Players of video games—particularly role-playing games (RPGs)—will often lament the problem of grinding (I suspect named in reference to “the daily grind”, but it is also sometimes referred to as “treadmilling”). The commonly-accepted definition of grinding is having to complete tedious and/or repetitive tasks. It often arises in the context of “leveling up” a character (essentially training to improve abilities).
Various workarounds have been proposed and/or implemented (see some examples). Completely removing the potential for grind would mean completely changing the leveling systems (which are otherwise tried, true, and effective), which would have significant consequences, so the approach de rigueur is to include some sort of payoff; a gold star for having defeated 100 swamp rats. This is applying an extrinsic reward to either motivate the player to grind, or placate them after a period of grinding.
While some aspects of game design—like the diminishing returns of experience points/leveling, and the random reinforcement of loot drops—are heavily informed by psychological findings, similar findings about the poor motivational effects of extrinsic rewards seem to have been passed over. Of course, it may also be that figuring out how to tap into intrinsic motivators is not only difficult, but getting back into the “overhaul the whole system” approach, which isn’t what we want.
I find myself wondering, though, if this is a case where the old adage “you never understand the solution until you understand the problem” applies. We have a definition of what grinding is, but maybe we need to consider why grinding is off-putting to so many players. Think of an RPG—whether it’s Ultima, Diablo, World of Warcraft, or even Pokémon—the parts of the game that are perceived as “grinding” aren’t mechanically different to the rest, they’re when your goals are different. You need to get stronger before you can overcome the next challenge. Your character still gains experience and levels while completing quests, but it’s a side-effect. “Grinding” is when leveling up becomes the main goal. And that’s just not very interesting*.
We can see something similar in the world of sports. The equivalent would be playing a match that has no impact on which team wins the trophy, so the only advantage to the players is the potential for improving their stats (though there’s still ticket sales, broadcast revenue, etc. to entice the higher-ups). For example, the fifth match of a best-of-five final when the score is 3-1; such a match is referred to as a “dead rubber”, and in some cases is abandoned.
Maybe this perspective can help. Grinding doesn’t seem like grinding if there’s another reason for doing it besides boosting stats**. Earning a gold star doesn’t help, unless it makes a difference to later gameplay. Perhaps other characters could start referring to your character as “Bane of Swamp Rats”. Perhaps swamp rats become more likely to flee rather than attack. But something beneficial—give them a reason, not an arbitrary number.
* For most players, anyway. For some, it’s the main attraction, and that’s fine, but I don’t believe that’s the case for the majority.
** Partly because I was feeling the lack of footnote, but also because this is a genuine side-issue: granularity. Sometimes the problem isn’t that there’s no other reason to kill all those swamp rats, but that you have to kill so many before it matters. It comes down to the same thing though: if you make the player’s actions feel meaningful, they’re less likely to get bored/frustrated with their progress. This is sometimes called “breadcrumbing”—leaving a trail of small markers/rewards to lead the player onward.