science of us

Video Games Are a To-Do List You Play

Photo: Courtesy of CD Projekt Red

Among the pastimes I’ve acquired over the past few years, the most long-lasting has been video games I play on my Nintendo Switch, and I think I’ve finally figured out why. No matter the game’s subject matter, style, or story, my favorites all have one central element that feels deeply familiar: a never-ending stream of busywork and chores.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is about running errands. Skyrim is about running errands. The Witcher is really about running errands. There are larger narratives and goals to each, and a fair amount of fighting, but between the battles and the pieces of origin story (which I personally don’t care about), there is a sweet, steady supply of tasks I must complete. Video games are a to-do list you play.

To better understand the appeal (and predominance) of virtual errand-running, I got in touch with Matthew Barr, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow’s school of computing science, who studies game-based skill development. First, he tells me, there’s a reason most big, popular video games have a chores-y component: They’re a cheap way to create content, allowing designers to tweak just a few variables to create dozens of tasks and story lines to put between a game’s central challenges. In one town in Skyrim, for instance, you might be asked to deliver a love letter from a farmer to a barmaid; in the next, you might be asked to find a missing brother in the forest outside town. These tasks are different enough to keep the player engaged, but they’re similarly easy to make for the designers.

Video game people — or as Barr says, nerds — call this sort of task “grind.” Most games have lots of it, but it’s not necessarily what’s advertised. For a long time, says Barr, “The people running the industry were guys who just assumed they were making games for guys.” The result is ads that highlights dragons and sick weaponry over, say, the parts where you’re running around town spreading gossip like a character in a Jane Austen novel, or employing two gay guys to redecorate your home — parts which guys also, obviously, enjoy.

The main reason people like their video games to come with some grind has to do with self-determination theory, says Barr. “One of the three basic human needs is a sense of autonomy, a sense that we’re able to control things,” he says. “[Grind] is repetitive, and chore-like, but at the same time, you’re able to check them off and say ‘I’ve done that.’” On the one hand, I am annoyed when, as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher, I am asked to go back to the town from which I’ve just come to retrieve something to bring back to the cave I’m in now, and then go back to the town again to let someone know. On the other hand, when I’ve finished, there’s a really satisfying choral sound, and I get points, and I feel good about myself. That does not happen when I finish dusting my apartment.

Even better, because these tasks are low stakes (i.e., imaginary), they provide a hit of accomplishment without the same level of anxiety or stress that real-life tasks can induce. “The stakes are lowered, but it still taps into that part of the brain where it feels like you’re getting stuff done,” explains Barr. “You feel like you’re in control.”

This is not to say that grind is always a good thing; like so much else in life, it’s all about balance. Barr points to Destiny, a multi-person, first-person shooter released in 2014, as a good example of grind gone wrong, requiring players to do too much grind before they could advance. (Though the game has millions of registered users, it was roundly criticized for its weak story.) A related dilemma, made popular by mobile games, is the option some games provide to buy one’s way out of the grind entirely — as in the Kim Kardashian game, where you could pay real money to get more outfits more quickly, which I certainly never did.

In an increasing number of games, says Barr, “You can pay to get past the grind, and that suggests to me a fundamentally broken game design, or that the accountants have had too much sway in how the game is designed.”

Beyond their impact on our bank accounts, these games also rob players of what they actually (mostly) enjoy: that sense, however small, of personal achievement. The reward in video game play is in the beautiful fireproof robes you buy when you’re finally able to level up, yes, but it’s also in the work it took to get you there. Grind is life. Life is grind.

Video Games Are a To-Do List You Play