dance, or climb rocks, or perform surgery, reported an exhilarating feeling of power while involved in the activity; at the same time, they spoke of the soothing sense of being part of something larger than themselves." (3)
Complex performance activities like chess, climbing, and surgery are what Csikszentmihalyi categorizes as "deep flow" activities. Our game examples of Rock Band and Trials, and other high-performance games like Street Fighter or Gran Turismo are certainly exemplary conduits of the deep flow experience. Consider this account of one surgeon's interview, and how similar it is to describing a masterful Trials run or Street Fighter match: "In good surgery everything you do is essential, every move is excellent and necessary; there is elegance, little blood loss, and a minimum of trauma..." (3)
More recently, direct video game play research by Richard Ryan et. al. appears to corroborate this on some level: "People who experienced autonomy and competence in playing showed more positive outcomes, helping again to explain why, for some people, games may provide a source of pleasure and perhaps restoration." (4) It's important to note here that Ryan's test subjects were not masters at games, but rather a sample of low to average-skill players. Note that words like "autonomy" and "competence" are precisely the same terms Csikszentmihalyi uses to identify markers of the flow experience.
Ryan went on further to say that, "It's our contention that the psychological 'pull' of games is largely due to their capacity to engender feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness," and that playing video games "also can be experienced as enhancing psychological wellness, at least short-term."
Could it be that Ryan's reports of such feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as experienced in games occur as players reach a flow state, and that the "psychological pull of games" is in fact the pull of the flow state itself, and that the repetitive structure of performance games is an optimal means of achieving deep flow? It would seem that rapid learning, repetition, and the flow state all go hand in hand.
While mastery is possible to achieve in any real-life skilled endeavor, video games are exceptional because they give us the tools to achieve mastery of performance in a (potentially) supremely accessible, efficient way. You don't have to waste time going after your ball after you've thrown it. You don't have to stop because you're physically exhausted (in most cases). The repetition loop of learning can be compressed into the tightest space possible without compromise. The material and feedback can be presented to the player in the most cognitively efficient way possible, to match the player's abilities, which maximizes learning and in turn satisfaction. No other medium is capable of this.
Not every video game experience must or even should be of the kind that challenges you to constantly stretch the boundaries of your own abilities from second to second. However, video games are not just a vehicle for sheer entertainment either. They have within them a tremendous power to teach us, to improve ourselves, to light an emotional, motivational spark in us in a way no other medium can.
How games are ultimately employed, in what proportions, and what history will think of them is left up to us, the publishers, the developers, the players. Will you choose to sell or craft or play something that functions only to occupy time, in whatever entertaining manner? Or will it do something more?
(2) Gee, James P., Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul (2005).
(3) Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1975), p. 136, 158, 195.
(4) Ryan, Richard M., Rigby, C. Scott, Przybylski, Andrew, The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach, Motivation and Emotion, Volume 30, Number 4 (2006).