Video game to help depressed teenagers

Video game to help depressed teenagers

By Liz Lockhart

This week is depression awareness week and so it is great to be able to bring you news of a study finding which brings a positive tool to help combat teenage depression.

A video game called SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts) has been developed by researchers and teachers in New Zealand.  SPARX is a game which is aimed at the alleviation of depression by shooting down negative thoughts.  In a new study it has been found to be as effective as traditional talking therapies.

SPARX is set in a 3D fantasy world which leads the player through seven different realms.  Each realm is around 30 minutes long and teaches behavioural skills which enable the player to fight depression.  One level, for example, sees the player make their way through a swamp in which they are attacked by ‘GNATS’ (gloomy negative automatic thoughts) which are in the form of smouldering black ‘balls’.

The research was conducted by the University of Auckland.  Researcher, Sally N. Merry Ph.D., from the University of Auckland said ‘These GNATS fly at the avatar and say negative things like ‘you’re a loser’.  We used a lot of allegory.’

In the game the players shoot the GNATS and then put them into barrels.  Each of the barrels is labelled as a different kind of negative thought.   When placed in the correct barrel, the GNATS become SPARX which turn them into glowing balls that say nice things to the player and restore the balance. Each week the player completes one or two levels of the game for a total of three to seven weeks.

In order to assess the benefits of the game, the researchers studied 187 teenagers who had a diagnosis of mild to moderate depression.  They had an average age of 16 and 60% of the participants were girls.  The teens were assigned into one of two different groups.  One group played SPARX and the other attended talking therapy sessions with trained counsellors.

The researchers assessed the participants for depression, using psychological tests, at three stages of the study.  This was done before the study, during the study and then again three months after the study ended.

It was found that both groups benefitted from their experiences with SPARX and with talking therapy. Their levels of anxiety and depression were reduced by around a third.  However, in the group who used the video game, more teens recovered from their depression with approximately 44% achieving remission, whereas in the talking therapy group the figure was 26%.

Merry said ‘Around 80% of young people with depression never get treatment.  When you do the calculations of how many therapists you need to meet that need, it’s enormous.’

Underserved areas could be filled by the use of games like SPARX as such games do not need any supervision, Merry believes.  Many teenagers with depression do not want to talk to an adult about what they are experiencing and this type of ‘play’ is appealing as it can be done in private.  Merry is currently working with the University of Auckland to make SPARX more widely available.

The study is published in BMJ – previously known as the British Medical Journal.

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