The daily grind

Publication date: 18 March 2011
Originally published 2010 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


"Grinding" existed before computer games. If you doubt me, visit a casino.

But games made it worse.

Doing something monotonous over and over again to increase your skills is, in the real world, called "practice" and "rote learning". Don Bradman bouncing that golf ball off a water tank with a stump for a bat was the very soul of grinding. Except that he ended up really good at a culturally important real-world game, while computer-game grinders just end up with a more powerful character in a game that even they may not remember a few years later.

It's this ephemeral pointlessness that makes people hate grinding in games. If you have to do something tedious to make something in the real world (even if that something is only money), then it may be tiresome, but it does at least have a worthwhile purpose, like feeding your family.

Grinding XP and/or loot in a game, in contrast, may make you quite cross with yourself when you're lying on your deathbed.

And then there's the other kind of grinding, in which you find yourself strangely compelled to continue some repetitive act which may gain you in-game cash or XP or something, but which has a mesmeric grip unjustified by the actual reward. One day I will overcome my irresistible impulse, in RPGs, to interrupt my quest to save the world every time I see any item that has value but zero weight. But for now, I will continue to collect every pencil I see in the last two Fallout games.

(Oh, and we all also know it was soothing to spend half an hour jogging around outside CJ's house in San Andreas chainsawing your homies for cash. But you should probably keep that under your hat, in case a politician finds out.)

The very worst grinding is the kind that you have to do to get to the next interesting thing in the game, and which is artificially prolonged by infuriating game design. (It has been observed that the number of bears you should have to kill to get three bear-claws for a quest-giving NPC is one, not thirty.)

Fortunately, though, the compulsive power of the grind can also be used for good.

In the non-profit world, everyone knows that even if it's legal to pay workers, let's say, one dollar an hour, that's a terrible idea. Any un-incarcerated adult citizen of the developed world will be insulted by so low a wage.

But lots of people are, if their finances permit it, perfectly happy to work for free, for a worthy cause.

It turns out that you can get people to work for free on online projects, too - especially if you figure out a way to make a game out of it. (Whereupon players can be rewarded with nothing but good old "points", which I'm told are quite inexpensive to make.)

A few years ago, Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn invented the "ESP Game". The ESP Game site sends two players the same image to look at, and then the players try to type words that match a word the other player's typed. With no way of talking to their anonymous partner, they have to type words having something to do with the picture they see. The ESP Game gives you a point for every match, which by itself makes it a perfect grind activity - but the matching words are actually used to tag the images with metadata about their contents, a task which computers can't yet do.

The ESP Game was quickly adapted into "Google Image Labeler"; von Ahn has some similar offerings at ("Games With A Purpose"). They've expanded the concept into defining words, tagging music and video, and identifying objects in images.

There are many tasks like this on Amazon's "Mechanical Turk", as well. People who put jobs on The Turk actually pay for contributions, though generally so little that it goes beyond insulting and enters the realm of the ridiculous. An educated English-speaker can reasonably look forward to making as much as 50 US cents per hour doing Turk work.

(That's actually not a bad income, if you're living somewhere where the average monthly wage is a couple of hundred bucks. This depends, of course, on how much you have to spend to get Internet-connected to actually do the work.)

Many tasks, like for instance writing software, can't be cut into game-like easy pieces. That's why so many SourceForge projects stall. But distributed "human computation" is still a powerful tool.

All we need now is a way to test cancer drugs by shooting orcs.

Give 'em time.

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