When I was a little kid, every trip to the mall was a potential trip to the arcade. A five-dollar bill clutched tightly in hand, my brother and I would rush into that flashing cavern of earthly delights, fidgeting in anticipation while twenty quarters clattered into the coin-machine dish. My favorite games were Tekken, Time Crisis, and The Simpsons, but I rarely chose to play those games. Instead I would thumb my quarters into ski-ball machines and sport simulators, not because I liked these games, but because these games gave me tickets. The tickets were key. You could exchange them for prizes. Maybe my brother had more fun when we were there, blowing all of his quarters on Time Crisis, but I was the one with the brand new Chinese Finger Trap, and wasn’t that the important thing?
I’m on my third character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I promised myself that this time I would just have fun, but it was a promise that I couldn’t keep. As I write these words there is a rubber band strapped to my Xbox controller, forcing my character to swim into a stone wall, endlessly pumping his arms but never going anywhere. Once an hour a message flashes across the screen: “Your Athletics Skill has increased.” I’m a hundred hours into the game and I’ve barely played it at all.
When you start out in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you’re a frail shadow of the god you will one day become. The path from the poor harbor of Seyda Neen to the bustling city of Balmora is grueling and dangerous; you’re so weak that any battle could end in death. I remember getting lost in the hills with no idea where I was going – just somewhere, anywhere. I staggered from fight to fight, growing in confidence and skill. By the end of the game I was slicing up enemies like so many loaves of bread. Morrowind made me feel like a hero, but Oblivion makes me feel like a muscular man who never leaves the gym.
Or how about some metaphors: Morrowind was a stoic giant, stern and frightening, but I knew that someday I would stand next to him as an equal and look him in the eyes. Oblivion, though…Oblivion is a creepy man who wants to hold my hand.
It begins with a tutorial in a cave. “Here’s how to stab things. Here’s how to shoot a bow. Isn’t it cool how when you shoot that bucket it reacts realistically?” asks Oblivion, pulling me along, gripping my hand a little too tightly. “Now,” he says, bending onto a knee. “Now it’s time to pick what you want to be good at! How about sneaking? We had fun practicing sneaking, didn’t we?” I fall for his ruse, picking a bunch of useful skills as my majors. Thirty hours in, I die in the same necromancer-infested cave a dozen times over before I quit the game in confused frustration.
It turns out that the enemies in Oblivion, unlike those in Morrowind, level up with you. If you don’t carefully pick your major skills and plan out each level efficiently, even relatively weak enemies can quickly overwhelm you, and there is nothing that you can do to fix it short of cranking down the game’s difficulty. If you select major skills that you actually plan to use, you will accumulate meager attribute bonuses and become weaker relative to all of the enemies in the game. The Oblivion wiki suggests that you should only pick major skills that you don’t intend to use, and then intentionally grind those skills when you actually decide to level. In short, Oblivion tricks you into making stupid decisions and then it punishes you for them.
My second character is an exercise in misery. Grinding is boring and my first character just finished these quests. I sink hours into endlessly, pointlessly tapping the same button on my keyboard, before finally giving up. The game just isn’t fun anymore, and why should I play a game that isn’t fun?
Two years later, after buying an Xbox360, I find a copy of Oblivion for ten bucks. I remember that I never finished it and, on a whim, take it home to start a new character. “This time,” I tell myself, “this time I’ll just have fun. I won’t worry about my Endurance level, and if worst comes to worst I can always lower the difficulty.” As I make my way through the tutorial cave for the third time, though, I remember what it was like to fail. I hate the private humiliation of being beaten by a game. I’ve never played on easy, and goddamn it I’m not going to start now. I skewer a final squealing rat and once more it’s time to choose my major skills. I sigh as I select Speechcraft, Security, Hand-to-Hand, becoming a master of all things useless.
“Well,” I think, “if I’m going to do this again I might as well go all the way.” I grab an empty notebook and write “1)” in the top left-hand corner to indicate my character’s level. I fill it with my skill and attribute values, and I mark each marginal upgrade with a tally. The skills that I actually plan to use – Blade, Heavy Armor, Block, Destruction, etc. – are pitifully underdeveloped, so I decide to just grind those for a little while before I start the actual game. Twenty-four levels later my book is filled with scrawled pages of numbers, tallies and skill names. I’ve used my pen nearly as much as my controller.
Maybe playing the game isn’t just about trudging through dungeons and saving the world; maybe it’s also a process of discovering the rules of the system and outsmarting them. It has become that way for me, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve opened a door that I wasn’t supposed to know about and now I’m tinkering behind the scenes. Back here the bandits and minotaurs are just sad cardboard cutouts, and I realize that they aren’t my enemies at all. I’m playing against the developers. Isn’t this a step away from being a role-playing game? Scribbling on stat sheets and keeping track of skill levels hardly makes me feel like a battlemage.
The odd thing is that for some reason I’m still actually enjoying myself. I didn’t think that trailing rats through the Imperial sewers in order to level my Heavy Armor skill was my idea of fun. There’s something about the grind that keeps me coming back for more, and game designers know it. World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, is practically nothing but grinding. Almost every JRPG that I’ve played requires me to perform the same repetitive, mindless tasks for hours, just so that I can move into the next area or kill the next boss. And yet these are the games that I love.
For whatever reason, Oblivion takes the monotony to a whole new level. Here’s a glimpse of how I’ve spent my 100+ hours of game time. For a while I just summoned the same skeleton over and over again, killing him each time with a rusty dagger. That was leveling my Blade skill. Before that I literally pressed the right bumper over 3000 times, while jumping up and down. That was leveling my Restoration and Acrobatics skills simultaneously, because hey, I wouldn’t want to waste time.
One of the biggest accusations thrown at gaming is that it’s a waste of time. We’re taught from a young age (at least I was) that time is our most valuable possession, and how you choose to “spend” your time is one of the most important decisions that you can make. Time is to actions as money is to merchandise: you can convert it into anything. Gaming is a double evil because it consumes your money and your time. At least that’s the common assumption. As a result, games have to prove to us that they’re worth our time by making us feel productive. I think that this is one of the key reasons for the success and proliferation of grinding. Every time a skill level flashes on the screen it reminds us that we’re achieving something. It makes us feel good about what we’re doing. Dozens of tiny rewards keep us interested, and the big rewards on the horizon keep us going.
Oblivion is a ski-ball machine. I don’t play it for the experience of playing it. I play it for the tickets.