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Obsessive Completionist Disorder: The Shaky Connection between OCD and Achievement

With the advent of achievements becoming a mainstay in gaming, it is easy to associate compulsive behaviour with ‘trophy hunters’ and ‘completionists’ who desire to 100% a game. The self-satisfaction that many people feel from getting an achievement (gaming-related or otherwise) is arguably the main reward and justification for all the effort and time used.

However, chasing achievements in games as a way to alleviate stress and anxiety can unknowingly become a hindrance to both players and the people around them due to its tenable connection with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

A concise definition taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) defines OCD as “Recurrent and persistent thoughts… experienced as intrusive, unwanted… that cause marked anxiety or distress.” When an individual experiences these particular urges, they feel compelled to act in a certain way so as to suppress them. This manifests in compulsive behaviour, such as repeating the same actions or mental acts to reduce distress, and often lasts for a protracted amount of time throughout the day. Compulsive repeated behaviour manifests itself in different ways once anxiety triggers manifest, with common (but not mandatory) examples including: washing hands, arranging things in specific orders, checking things frequently (e.g: lights, doors, cooking equipment), and so forth.

a diagram of OCD being a cycle - obsessions with meaning attached lead to distress, lead to compulsions to alleviate distress, leads to short term relief, that with negative reinforcement leads to obsessions again

Unfortunately, depictions of mental health in fictional media are often simplified into positive and negative quirks for the purposes of drama or characterisation, and one could argue that OCD is one of the most frequently misrepresented. Inaccurate portrayals can skew an audiences’ perspective of what living with OCD (along with other cognitive conditions) really entails, reducing a complex series of anxiety-induced behaviours to banal tropes like “neatness” and “counting”. As someone who acutely suffers from OCD, I can personally attest to the drawbacks that a compulsive mindset can cause in daily factors like work, social life, and especially gaming. 

Attempting to locate all secrets and unlockables in a game is not a damaging thing by itself, as many games of varying genres actively use their trophy/achievement lists to entice players. Open world/sandbox games are particularly prominent at promoting completionism due to the wide array of crafting and collectible mechanics, especially in recent years. The iconic example of Minecraft boasts an ever-increasing achievement list that serves as an antepiece to demonstrate more of the game’s features through natural progression. People have different playstyles, but connections to certain genres can cause you to obsess over specifically gaining achievements over the enjoyable experience of the game itself. By contrast, starting games with very demanding achievements like Crypt of the Necrodancer or Super Meat Boy could possibly aggravate these symptoms even further as the compulsion for achievement leads to non-stop gaming sessions that disrupt daily life and even sleep patterns. Gamers planning to hunt down all achievements would benefit from researching achievement lists before starting a new game to prevent this happening, and instead get the opportunity to develop a way to gain enjoyment through ‘organic’ gameplay inside reasonable time frames and difficulty parameters.

an Xbox achievement that reads 'became obsessed with your Gamerscore'

Compare and contrast narrative-driven sandboxes (Red Dead Redemption 2, Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto) or choose-your-own-adventure titles by Supermassive Games and Telltale Games. These examples focus on tightly written stories, but the player’s optional interactions with the wider world adds a greater depth and understanding compared to a playthrough that only consists of one main story. Therefore, the presence of achievements can allow for a more immersive experience to keep players coming back for more to achieve 100% completion. 

Playing games can be a way to relax and de-stress for many people, and can also combat OCD symptoms. However, the allure of achievements can become one facet of compulsive behaviour that rapidly monopolises the thought processes of people with OCD. Similar to an addiction where the ‘high’ is constantly being chased, only to grow weaker and weaker over time as more achievements are gained, the enjoyment can soon become routine requiring bigger ‘hits’ and more time/effort committed to the pursuit of virtual trinkets. It isn’t hard to find a game with a laughably easy (if monotonous) achievement list where continuous button pressing is all that’s required to get all achievements in rapid succession for arguably little effort compared to games that demand skill, patience, strategy, and so forth. ‘Joke games’  such as My Name Is Mayo deliberately alter the meaning of achievements through simple actions. When these games are targeted purely for the value of watching achievement numbers go up, obsessive compulsive players are susceptible to the time sink that feels rewarding in the short term but has hidden dangers.

A screenshot from True Trophies which reads 'Necromaster!! Unlock all trophies' - 0.3% Gamers unlocked.

While some aspects of mental conditioning such as medication and/or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help OCD patients cope with the disorder, completionism can rapidly assume control over routines in daily life and lead to more damage in the long term. Speaking from experience, my attempts to seek out 100% of trophies/achievements in games led to many sleepless nights, neglecting social interactions and household cleanliness because my priority was getting trophies and achievements first. This was particularly true when stumbling upon difficult games due to how much my mind would be focused on the objectives even while at work, or in social scenarios meant to distract from gaming. At the time this behaviour was unchecked as OCD, and because I had been trophy grinding for almost a decade I didn’t notice the gradual deterioration from casual entertainment to single-minded obsession. The self-satisfied sensation was disappointingly short, and never outweighed the time I could have spent improving myself. One technique I’ve since embraced is ‘retro’ gaming as a way to explore genres and titles I’ve never played before. Since they aren’t tied to achievement lists, my passion for gaming is gradually returning, and it also allows me to keep games in the proper place without overloading my previous compulsive mindset.

Thankfully, solutions do exist. Like most things associated with breaking negative habits associated with mental health, identifying the specific things holding us back is half the battle. For others with OCD, their experiences may be similar or wildly different, but finding the connection(s) that trigger certain compulsions that have negative effects makes for a good starting point. If gaming is indeed a particular vice for you, then it’s encouraged to develop a pattern that works for you rather than deciding to abandon all games right away by instead setting realistic goals that you can stick to. This could involve shorter allocated time periods for gaming to keep track of progress, and gradually learn to stop playing even when achievements have not been gained despite progress. Seeking out subversive games where the achievement list is very meta and spoils nothing or even non-existent encourages players to experiment with finding secrets and outcomes for themselves rather than mindlessly ticking off a checklist in lieu of entertainment.

an illustration of two hands tied to their controller with the wires, on a mobile game about shooting.

It’s always possible to have too much of a good thing, and when the joy of self-satisfaction becomes routine it can lead to a vicious cycle of compulsive behaviour. Having been locked in this mindset for so long, I personally no longer get a buzz or ‘high’ from actually getting achievements. Individuals who find themselves resonating with some of the points in this article would benefit from looking at their own attitude to how they play games and its connection to their own mental state. Completing games and unlocking achievements is designed to be engaging, and by keeping this as the strongest primary connection to one’s mental health, playing games will remain less of a daily obsession and hopefully instead compel players of all kinds to pursue a natural and uplifting experience.

Ruby Modica is an independent content creator, editor and writer.

She loves sharing insight into video games and discovering new things, with a desire to work in the media/gaming industry full time. Most days she is busy at her computer working on her next big project.