Gaming with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The OCD Loop

I hadn’t realized this for many years, but recently, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder that targets my video game life. My particular brand of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is what I call “clean-slating.” This is a term I’m using because while there is a plethora of information about OCD on the internet, not too many of them touch on this particular brand of it. In fact, in my research, I’ve managed to find just two pieces that come close to describing what I have. One came from IGN and was written in 2012, and the other, a more recent article comes from Teen Vogue written by Shannon Purser of Stranger Things fame.

While both articles describe their variation of clean-slating, I was able to read these pieces and find a better understanding of what I deal with on a day to day basis. This understanding has helped me verbalize my problems to my wife better, and in turn, that’s led me to feel more confident in speaking about it with everyone else. This isn’t to say I use my OCD as an opener when I meet people, actual OCD still has this silencing effect on me, but I’m a lot more comfortable talking about it these days, and I’ve found that the more I speak up, the better off I am. My wife often says there is power is saying something out loud. More so, speaking up about an overwhelming feeling can usually strip away the power it has over you. I’ve found that when I have a particularly bad bout of OCD, which comes in waves, sometimes big waves, sometimes small ones; finding someone and talking through it can relieve a massive amount of anxiety for myself.

Unfortunately, talking to my wife or trusted friend isn’t always a solution, and being that my OCD hits me randomly, I can’t rely on that as my only answer. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. I want to describe how my ‘clean-slating’ gets triggered because this happens almost exclusively when I’m playing video games, and it can be maddening and debilitating, and ultimately defeating. In the spirit of saying things out loud, here we go.

I’ll start with the first game I can clearly remember having this issue: Bioshock, one of my favorite games of all time, and probably my favorite story of all time. I almost didn’t play Bioshock all the way through because of this thought that I was missing vital information in the first level. After the plane crash in the introduction of the game, and swimming to the lighthouse, Jack descends into Rapture where he meets several characters, all with their agendas and motives. The first big story moment happens at the end of the first level when Jack comes face to face with Andrew Ryan, the game’s main antagonist. I felt confident in my understanding of what was going on up to this point, but then there is this moment when Andrew Ryan begins to take educated guessed about who Jack is. It’s an outstanding story moment, but unfortunately, I missed a few words, and I immediately got worried that I missed something important. After sitting with that feeling for a few minutes, I decided I would restart the game and make it to the end of the level, this time with my subtitles on to catch anything I missed. So onto my second playthrough; only this time during the introduction where Jack pulls out the picture of his parents, I missed what Jack said, and decided I might as well start it over. On the third playthrough, it happened again at the end of the level. Even with subtitles on, I had this growing anxiety that I missed something key to my interaction with Andrew Ryan. With every subsequent playthrough, I found something else to obsess over. This nagging feeling that I wasn’t fully absorbing what I was experiencing officially crept in and the only way I could fix it was not by going to Youtube or asking someone but by starting fresh and replaying the level over and over again until I felt confident I hadn’t missed anything important. That took me about ten playthroughs to finally feel okay.

Another time this happened to me was in Mass Effect 1 and 2 (oddly enough, this wasn’t an issue for me with ME3). This was similar in that I kept restarting because of my obsessive worry about not absorbing some critical piece of lore or character development. Mass Effect frontloads a lot of lore and character development for Shepard and missing even the slightest bit of information gave me anxiety forcing me to restart. As a result, I’ve heard Keith David’s opening lines about Shepard being a survivor a little over 20 times.

In Mass Effect 2, I had a different problem. The Mass Effect games implement a Paragon system that reflected your behavior in the world. If Shepard responds positively to someone in need, your paragon rating goes up, but choosing to act selfishly and you’ll gain renegade points. There were some gameplay benefits to this system, but for the most part, this was superficial, still, if I ever made the wrong decision and earned a renegade point I would obsess over it. I wouldn’t allow it, and at the height of my compulsiveness, I wouldn’t merely restart to an older checkpoint, I would restart the entire game. I would have this need to start with a clean slate with no mistakes. Essentially a perfect playthrough, and because of this, it took me several months to finally play through and finish Mass Effect 2.

I don’t understand what happens to me, and I don’t get why some games trigger it, while others don’t. For example, I was able to play The Witcher 3 without restarting it over and over again. Yet With Skyrim, merely creating my character was a chore because I needed to look at all my cosmetic options and make my decisions and then restart and go straight to those choices and if my fingers slipped and I picked the wrong hair type, I had to start the whole process all over again.

As you can imagine, this is exhausting. My clean-slating OCD isn’t exclusive to video games either; this affects my broader tech life as well. For example, I go back and forth using different browsers for different reasons. When I’ve decided to, say, jump from Firefox back to Chrome I have first to delete my entire browser history, delete my searches, remove my extensions and completely clean-slate Chrome to satisfy my OCD. Now, imagine that routine several times in a row because I didn’t quite do it in the order I feel comfortable with. My bookmarks have to be deleted and reimported, my extensions re-added, my passwords have to be saved, all in a particular order.

Downloading apps to my phone is another huge hassle; there are times I will delete and reinstall an app over and over again for days before I’m satisfied. The anxiety here comes from feeling like I didn’t read the instructions correctly, or I misused the app out of the gate. When it’s a simple game, it can be a headache, but if it’s a podcast app and I have to remove and re-add my shows over and over again, it can bring me to tears.

I’m not entirely sure how to address my OCD without professional help, and all the research I’ve done has led me here, telling strangers about my problems in hopes that putting it out there will relieve a bit of my anxiety. But also, I’m hoping someone with similar experiences can read this and maybe realize they are not alone. OCD can be an exhausting mental illness; it’s debilitating, and it’s defeating, but you aren’t alone. I’m suffering right along with you.

I write about movies, and whatever else comes to mind. Maybe a short story one day.