Friday, April 27, 2012

This new game could become a powerful tool for combating depression in teens


Can depression be effectively treated by playing a video game? According to researchers at New Zealand's University of Auckland, the answer is a resounding "yes." In a recently published study in the British Medical Journal, the specially developed PC-game SPARX was shown to be just as effective in treating teens with depression as current conventional therapies.

SPARX was produced in a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Auckland, software developers at Metia Interactive, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health which provided funding for the project. The game itself combines fantasy role-playing elements with the basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help young people recognize and overcome their depressive thoughts. And the game's success on this measure is nothing short of impressive.


As the chart from the published study shows, after 3 months, SPARX therapy proved to have been just as effective in treating depression as conventional treatments, which consisted of medication and talk therapy. In addition to showing equal efficacy with conventional treatments, SPARX has some marked advantages over conventional treatment. SPARX presents opportunities for reaching the otherwise unreachable. Many teens don't seek out treatment for depression, and even those who might be interested in getting help may not always have access to quality mental healthcare. SPARX provides the promise of helping to fill this treatment gap. In feedback from teens who participated in the study, one of the most highly rated aspects of the the SPARX intervention was the fact that it the program could be practiced anywhere that participants had access to a computer, including at home, at school, or at the administering health clinic.

Of course, SPARX is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but neither is conventional therapy. SPARX, like CBT in general, is most effective only for cases of mild to moderate depression. And even then, such  interventions are nowhere near 100% effective. But with such a widespread and difficult-to-treat disease like depression, the SPARX outcomes are still quite promising. In the United States alone, depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability in teens and in adults under 45, and the National Institute for Mental Health reports that roughly 11 percent of adolescents will have a major depressive disorder by the age of 18. Moreover, upward of 20% of teenagers will at some point experience more mild depressive episodes. If more of these 2-4 million depressed teens can be reached through a game than through conventional therapy, then even if SPARX were less effective than it is, it would be a worthwhile intervention.

There is no such thing as having too many weapons in the battle against depression. Hopefully, as SPARX becomes more widely available (at this time, it has not been distributed beyond the current studies),  further research will reveal whether some troubled teens respond better to one form of intervention over the other, and teens can be better served by matching them with their ideal therapy program. Moreover, there remains the possibility that SPARX, if combined with conventional therapeutic practices, may prove to be even more effective than if used alone.

Even though the popularity of video games is at an all-time high, gaming nevertheless continues to carry with it the stigma of being escapist, addictive, and even pathological. And the truth is that not all of these negative associations are unwarranted. In the past few years, studies have found that there is often a strong correlation between heavy gaming and depression. But SPARX serves as a compelling reminder that not all games are created alike. While there are many of games out there that are designed to be as addictive and as mindless as slot machines, such games are only a drop in the bucket in the sea of possible games. That SPARX was created as a cognitive training tool that succeeds in helping teens recognize and overcome their depressive thoughts speaks volumes to what intelligently designed games might do, and also forces us to realize that the idea of games as emotionally educational is only just starting to be explored.

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