Games Are Actually Helping Teens Battle Depression

A video game that allows the player to shoot down negative thoughts may be helping teens to cope with depression at least as well as more traditional therapies, a new study shows.

SPARX, which stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts, was developed in New Zealand by a group of teachers and researchers.

Players choose their own character and navigate seven different levels, with each one exploring mental behavioral skills used for combating depression. One level encourages problem solving, for example, while another has the player shooting at GNATS — black, smouldering balls that represent negative thoughts.

To test the effectiveness of the game as a therapy tool, researchers from the University of Auckland assigned 187 teens with mild to moderate depression to either play SPARX or get usual treatment from trained counselors at schools and youth clinics. The average age of the participants was 16, with females making up more than 60% of the group.

Psychological tests were then performed to assess depression before, during, and three months after the study. While both SPARX and traditional therapies reduced levels of anxiety and depression by one-third, 44% achieved remission in the SPARX group compared to 26% in usual care.

The University of Auckland is currently working to make SPARX more widely available to teenagers.