Video Games Designed to Fight Adolescent Depression

Kids with depression often slip through the cracks. Parents have a hard time distinguishing symptoms of depression from normal ups and downs of the teen years. Kids, too, may feel overwhelmed at times and struggle to determine whether they may need to discuss their feelings with someone.

A new approach to dealing with depression may help treat those kids who otherwise may not have access to therapy for the treatment of depression. A study by researchers in New Zealand finds that when kids play a video game focused on fighting negativity and boosting positive feelings, their symptoms of depression decrease.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland. They examined how a video game, named SPARX, might alleviate depression in young people. SPARX stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-Factor thoughts.

The game, created in New Zealand, leads players into a fantasy world in which there are seven levels, called realms. One realm is approximately 30 minutes in length. The realms teach the player mental tools for fighting depression.

In one realm of the game, players must make their way across a swamp in which black smoky balls known as GNATS (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts) attack. The GNATS throw out insults as they fly towards the avatar, calling the player a loser, explains researcher Sally N. Merry, Ph.D. Dr. Merry is employed by the University of Auckland as an associate professor.

To get to the next realm, the players must take down the GNATS by shooting them. The GNATS are then put into barrels labeled for specific types of negativity. If the GNAT is placed in the correct barrel, the player is rewarded by the GNAT turning into SPARX. SPARX are complimentary illuminated balls that restore balance in the game.

The players in the research study completed one or two sections of the game in one week. The complete course of the game was completed over a time period of three to seven weeks for each participant.

The researchers signed up187 teenagers who met the criteria for mild or moderate depression and placed them in two groups. One group engaged in the video game and the second group was enrolled in traditional treatment with trained counselors through schools or treatment clinics. The subjects were over 60 percent female and the average age of the group was 16 years.

The participants were assessed for depression at baseline, throughout the study and three months following completion of the study.

The researchers found that the symptoms of depression were decreased by approximately one-third in both groups. The video games were found to be more effective in helping kids overcome the symptoms of depression. Approximately 44 percent of the kids in the SPARX group were in remission versus 26 percent enrolled in the therapy group.

Dr. Merry explains that when considering that more than three-quarters of teens diagnosed with depression never receive treatment, the game could be extremely useful for reaching a large percentage of kids at a low cost.

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