New Zealand Researchers Design Game To Help Teens Fight Depression

By April 21, 2012


Psychiatric researchers at the University of Auckland have developed a computer game that aims to help teenagers battle depression. In a recent study, the game has been proven to be more effective than traditional therapy for some teens.

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The game is called SPARX (an initialism of smart, positive, active, realistic, and x-factor thoughts) and revolves around an avatar traversing levels in a fantasy universe. Throughout the levels each player will have to battle GNATS (gloomy negative automatic thoughts) in order to reach the end. GNATS hurl negative thoughts at the player, who must fight against them by classifying what specific brand of negative thought they are. This process eventually turns them into SPARX.

Levels throughout the game are about 30 minutes long and each province’s learning goal is presented directly in its attached subtitle. The Cave Province, for instance, is where players begin to “find hope.” On a mountain province players will learn to overcome their problems and the final Canyon Province focuses on “bringing it all together.” In total the game has seven levels.

Check out the bizarre video below to watch some of the twitchiest gameplay footage you’re likely to ever see.

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While testing the game, researchers gave a group of 187 teenagers with mild depression the option to either have traditional therapy sessions or play the SPARX game in installments over the course of several weeks. At the end of the study 40 percent of those who had played the SPARX game saw remission in their depression, as opposed to 26 percent in the group who chose standard therapy.

Dr. Sally Merry, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the university, believes the game’s appeal and ease of distribution will make a big impact on affected teens, particularly those who cannot afford or simply fail to seek out therapy when they need it.

We’re hoping that by having developed this game we will have something that we can make widely available to young people, that they will want to do it, that they will have fun while they’re doing it, and that it will help them overcome depression.

Last year SPARX won a World Summit Award in the e-Health and Environment category. Currently researchers at the university are working to make the game more widely available to teenagers everywhere.

Corey Cummings

Corey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he received degrees in English and Creative Writing. He currently lives in Chicago and enjoys alternately obsessing over video games that aren't out yet and crazy gadgets he can't afford.