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Finding Balance in Gaming with OCD

This month, we’re exploring OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and how people with lived experience of OCD connect with gaming.

We reached out to our community to educate our readers on what OCD really is, how it affects people, and what we can do to be better allies.

Misconceptions around OCD

OCD is often misconceived within the general population, with many referring to OCD as simply being tidy or organised. We want to dispel misinformation around the disorder to allow for a greater understanding and empathy surrounding OCD.

So, what exactly is OCD? Victoria Kennedy explains their experiences – “my OCD manifests itself differently to how it is often portrayed in the media (Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets comes to mind). For me, it is a very internal thing, and if you were chatting to me while I was going through my OCD process, you would probably have no idea something else was going on beneath the surface. My obsessions are thoughts that become incredibly real to me. My compulsions are then things that I do to try and negate those thoughts. Essentially, I will become obsessed with the idea that something bad is going to happen, and it will induce panic and anxiety.”

This misconception is affected by modern media portrayals, which Mario Mergola explains. “It is undoubtedly the media depiction of requiring certain things in certain order — think of the boss in Disney’s Incredibles lining up his pencils on his desk calendar. OCD isn’t about seeking perfection with clean edges and nicely fitting pieces of a puzzle. The assumption for the viewer is that the boss wants his pencils aligned in a specific way. The OCD element behind this would really be the character’s difficulty to focus properly or feel confident if his compulsion is not met, and a more accurate outcome would have probably been him continuing to fidget with the pencil even when it is lined up, because it wouldn’t feel right to him.”

Credit: Walt Disney’s ‘The Incredibles’

Gabe Gurwin found the same sentiment, explaining; “it’s not a fun quirk in someone’s personality. If you love having stuff organized or you keep your house tidy, that doesn’t mean you have OCD: it means you like having stuff organized.” Cait Martinez from Big Blue Sky Games adds “there’s so much more to it. The rituals, the anxiety, the feeling of no control, the intrusive thoughts – this is the reality and “ugliness” of having OCD, it’s not a joke!

Lottie from Modern Wolf agrees, mentioning that “OCD is living with a voice telling you to act out compulsions to avoid a horrible situation, not having a tidy house/setup,” Lottie adds, “we act out compulsions to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and some compulsions can be really upsetting.”

Lessons Shared

A common theme that I’ve noticed in many responses from our community on OCD is the feeling of isolation or loneliness in the diagnosis; the lack of understanding from the outside world can feel overwhelmingly lonely at times, and having a support network or sharing your experiences can help others in their journey. As part of this feature, I asked our contributors what they would tell their younger self about managing OCD.

Gabe opens up about medication, explaining that “the very first thing I would have told myself was the medicine that finally had an effect – in my case it was Clomipramine, but getting that help from a healthcare professional who is knowledgeable on the topic is extremely important”. 

There are so many things I wish I could tell little Cait, but I think the most important one would be to tell myself that therapy and medication are not to be feared, they work! I’d also just want to comfort my younger self and say that I am NOT my intrusive thoughts,” Cait Martinez shares, “there are so many people who are going through the same thing that I am right now.”

Ysobel shared their learnings as well, explaining that “the compulsions I feel I must do to make myself feel safe are actually just fear and anxiety trying to control me. Following through on those compulsions just reinforces that I must go through those particular actions to be safe, otherwise something awful could happen. This isn’t true and once you start to realise when it’s just your OCD whispering in your ear to do something, it becomes a little bit more manageable.

“One thing I’d say is that you aren’t your OCD”, Luke Hinton says, “It’s much easier said than done, but try not to let obsessive worries or thoughts eat away at you – you aren’t your OCD, and refusing to give compulsions the power to dominate your thoughts or actions is the first step to minimising their impact.”

OCD Representation in Games

When I started researching the occurrence of OCD representation in games, I found virtually nothing on characters with OCD or gameplay demonstrating what OCD feels like. There were mixed feelings as to whether game-makers should be doing more to represent obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a responsibility of those game-makers to adequately content warn their audience to avoid triggering distressing thoughts in players.

Chad Bouton puts this well, “it’s more about the player – there are always players who want to escape from themselves in-game, and don’t want to see themselves in characters, but there can be positive self-talk as part of seeing yourself as well.”

I don’t really think video games have done much to highlight OCD in characters throughout the years, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t want them to. Any reminder of OCD itself could start triggering those obsessive thoughts to return, and OCD-related anxiety is so personal that I don’t believe seeing it in someone else in a video game can necessarily be helpful. – Gabe

Gabe continues to explain their relationship with games and OCD; “when my OCD was at its peak, I almost entirely stopped playing video games. They no longer brought me joy, they didn’t act as an escape for whatever problems I was dealing with, and they only served to give me more anxiety. Discovering as my symptoms were treated that I finally enjoyed playing video games again and sought they out for fun was when I realized I was finally in a better place.”

Caitlan discusses how the Dragon Age series left its mark on her, with a big part of that being an outlet for her OCD.I believe I gravitated towards video games, and RPGs in particular, to help with my almost unattainable need for control that comes from my OCD as well as previous trauma, and Dragon Age gives me that control by allowing me to completely influence how my story happens throughout the games. I get to choose who I help, who I recruit, what I believe in, what happens to the others around me, and more. It’s feels freeing to have this experience because it’s almost like you’re creating your own story, especially when there are multiple outcomes for your decisions. When I felt like I couldn’t do that in real life, I knew that I could escape to Dragon Age and other games to control my life in those worlds.”

Ysobel talks about Undertale and it’s ties to OCD for them. “Growing up my OCD told me that everything was dangerous, no one could be trusted and I had to always be prepared for when these awful things happened. I soon saw most people as monsters just waiting to hurt me and decided I had to be cold and sometimes aggressive towards them to keep myself safe. When I first played Undertale back at university, I remember feeling connected to this small child who was alone in the dark surrounded by monsters. But then instead of the usual game mechanics of ‘Ah a monster! Kill it before it hurts you!’ you could befriend them.

A big part that stuck with me is the recurring theme of determination. Despite how hard it is sometimes to keep doing the right thing and not give into fear, your determination keeps you going through the dark. It’s very similar with OCD. You need to stay determined to not let it try and take over you, some days will be harder than others, but if you can stay strong you can find the good in everything.”

“I always enjoy it when a game gives you a choice in how you direct the story, so mechanics wise, games with narrative trees. It makes me feel more invested in a character’s journey, and that connection often plays into facets of my own self. The Life is Strange series comes to mind here.” Victoria shares, “In the first game, seeing Max trying to fix things was very relatable. I really felt her desire to make things right. And, in True Colors, I felt a really strong connection to Alex as she tried to negotiate life after loss and hardship. A lot of the choices I made through Alex were choices I wish I could have made when I had been in similar situations, but felt too scared to do so. I cried a lot in that game, it felt very personal, and in many ways I found it even more beautiful because of that. It gave me a chance to feel those emotions I had kept hidden away for such a long time without even realising it. It was very cathartic.”

Gaming Differently

One contributor commented on the similarities on OCD and ADHD, mentioning that “getting a second screen helped a lot. It allows me to do two things at all times, so if I do play a slow game say like TFT, I can also be doing something else on my other screen. Sometimes if I play a really slow game, I might have another on the other screen. I have a tendency to hate slow games, but no one else would consider them that. So as an example, I struggle with games like Valorant and R6 Siege during the beginnings and endings of rounds because there’s just too much downtime in-between for me, especially if I died early in the round, right?”

Lottie mentions Unpacking as a game that they find is great for their OCD – “everything has a set place (or usually a few) so it encourages you to challenge your compulsions rather than go back, check somewhere and try placing an object 100 times. Getting to unpack/neaten things also just fills my brain with so much serotonin and the soundtrack is beautiful!”

A game mechanic that can be helpful to gamers with OCD is more liberal save points. Ysobel discusses this, “Save points or limited save slots are very stressful. Being able to see when I save and making multiple saves before I shut the game down helps with the annoying fear of losing my game progress… OCD can make you a bit of a pack rat where you don’t want to throw anything out in case you might need it, so it makes me stressed to know I must give up a save to add my latest progress.”

Jamie C shares that “loot based games, strategy games and other games games with a rich plot tale help [me]. I get so engaged in the storyline, or the gameplay, that my mind really focuses in on that, which is quite unusual day-to-day for me. Some examples of ones I find helpful are: Borderlands series, Elder Scrolls Series, Total War Series. If I have been struggling with my OCD, immersion into one of these is great for me.”

Chad talks about the value of farm simulation games for their own OCD, “there’s a lot of given tasks that I’m going to do every day. It’s usually done on a calendar with seasons, and I really like getting into a pattern. Sometimes with OCD we really like patterns – it can also be negative, but in terms of the game knowing I’m going to go cut some wood, make some charcoal etc. Scheduling out my days helps.”

Looking Forward

Explaining the reality of having OCD and correcting common misconceptions is a good start, but what can the games industry in particular do to support employees and gamers with OCD?

Ellie Law addresses the awareness aspect of OCD in the gaming industry, “the support I’d most like to see in the video games industry is understanding. A basic of understanding of what OCD is, and how different and complex it can be person-to-person goes so far.” Luke agrees, adding that it also applies to wider society; “The sooner this becomes more widespread, the easier life will get for those suffering, to ask for help or just say when things are tough.”

Gabe explains how “people in positions of power need to understand that having this condition is not some quirky superpower.”

The whole “I’m OCD about this” trope has never really gotten properly addressed. I still hear it pretty frequently in gaming circles.

“Hearing that sort of casual tossing around of “OCD” risks minimizing the pain it causes people who have the condition, and that obviously isn’t the intention of those using it that way, but it can desensitize them when they meet someone who actually has OCD.”

Education around OCD is important to enable companies and fellow employees to be more empathetic and reactive to it. This can be especially impactful when implementing change management.

Lottie recommended something similar, saying “if something big happens in the company or to an employee, please be as transparent as possible about it; also reassure people that they’re doing a good job! I have magical thinking OCD and cannot tell you how often I have acted out compulsions out of fear of ‘not getting a promotion’ or ‘getting fired’. Communication and time scales (when possible) are so important for people with OCD, it helps us tick a metaphorical box in our mind to battle against our compulsions! I’d encourage every workplace to learn more about OCD, there are so many types that affect people in different ways.”

Mario dives into the world of game development projects and the impact of a lack of feedback from employers during the hiring process. “As we know, the industry is treacherous to navigate right now – supply is low and demand is high – and it is disheartening for anyone, let alone someone battling mental health concerns. I know how difficult of an ask this is, but the best way for the industry to provide support is to find a way to offer some form of feedback with rejections. The unknown of how to proceed with future endeavors takes its toll.”

Victoria sums it up nicely, adding that “I would love to see more support and understanding for those living with OCD, but also support and the opportunity to learn about the condition for the wider industry as well. Without wanting to sound too High School Musical, we are all in this together, and educating more people on the matter, and providing the resources to keep the dialogue around mental health open, would be a huge step in the right direction.”

I (Rosie) started this article with the intention of curating experiences and support for those with OCD in the games industry, and feel as though I’ve brought together something quite special, with the power to change people’s understanding about gaming and OCD. One of the most important take-aways I wanted from this were call to actions to our industry and to each other – so to our readers – please do your part in making our industry a safer space for everyone.