OCD And Game Design

Blocks slightly out of order

I just finished reading a great opinion piece by Holly Green about gaming with OCD. Her thoughts really hit home and rekindled bad memories – along with thoughts about designing games with OCD players in mind. Some of what I’m about to say might not make sense without first reading Green’s piece (Link Here)

A Little About My Background

OCD has always been a part of my life. I can remember my 3 year old self trying to step on the “right” floor tiles in our kitchen. It wasn’t a game for me, I felt like something would be wrong if I didn’t get the pattern just right. As I grew the compulsions became more complex and varied. I counted, I straightened, I worried. I washed my hands until they cracked and bled. The motivation for this behavior is really hard to describe to someone without OCD. It was just safer, better if I did things “right”. If I broke routine it would haunt me until I went back and corrected the error. The rules were all self-imposed, but it didn’t feel that way.

The Good Part

I was raised in a religious family, but in my family religion wasn’t used as an excuse for abusive control. In-fact, as the disorder drove me to adhere to my unwritten rules about prayer, my parents saw the unhealthy behavior for what it was. I was taught that the cycle of fear and shame was not what God wanted for me. My dad caught on early that something was wrong and started trying to help. This was the mid 80’s and it wasn’t like he could google “treatments for OCD”, so he just tried his best. He would patiently watch me wash my hands and tell me when I should stop. He taught me to recognize the compulsions for what they were and to resist them. Eventually I found that I could take control of my disorder and fight back. My dad has a high-school education and no training in psychology, but somehow he found the perfect mix of care and exposure therapy. By the time video games became part of my life I was in a healthier place. The temptation to “get every coin” was still there – but it wasn’t overwhelming. I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself free of OCD. The compulsions are still waiting just below the surface, but I know that they will never win. The disorder doesn’t control my life or my gaming experience.

Thoughts For Game Designers

From my experience OCD feeds off of thought patterns that are necessary for life. The desire for order, cleanliness and completion are healthy and encourage us to live well. OCD is like these motivations kicked into hyperdrive. For a healthy person, tasks like collecting things in a game may be totally enjoyable. It’s the OCD mind that makes it a compulsive and painful thing. It doesn’t seem right to remove wholesome and enjoyable mechanics only because they have the potential to become unhealthy for a minority players – especially when real-life things like washing hands and climbing stairs can just as easily get distorted by the mind with OCD. To be clear, I’m not advocating that designers stop considering the effects of their games on people with OCD or any other disorder. I am saying that some disorders can turn good things bad.

For me, the key design ethic is to avoid abusing a player’s (any player’s) desire for completion and order. Collecting, completing and arranging mechanics can really work for some games and designers shouldn’t shy away from them. Things get bad when they become an unreachable carrot-on-a-stick driving players to spend money, watch ads or waste ridiculous amounts of time. The lines can be blurry when designing a game from scratch. Figuring out where your game stands can be tricky. Getting clarity may involve asking ourself questions like “Why do I want the player to do this?” and “Would I have fun doing this myself?”. Don’t be afraid to buck the trends. Just because a game like yours “usually” has some kind of collection system does’t mean you need to add one. If you want the player (every player) to have fun, make that the focus of every single thing in your game.

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