Monday, August 25, 2014

REVIEW: Fighting off darkness with SPARX

Format: Unity, browser, other platforms

Price: Free

Release Date: Beta release currently available, full release mid-2014

Target Age Group: children & teens

Developer: LinkedWellness / University of Aukland

Genre: twitch-click, puzzle
Players may travel to a fantasy world, but they'll learn Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques that can make a difference to their lives in this world. 


Two years ago, brainsforgames reported on some promising findings in the British Medical Journal: the team behind the game SPARX had shown that therapy provided through their game been just as effective in treating teens with mild depression as conventional treatments. But this awesome news had one small catch, SPARX seemed to be only available to participants of the study.

Happily, that's changed now and SPARX is headed for a mainstream release before the end of this year. Even better news: there's also currently a freely-available beta version now online at Eager to see what this newest tool in the battle against depression had to offer, I decided to check SPARX out.

The Depressive Spiral
SPARX teaches players the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which operates on the premise that changing your thoughts and actions will influence how you feel. In theory, it may sound like an easy thing to do, but in practice it can be much harder to recognize and redirect negative thinking more positively. So SPARX sets out to help players stop the downward depressive spiral of negative thinking by teaching them three "thinking skills" and three "doing skills" designed to help players identify their self-defeating thoughts.

SPARX excels in explaining CBT techniques clearly and in providing examples of how these techniques could be easily applied in the course of a player's everyday life. Every level of the game is bookended with a counseling session of sorts with a Guide who explains a new CBT technique and helps players review previously learned techniques. During the levels themselves, players take control of a customized avatar in a generic high-fantasy game world and work their way through various puzzles designed to reinforce the material introduced by the Guide.


Each level in SPARX has a tutorial section, where the Guide explains the fundamentals of various CBT techniques, and a "game world" section, which seems designed to resemble a kind of World of Warcraft or Runescape style world. But unlike those games, there's not very much to do in the world of SPARX, and it shows.

Generic fantasy setting? Check.
Shirtless beefcake warriors? Check.
The world of SPARX is thoroughly generic, to the extent that I can't remember it ever even being given a name. A Guardian greets you when you arrive in the world and delivers a boilerplate fantasy story about a Circle of Power and Gems of Power and how you can restore balance to the world by recovering the gems. It's not a particularly well thought out or interesting conceit, but for some struggle kids and teens, perhaps even a generic fantasy world might provide an appealing escape from the stresses of everyday life.

However, the weak story is only one of the problems of the game world of SPARX. The much bigger problem is that from start to finish, SPARX is simply not fun.

The lesson sections led by the Guide aren't very game-like at all. Players listen to the Guide explain techniques and answer the occasional true false question or asked to rate their mood over a particular period of time, but the lessons are not very interactive. The Guide's immediate response vary somewhat, but by and large, the script continues on its course no matter a player answers. In these sections, there's nothing that SPARX does in terms of engaging the player that other, non-interactive formats couldn't also easily replicate.

But if the tutorial sections can be forgiven for being a bit textbook-like, the sad truth is that the game world sections of SPARX aren't any more entertaining. The world lacks challenge, choice, exploration, or adventure. Players are asked to complete the simplest of tasks and puzzles in a world that is nothing more than a long corridor--one path that inexorably leads to the end of the level. There is no ability to explore or discover, and even your one means of interacting with the world, your Staff of the Ancients that fires energy orbs at a enemies--even this can only be used in scripted moments. The result is that there's no opportunity whatsoever for players to immerse themselves in the world of SPARX. It's a barren, boring world from start to finish.

Icicles keep falling through my head...
There are some obstacles that block your path as you progress through SPARX, but the challenge is always minimal because it is almost impossible to fail. Your avatar has no life meter, so when you are attacked by "GNATS", they just bounce harmlessly away if you fail to act in time. Even environmental obstacles that appeared threatening were rarely so. For example, in the ice cave in the first level, your avatar is told that you must keep moving and light the lanterns or else you'll freeze to death. But in my experience, this warning proved entirely disingenuous. There was simply no consequence for standing still. In fact, even when I stood directly under falling icicles, I appeared to suffer no harm whatsoever. Later levels, like the swamp level in particular, get a bit more interesting, as there's a bit of genuine problem-solving involved when players are tasked with trying to categorize different GNATS and demonstrate that they understand how these GNATS undermine healthy thinking, but at best the "game" of SPARX is nothing more than a collection of mini-games, with few being interesting and most being trivially easy and dull.

I understand that in a game about combatting depression, it would be a cruel joke to make the difficulty so great that players find themselves constantly frustrated. However, games are only fun when they scaffold learning in a way that lets players feel themselves getting better at a task, or when they can see goals that were once unreachable suddenly be within their grasp. A game that presents no challenge whatsoever feels like busywork rather than a fun reward.

Educational Content

Do not let my large biceps distract you.
The educational content of SPARX is absolutely the game's strong point. Each of the seven levels is bracketed with discussion by your Guide, a rather unexpectedly-buff-for-a-kids-game character who helps players understand how to connect the scenarios in the game to real-life CBT techniques for feeling better. All of the information is presented very clearly and cogently. And despite the Guide's beefcakiness feeling a little misplaced at first, the Guide proves to be a very accessible character. After the first few lessons, I could certainly see an argument being made for why a virtual avatar might be more approachable avenue for therapy to some people than interacting with another human being or trying to read a book. The techniques he teaches are sound, and there's something to be said for getting emotional advice from a "person" who has no capacity for judgment.

As I mentioned above, the lessons with the Guide are not very interactive, but there are nevertheless some nice touches. Players are provided with an in-game "notebook" which they are prompted to customize. This allows them to set goals for themselves that are most appropriate to their life and current emotional needs.

I'd like to buy a vowel, please.
The action in the game world is calculated to reinforce the content provided by the Guide in each lesson, although among these activities, there are hits and there are misses. The best activities involve moments when players really need to think about and understand the material they've been taught. For example, in one early scenario, players are prompted to give advice to other characters in the game, appealing to player's empathy to drive them to think about what the best advice truly would be for a situation. Late in the game, one puzzle forces player to take specific GNATS (negative thoughts) and recognize that they belong to larger categories of negative thinking. But most of the puzzles involve little more than clicking on a few floating orbs or solving a word puzzle. They may be reinforcing the terminology, but they're not reinforcing how the concepts could be applied in the real world.

Overall, the content provided by SPARX is useful and reliable, and the game-like format could easily be seen as more accessible to some kids and teens than a textbook or a video, although it's not exactly presented in a particularly fun manner.


The educational content in SPARX is rock-solid, and for people coping with mild depression who have never encountered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before, SPARX provides a great introduction to reliable therapeutic techniques. Moreover, by putting this content in game format, I have no doubt that SPARX will be able to get kids and teens with depression or social anxiety to consider CBT, even if they wouldn't be willing or able to discuss it with a flesh-and-blood counsellor or consult a medical website. And even for kids who don't suffer from depression but want to gain insight into how others who do suffer from depression might be controlled by their negative thoughts, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend SPARX.

That being said, there's also no denying that as a game, SPARX tends to fall flat. It's not particularly fun or interesting, and most of the important educational content is actually imparted through dialog with the Guide, rather than through the gameplay experience itself. The game is a good enough that it can be reasonably played through to the end without too much frustration or difficulty, I would guess that people who do play through to the end are only motivated by a desire to learn all the therapeutic techniques. The game itself isn't enjoyable enough to encourage uninterested persons to keep playing.

Still, I can't say that SPARX is disappointing. It's not a great game, but it is a great proof-of-concept that critical mental health issues can be useful tackled through the medium of video games. If there's any disappointment to be hard, I'd say it's with the larger, big-budgeted studios and producers in the video game industry who, as yet, seem to have no interest in applying their skills as great game designers and marrying them with the kind of meaningful content found in SPARX. After all, nearly every video game has a story line about struggling to overcoming adversity, and the recent release from game publishing giant Ubisoft, Child of Light, had refreshing coming-of-age themes instead of the all-too-common gritty, hard-boiled hero. In my mind, it's not a far leap from a game like Child of Light to making a commercially viable, fun game that takes some conventional wisdom about video game play mechanics and intertwines those with the kind of powerful real-life lessons about overcoming the mental adversity found in SPARX.

It's worth noting that there are some bugs in this pre-release version. The game crashed completely on me once, and sometimes events were slow to trigger even after I had successfully completed a task. Also, at the moment there is no way to save your progress through the game, so you'll either have to play through the entire game at once or leave it running in the background if you want to access all the lessons. None of these issues should discourage people from giving the game a try, just that players should be aware of the current known limitations of the beta release.

Pros: Excellent resource on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with proven efficacy for mild depression. Good alternative for people without access to or intimidated by one-on-one therapy.

Cons: Totally linear. Uninspired graphics. Not especially fun.

Score: B-

Have you given SPARX a try? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

1 comment:

  1. Hey there Rachel! Great review.. my friend ask me to try this thing out and what he told me is a bit bias and one sided. So I look for review before trying this game out.. thanks for all the words. I will post my own opinion in this game in my blog, click here