Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on April 23, 2012
Shooting down negative thoughts in a video game may alleviate depression just as well as traditional talk therapy, a new study shows. (About SPARX)
The game, developed by researchers and teachers in New Zealand, is called SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts).
Based in a 3D fantasy world, the game leads players through seven realms (each about 30 minutes long) that teach mental behavioral skills for battling depression. For example, in one level, gamers battle their way through a swamp where they’re attacked by black, smoldering balls called GNATS (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts). “These GNATS fly at the avatar and say negative things like ‘you’re a loser,’” said researcher Sally N. Merry, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Auckland.
Players shoot the GNATS and then put them into barrels that label them as particular kinds of negative thoughts. If the answer is correct, the GNATS turn into SPARX—glowing balls that compliment the players and restore balance. “We used a lot of allegory,” Merry said.
Players complete one or two levels in the game each week for three to seven weeks. To test the game, researchers recruited 187 teens with mild to moderate depression and assigned them to one of two groups: the first group played the video game and the other group received typical treatment from trained counselors at schools and youth clinics. More than 60 percent of the participants were girls with an average age of 16.
Researchers used psychological tests to assess depression before, during, and three months after the study.
In both groups, levels of anxiety and depression were reduced by about one-third. The video game, however, helped more kids recover from their depression. About 44 percent achieved remission in the SPARX group compared to 26 percent in usual care.
“Around 80 percent of young people with depression never get treatment,” said Merry. “When you do the calculations of how many therapists you need to meet that need, it’s enormous.”
Merry believes that a video game like SPARX, which doesn’t require supervision, could help fill treatment gaps, especially in underserved areas. It’s also a private way for kids to get help when they may not want to talk to an adult. Merry is working with the University of Auckland to make SPARX more widely available.
The study is published in the journal BMJ. Research here.
What is SPARX?