An Orc slave miner in World of Warcraft

Are Games Like World of Warcraft Exploitative by Design?

Grinding, or repeatedly participating in a mundane in-game activity in anticipation of an in-game reward, is nothing new. Both single-player and multiplayer games have featured elements of grinding, whether intentional or as a byproduct of bad design.

While I don’t have a problem with optional grinding in standard games, the inclusion of grinds in subscription-based MMOs introduces an opportunity for player exploitation.

Unpaid Paid Labour

Like single-player or multiplayer titles, MMOs like World of Warcraft include in-game rewards that require weeks or months of in-game task completion to obtain. However, the difference is that MMOs also require players to pay monthly subscription fees before they can even begin chasing that elusive carrot-on-a-stick. For players who dislike grinding, this is not unlike being asked to pay for your pickaxe before you head into a mineshaft for some soul-sucking, brain-dulling digital slave labour.

You could argue that these grinds are optional, but grinding is often a prerequisite for access to the most exciting features or rewards in MMOs. For instance, to unlock the playable Highmountain Tauren race in World of Warcraft, I had to complete world quests and run the same dungeon (Neltharion’s Lair) dozens of times to earn enough in-game “reputation.”

Completing the Highmountain Tauren quest chain is the other unlock requirement, but it should be the only one. This particular gameplay sequence takes you on a thrilling adventure through the forested bluffs and frosted ridges of a well-realized fantasy world. It’s an engaging romp that showcases the culmination of talent behind World of Warcraft. In contrast, the reputation grind that follows is an unflattering gameplay experience: it’s dull, repetitive, and feels like an egregious disservice to the game and its players.

Wasted Efforts

Gatekeeping content behind soul-sucking grinds and asking players to finance their grinding with real-world currency is distasteful. But it’s even more offensive when developers like Blizzard backpedal by retroactively reducing grind requirements later on.

Earlier this month, alpha testers for World of Warcraft’s upcoming Shadowlands expansion discovered that Blizzard is likely removing the reputation grind as an unlock prerequisite for all allied races in the game. It’s a sensible revision of bad game design, but it also invalidates the efforts of pre-patch players who (likely begrudgingly) sat through hours of unsatisfying gameplay.

I guess you could argue that the efforts of these players granted them earlier access to the races, and even that some players enjoyed the grind. But retroactive changes like this feel exploitative and make me distrust the game’s developers. Remember, Blizzard isn’t just asking its most loyal players to invest their time into grinding: it also expects them to fund these menial gameplay experiences with monthly subscription fees.

I enjoy dabbling in MMOs from time to time. But I also can’t help but feel like I’m a rat in some kind of Pavlovian experiment when I play them.

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