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Video games can help teens combat depression, study suggests

PlayStation controller
Sony Computer Entertainment

In recent years, the image of video games as the cause of problems has been slowly giving way to the notion that they can actually solve a few. Some have even proven effective in the face of certain illnesses

Now a new game created by a team of researchers and teachers in New Zealand is being used to help treat depression among teens.

The game is called "SPARX," which stands for "Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts." As WebMD explains, it's a fantasy game that employs classic mental behavioral skills for combating depression. This includes shooting down negative thoughts, Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts (GNATS), which are an enemy in the game.

The GNATS, as Sally N. Merry, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Auckland explains, say negative things to the player — who must both strike them down and classify them. If successful, the GNATS become SPARX, and begin complimenting the player instead. "We used a lot of allegory," says Merry.

The creators of SPARX selected 187 teens with mild to moderate depression to either play the game or get traditional treatments administered by trained counselors at schools and youth clinics. The average age of the participants was 16, and the group was 60 percent female.

The results suggest that the game was actually more effective than traditional forms of talk therapy. Individuals playing SPARX had anxiety and depression levels reduced by 44 percent, compared to a 26 percent reduction among those who received traditional therapy.

Merry feels this discovery is important due to the fact that the vast majority of teens with depression never get the treatment they need. "When you do the calculations of how many therapists you need to meet that need, it's enormous," the doctor explains. This is why a game like "SPARX," which doesn't require supervision, could help fill treatment gaps.

Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base,