It isn’t OCD

The gaming community is fond of using the term ‘OCD’ to describe their urges to organize or systemise their collections or workspaces. It is a usage that I hear quite often and I find it troubling because it strikes me as, inadvertently, delegitimising the issues that people who have Obsessive–compulsive disorder deal with. Wikipedia opens its extensive discussion of OCD with the following definition:

Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental and behavioral disorder in which an individual has intrusive thoughts and/or feels the need to perform certain routines repeatedly to the extent where it induces distress or impairs general function.[7][1][2] As indicated by the disorder’s name, the primary symptoms of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are persistent unwanted thoughts, mental images, or urges that generate feelings of anxiety, disgust, or discomfort.[8]

So there are two important elements in that definition to note. People with OCD are feel compelled to do or repeat an action and this is unwanted and causes life problems for the sufferer. Imagine not being able to leave your house because you have to repeatedly check all of the locks or washing your hands so many times they become raw and bloody. This is not the same as when I look at my game shelf and feel a need to move a title because it isn’t fitting a criteria or system.

This issue came to the fore recently when someone posted a picture of a small number of their wargames.

One of the first comments posted was about how the commenter’s ‘OCD’ was being triggered by the games not being set out in chronological order by release date. Several other people also chimed in on how the picture was triggering them as well based on different organizational criteria.

I can understand the comments. I thought of four different ways to organize the games almost immediately

  • by release date
  • by historical date of the battles
  • by box width
  • by box colour

And you may have also noticed that the Arracourt box is actually upside down.

Why are your books like that?

The first time my partner came to my apartment to meet me for a date she looked at my book shelves and asked me why I had organized them so strangely. Unlike many people who might have ordered their book by subject, author or even alphabetically I had organized mine by colour and then height. It actually gave me a great deal of satisfaction that all of the books flowed from highest to lowest and were all the same relative hue.

This is clearly not how most people live their lives.

One night, soon after moving in and unpacking, I looked at my books and was perturbed by the lack of order they had. So I took them all down and figured out the most pleasing way to arrange them and then took the time to do so. The issue was an unpleasant lack of visual order and once I had them rearranged I was done with the task. At no point afterwards was I compelled to do anything to the books, to rearrange them or ensure that they were all aligned in perfect order. It wasn’t a compulsion and I didn’t think that anything bad or untoward was going to happen if the books weren’t perfect.

Semantic Drift

I am not sure if it happens in other languages but English has a tendency for semantic shift and taking terms that have a narrow scope and broadening them to the point of meaninglessness. Take the word ‘obsession’. The definition of obsession is:

Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.

It is not uncommon for people to refer to how they are ‘obsessed’ with a subject but mean that they are fascinated with it. Or absorbed in it. So it is no surprise that English speakers also tend to do this with actual disorders that contain those words. You can’t imply the same weight of necessary action by using ‘obsessed’ any more so you have to broaden the meaning of a phrase like OCD to do so.

The issue is that when you do so you then diminish the actual condition. If OCD can just mean being fussy about how your magazines are sorted then how bad can it actually be?

Comic by eirinn ske

So what is it?

There is a type of OCD called Ordering & Arranging OCD but the symptoms of it don’t really describe the situation that gamers often deal with. Surprising many people with OCD are not all that tidy. The same is true for people with autism as well as ADHD.

I actually think that it is a normal part of human behaviour. To demonstrate this all you need to do is watch a group of people play a game like Settlers of Catan which has a large number of pieces. The players will invariably begin to organise the pieces based on whatever criteria they find pleasing. I think at a root level we find it pleasing and relaxing to organize objects.

It is more normal than you think

For some people, myself included, disorder causes anxiety and I think that this is the root of what gamers experience in situations like this. I suspect that many people who responded to the picture of the poorly organized games probably have parts of their house that are not neat and orderly. I suspect that the issue is less one of an overall fixation on order but on a particular one that probably starts and stops at our hobby supplies and games.

I have ADHD and like many people with the condition I tend to have my life organized in piles on desks and tables. My partner does not have this condition and so I try, as much as I can, to not let this habit spill over into the rest of the house. Every six months or so I have to undertake a deep cleaning and sorting of the contents of my hobby area to bring it back into some semblance of order. It doesn’t bother me until it begins to interfere with my ability to work, game or find things.

My games aren’t stacked in any particular order but every game I have played has its counters neatly clipped and organized into trays for easy access. My partner jokes that most of the appeal of wargames for me is clipping and sorting counters. She isn’t far off.

I am currently undergoing a rather extensive purge of material in my hobby room and I suspect that once this has been completed and the room isn’t a mess of piles of hobby detritus that I will turn my attention to the stack of wargames that I own and see that there is a sudden need to organize them by game series and then by historical date.

I think that part of the reason why that photo is particularly troubling for some is that it is almost perfectly organized. Once the clutter has been reduced and some manner of order given to it we can suddenly see the distinct ways in which we can further order the boxes to make it even more appealing.

Anxiety not OCD

For myself, I think the root cause of this is anxiety and a desire to control some aspects of my environment. Clearly not all of it, as my hobby room will attest, but there are some things, things that I typically attach emotional worth to, that I feel a need to have in a precise order.

Does a picture of a series of nicely arranged boxes that aren’t in the ‘correct’ order cause me anxiety? A touch but I can walk away from it and have a laugh about it and not feel the need to immediately check by collection of precisely order boxes and not leave the house until they are all perfect.

2 thoughts on “It isn’t OCD

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  1. Great post! I have a similar issue with boardgames (the direction of text has to match on the bottom of the box with the top of that makes sense?). I think people do tend to trivialise OCD as I think it lies outside of a lot of people’s experiences. I’m thankful to not have to live with it.

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