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The Value of Repetition
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The Value of Repetition

by  [Design]

July 31, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Deconstructing The Repetitive Experience

There exist plenty of popular and repetitive activities, even outside of the video game world that are hardly ever described as repetitive, much less in more negative terms. Sports in general fit into this category.

After all, who has ever complained that shooting a basketball is "too repetitive"? While this activity is inherently repetitive at the most basic mechanical level, people will call it "fun", "interesting", "challenging", and even "rewarding" before they ever describe it as repetitive.

Inside the video game world it's easy to find examples of games that are highly repetitive on initial inspection, and yet produce similarly compelling, non-repetitive feelings each time.

Rock Band, Puzzle Quest, and Trials HD are just a few modern examples of popular games which feature extremely high degrees of structural repetition, like shooting a basketball. Yet these repetitive structures compel thousands to remain engaged over quite substantial periods of time.

On the other hand, we also have things like the infamous video game grind, a term typically assigned to an activity that is repetitive, uninteresting, and lacking a skill component. It's so pervasive across so many products that it's difficult to name a singular standout example (although Dragon Warrior was a seminal early example).

Real-life analogues of this include activities like ironing your clothes, washing dishes, and for many, "the tedious pattern of daily work" a.k.a. the daily grind. (1) These too, are fundamentally repetitive, uninteresting, unchallenging, and unrewarding -- at least intrinsically.

So, we have two very different-feeling classes of activities, both of which are in fact repetitive. Clearly the word repetitive is insufficient to describe how they are different, so let's deconstruct what is happening in each of these cases.

When you are shooting a basketball, or playing a level in Trials, or rocking the plastic guitar in Rock Band, on a surface level you are performing a repetitive action. Shooting the basketball requires you to face the basket, pick up the ball, and throw it with the aim of sinking the ball in the basket. Assuming that you're not trying to do it differently every time, this is essentially a loop of activity on the scale of several seconds.

Once you shoot the ball, you go pick it up and shoot again and again. In Rock Band, while a song may last for several minutes, each song itself is composed of repetitions of sequences. It's not uncommon for players to practice the same song over and over for hours. In Trials, you attempt to negotiate an obstacle course with your bike, and frequently these courses last for roughly a minute or so. As with the others, players routinely engage in repeating the same course 20 or 30 times in a session before losing interest, at least temporarily.

One distinguishing element of all of these "repetitive and interesting" activities is that they are non-trivial. You can't sink the ball in the basket every single time. You can't play the Rock Band song perfectly and with the highest score. You can't perform a flawless run in Trials and get the best possible time.

Compare this to the relative triviality of our "repetitive and uninteresting" grind activities. You could do a "bad job" or a "good job" ironing your clothes, but once you know the process, it is largely a matter of just going through the required motions to reach completion. There isn't much of a performance component.

The same is with grinding in video games, which players voluntarily suffer for the reward of accumulating some virtual statistic that in turn increases your character's power or agency in the game. It's a testament to the abject boredom involved in grinds that in many cases players devise ways of taping and rubber-banding their control devices into certain positions to allow the in-game character to perform the grind without even human intervention or attention.

So, this indicates that if there is a substantial performance component to an activity, it can be compelling and repetitive at the same time. But there is more happening here.

When there is a performance component to your activity, the implication is that you can achieve different levels of performance. You can sink the ball perfectly -- nothing but net as they say, or you can sink it in sloppy fashion, or you can miss completely. You can complete the Trials course in 50 seconds, or 120 seconds, or anywhere in between or beyond. The outcomes can vary, which is pretty interesting, and more interesting than the possible outcomes of your ironing session or RPG grind.

It is not just the variation of outcome that's the essential factor, however -- it's the fact that the player has control over the outcome, and further, that the player has the desire and capability to improve the outcome with each repetition. In between each attempt, and maybe even during, the player is learning.


(1) Spears, Richard A., Daily Grind, Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, Fourth Edition (2007).

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