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The joy of making the same mistake twice

Why the grind isn't always a grind.

The definition of gameplay is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That's largely the case for me, at least. I play a lot of online competitive multiplayer (mainly Call of Duty and Rainbow Six Siege), and this year, I've even been jumping back into the Destiny grind now and again. The point is, I'm constantly running through the same environments, chasing the same objectives, using the same fairly small pool of weapons. Why am I not getting bored? Why am I actively enjoying it?

In an effort to understand this, I manage to encourage neuroscientist and author Dr Dean Burnett to chat with me about it. Despite a packed schedule - he's recently been promoting his latest book Psycho-Logical and he's helping to decide the future of European science communication policy - he fits me in one evening. He is incredibly friendly and cheerful, and very happy to share his insight.

"What seems like a sweet spot for how the brain responds is a nice mix of both something familiar, and also the element of novelty," he tells me. "With a game, there is always an element of novelty [...] you still have control over what happens so you can go this way, use this weapon. 'This time I'll try it this way around.' So there's an element of novelty, there's an element of direct influence in the situation so you've got that control, that sense of [...] I have control of the environment."

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I think of Rainbow Six, which in theory at least is the most repetitive game I play. There are a variety of maps, but they're all pretty small, and the nature of the attack-and-defend gameplay means that the area you move around in is always fairly limited. But, yes, my performance in each match always comes down to the actions that I take, which are never repeated precisely. I'm always tasked with attacking or defending the objective, I'll rarely play outside of my half-dozen favourite characters, but I'm never playing the same match twice.

That's Rainbox Six, anyway. I was a little surprised to find myself coming back to Destiny 2, as I have always despised grind-heavy games. A combination of multiple updates and a long time away has resulted in plenty of fresh content for me to explore, though, so I chose to give it another go. And it's that element of choice, Dr Burnett explains, that makes the difference between my hating a traditional grind and being happy to run through fundamentally similar gameplay sessions.

"I don't have control, I'm just being made to do this," he says, summing up what I realise I think about grinding at both a conscious and subconscious level. "So that's not quite as rewarding. It's like, well, I'm invested now but I resent doing it, but I have to do it [as opposed to] this is a comfort blanket game [...] I'm good at this, I choose to play this, and I choose to get better. That's where the division lies, I think."

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None of us like having our ability to choose taken away, but I do think it's interesting that many people love that grinding element that I hate. Whereas I want to be able to see everything a game has to offer with the minimum of fuss, a lot of people will gravitate towards games that they know will expect them to grind out levels and gear in order to progress. It seems that fundamentally, this isn't a problem for them because they are choosing that style of gameplay. It's just not for me.

Speaking of which: Remember the short-lived Online Pass? It was a code included in physical copies of a game to unlock online functionality. An effort by publishers to recover a slice of revenuer from the second-hand market, it proved deeply unpopular, and was eventually binned across the industry. The popularity of loot boxes exploded as a result and, when they became politically sensitive, most companies retreated to the safer grounds of the battle pass. It's difficult to find an online shooter without one of these things nowadays. They clearly work, though, as they keep millions of people (myself included) playing, regardless of any repetitive element. Pay for the pass, get a few goodies straight away, then keep piling in the hours to unlock everything else.

"That's quite clever psychology," says Dr Burnett. He explains that the potential for a 'you've got my money, give me the content' mentality is avoided by presenting the content as rewards; as a series of achievements. "It's a way of marking progression, like, evaluating your own abilities and improvements [...] I've unlocked 17 skins. Well that's a quantifiable fact that makes you think, well, this is how good I am at this because I can show you data [...] that shows us you've done well here."

I admit it: sometimes, when my enthusiasm for a game has waned slightly - when the repetitive nature of the game starts to creep into my consciousness after many hours of play within a short period of time - a battle pass has encouraged me to run through a few more matches, because that timer is ticking down to the next season, when the current pass will disappear forever. My eyes have been opened, though, and I'm not sure how happy I am about it. Free content is sprinkled throughout a battle pass, but the vast majority of it has to be paid for. Not only is progress towards this content I've already paid for agonisingly slow, each new item is presented as a reward! The cheek of it!

What I've learned, I suppose, is that the games I play aren't actually quite as repetitive as I thought. As Dr Burnett points out to me, it's easy to quickly become tired of a repetitive TV show, but the interactive nature of games offers control. It's impossible to say with any certainty precisely what will happen next, because I play against and alongside different people each time, and each one of those individuals is making their own choices. We're all beautiful snowflakes. Beautiful, SMG and grenade launcher-toting snowflakes.