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What do players really mean by "grinding"?

This article helps developers identify the real reasons why players complain about "grinding".

Yongcheng Liu

June 3, 2022

7 Min Read

"Grinding" is the most common complaint about video games. Although players are so resonant with each other about the topic of "grinding", what exactly do they mean by complaining "grinding", and are they even talking about the same thing? Does grinding mean the length of time spent on the game, and is it an objective amount of time consumption, or is it a subjective perception? When developers receive feedback from players that "the game is too grinding and time-consuming", they often fall into the dilemma of whether to modify the length of certain gameplay. This article will analyze from a psychological point of view to uncover the truth about "grinding".

1. What is influencing the inner clocks of players?

- Introduction to time perception and the factors that influence it

Grinding refers to the playing time spent doing repetitive tasks within a game, requiring a lot of time investment from players.


Time perception refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of the time interval between successive events.

According to psychological theories, people judge the length of time based on two factors: external factors, such as sunrise and sunset, day and night, and timing tools; internal factors, which are the internal psychological activities of people, as well as the regular activities of the body, like the inner clocks.

But people's inner clock often does not go along with the real-time, that is, time illusion. To give a simple example, for the same two hours, when you play your favorite game, you will feel the time is like a fleeting show; but if you happen to watch a terrible movie, you will feel every minute like a long time.

So what factors can affect time perception?

Emotions, attention, interests, life experiences, and the amount of information of events all influence time perception. In general,

① people will feel time pass faster when they are in a relaxed and happy mood, but will slow it down when they are anxious, angry, and painful;

② people will feel that time passes more quickly when they are faced with something they are interested in;

③ people will forget the time when they are fully engaged in a thing, but if attention is used on-time information, you will feel that the days are like years;

④ within a certain time, the more things happen, the more abundant and complex, people tend to feel the time pass faster. In addition, people's vision is more susceptible to external influences than hearing and is less accurate in judging time.

2. Some common misunderstandings about "grinding"

- Grinding is not equal to the long time spent

Back to the problem of grinding, we already know that time perception is not equal to the actual duration, and "grinding" is a kind of subjective perception of players, so when players say "the game is grinding", the word is not necessarily equal to the actual long time spent on the game, but referring to "I think it takes a long time to play the game".

However, in the actual game development process, developers are sometimes prone to equate grinding with long gaming time, but this is actually an error. For example, an MMORPG has been operating for many years, and the daily tasks have been complained as too time-consuming by players, how should the game user researcher conduct follow-up research at this time?

We would find the players and break down which part of the gameplay they think is time-consuming, what kind of optimization they want, and what is the maximum acceptable length. But this solution actually ignores one point - after release, the daily tasks have not become longer, and may even become simplified, so even shortening the length of time can not solve the real problem. The real problem of time consumption does not point to the length of time, but to the above-mentioned "simple stimulus, decreasing interest, focusing on the wrong part".

3. What do players mean by "grinding"

- Different types of grinding

Because time perception is affected by a variety of factors, those complaints about "grinding" may not be the same thing at all! The "grinding" often has these forms of expression:

"Running back and forth all the time on the map, we need transportation tools? I feel like wasting my time"

"Too many daily tasks, they are so time-consuming!"

"Each round I have to fight the same dungeon five times, and it is just so boring, can this task be canceled?"

"There are a lot of weapons I have not yet collected, and hidden side tasks have not yet unlocked, which really cost a lot of time."

"This game is grinding, I can't stop 'trying one more round and then go to bed', and then the whole night passed!"

In all feedbacks above, some are those needs to pay attention to, while others may not pose a serious problem.

(1) For the first type of feedback, the problem is the act of performing repetitive tasks then perceived as a meaningless waste of time, which is the most commonly criticized "grinding" by players. Repetition increases the fluency with which people process information, and when extreme fluency is achieved, people begin to get bored. The negative emotion of boredom further stretches the perceived time length, even though proficiency increases and actually shortens the actual length of time, people feel that they are spending more time.

(2) The second type of feedback is worth noting that if the rules, output or progress of a task are uncertain and players cannot predict or control the time they spent, it is easy to get a feeling of grinding while waiting. For example, in waiting for game matching, players are more likely to feel the waiting time is too long to endure because they are only prompted to wait in progress but lack a specific cap on the length of it. In the newly released gameplays or new levels, if there is no clear description of each stage and progress of the game, players are also more likely to feel tired and then quit the game.

(3) In the third one, "boring" indicates that the content of the game may not be of interest to the player, but for the benefits they have to achieve the goal. Within that context, players' attention to the task also tends to focus on timing, i.e., how long the task will take and how long I have to take to finish it, rather than on the task itself, which will further lengthen players' perception of time.

(4) For the fourth and fifth types of feedback, although players also give feedback on grinding, it is more of a player's own choice, which does not necessarily mean negative feedback. For example, sandbox games and simulation games are often said to be "grinding" by players, but players often choose to do so on their own initiative with a certain purpose, so to speak, and some outstanding games can also attract players to start a second playthrough, or fight the same boss hundreds of times. The feeling of "grinding" can be avoided by giving players a slightly different experience each time or by guiding them to establish different goals in different stages.

4. How to potentially help avoid time illusion for players

Players' time perception is affected by both individual and environmental factors. Individual factors such as emotions and preferences are not easy to control in actual development, but we can still get some inspiration from psychology on environmental factors.

4.1. Using appropriate distractions instead of letting players wait

Just as waiting for people is a form of suffering, so is waiting for game loading. Providing some interesting content to read or watch can distract people's attention from the waiting time and thus reduce their feeling of boredom.

4.2. Giving information and feedback to reduce uncertainty

Specifically, it is to give clear feedback or information including waiting time, so that players can clearly know what processes are next and how long each process is expected to take. If players have no information about how long it will take, they feel it passes slower than it actually is, and vice versa.

4.3. Enriching the psychological experience of players

The more events happening in a certain time, the more complex they are, and the shorter people tend to estimate the time length, which suggests that sometimes we need to provide players with richer game content. However, it should be noted that this content needs to be able to enrich the players' psychological experience rather than increase their cognitive burden, which means that a complicated interface does not have the same effect. A complex interface with a lot of information can cause confusion and make players feel that they are spending more time by reducing their sense of control, or it can directly trigger negative emotions in players who think that the game looks "grinding".

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