Gotta Catch Em All: The Link Between OCD and Video Games
It's with a heavy heart we deliver the following news: Pac-Man Fever is a legitimate mental illness.
Earlier this year, a study by the Philadelphia Research Center of Mental Illness found "an alarming rate of OCD" in kids who played '80s video games like Q-Bert. You know Q-Bert, the orange fuzzball with a birth canal-inspired nose who obsessively changes the color of blocks.
As someone who jumps out of his skin when friends blitz through levels of Super Mario Bros. and ignore the goddamn coins, I don't disagree with this study one bit. My OCD impulses, like most people's, are all about controlling my environment — and the virtual landscapes in games are a perfect outlet for this. On the downside, Pac-Man's all-consuming urge to eat every last dot gets channeled right through the person controlling him.
"I don't think games cause OCD. It's a chemical imbalance in the brain you're born with," says counselor Hillary Brady. "But if you have that issue, it could be another thing you struggle with. Video games could be another one of your rituals. It would definitely fit for people with OCD who like to count or organize things repetitively."
And that means it can't just be '80s games that trigger obsessive impulses. There must be an entire list of modern titles we Howie Mandel-types may want to steer clear of.
The newly released LEGO Batman, for instance, was set to be reviewed this week and, aside from some camera issues, would have scored very high. Unfortunately, I was unable to complete a single level without trying to collect the hundreds of thousands of LEGO coins that appear when you break something. Note: Everything is breakable. It's the jingling noise the coins make . . . the way they zip through the air into Batman's utility wallet . . . this simple, visceral thrill led to several uncontrollable hours of collecting shiny things. Current in-game progress as a result: 9.6 percent.
And speaking of destructible environments, I can't be alone in feeling uneasy and unfulfilled if I fail to demolish every possible object in Mercenaries 2. I've recently discovered this anxiety has, at times, caused me to avoid games like this altogether.
"We often find that our OCD patients benefit from playing not-so-organized games like many of the '90s Super Nintendo games based on movies, athletes, and TV shows," the Philadelphia study concludes. "[Compulsion for organization] is less likely because a video game based on Shaq has never had a clear objective."
While most would argue that the objective of a Shaq video game is to suck harder than any game has ever sucked before, I'm unconvinced a lack of objective thwarts video-game OCD (just as I'm unconvinced steering anyone toward '90s SNES games based on movies is a good thing).
Take the open-ended Grand Theft Auto series. Its vast landscape intimidates a need to control my environment. "My little brother has major OCD," one online post reads. "I noticed while he's playing [GTA] that he can't drive a car in the game if it has the smallest dent in it, he won't even steal cars if he has to break the window to get into it."
An online search for "OCD video games" reveals more screeds against everything from Pokémon games (tagline: "Gotta catch 'em all! No seriously, I gotta catch 'em all or I'll have a shit-fit right here on your carpet") to titles with an impossible amount of loot to collect, such as Too Human.
I now know why Super Mario Sunshine was a perfect storm of failed, big-budget games. While half of the world hated Sunshine's gameplay, the other half must have panicked over Sunshine's main objective — to clean every inch of mud and dirt off of Mario's surroundings. Just thinking about this task makes me want to touch a fire flower exactly 140 times. How about you?
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