This Video Game Actually Treats Teenagers' Depression

Illustration for article titled This Video Game Actually Treats Teenagers' Depression

Usually when "video games" and "depression" show up in a sentence together, there's a research team trying to prove that playing video games causes or at least correlates with depression, especially in kids and teens.


This time, however, the news is much more positive: at least one video game out there, it seems, can actually help fight depression. A research team in New Zealand has created a fantasy game explicitly designed to help teenagers combat depression, and so far, results look promising.

The game is called SPARX, an acronym standing for "Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts." Each level of the game teaches a well-known theraputic or coping skill, much as classic talk therapy would. One level teaches problem-solving skills, while another has the player literally shooting down negative and self-defeating thoughts and ideas.

Teens in the program who played SPARX turned out to be significantly more likely to see their depression ebb than the teens who participated in standard therapy. 26% of the participants in traditional care had their depression go into remission during the study, but among the teens who played the game, the percentage jumped to 44%.

The researchers working with with SPARX explained that the success of the game in treating teenagers' depression may be significantly magnified because of its potential wide reach. Roughly 80% of teenagers fighting depression, they say, never receive treatment. But the game requires neither active supervision, nor discussing problems aloud with an adult. That means that SPARX or another game like it could be a relief both on financial resources (which have limits) and on teenage embarrassment (which is infinite).

This isn't the first study to find that certain kinds of games can be effective treatments for depression. Roughly a year ago, researchers at East Carolina University found that mainstream casual games like Bejeweled could also potentially be effective in treating and reducing symptoms of depression. Similarly, other serious games focused on education and visualization have proven promising in helping treat severe physical illness in kids, as well as mental illness.


Video Game May Help Treat Teen Depression [WebMD, via Gameranx]

(Top photo: Flickr user Tjook)


Having read the SPARX paper it's important to note that while the remission rates in teens using SPARX is statistically different from teen engaging in treatment as usual (TAU), the purpose of the study was to determine whether or not SPARX is a viable alternative to TAU in primary care settings; that is, it's a non-inferiority study. The claim supported by the study is that SPARX is not inferior to TAU.

I also wonder about potential limitations. They note that their population is adolescents, all of whom were actively seeking help for their depression, and none of whom engaged in non-suicidal self-injury. I'd love to see a broader study, to see if SPARX really shines against even worse MDD or other mood disorders.