Video Games used as a Treatment for Depression

video game therapyA new computer-based therapy recently trialled in New Zealand could aid in the treatment of adolescent depression. The program is based around a typical fantasy themed video game and has shown promising results.Correctly or incorrectly, computer games and the people who play them seem to have certain stereotypes attached to them that are difficult to escape. Despite these nagging perceptions the popularity of computer and console games has grown immensely and shows no sign of slowing down. To highlight this point, industry statistics report that in the USA in 2007 consumers spent $9.5 billion on video game related items (games, consoles and accessories). By 2010 that figure had grown to $25.1 billion. As of June 2011 the worldwide computer game industry was valued at $65 billion. This form of entertainment, which started out as a curiosity a few decades ago, has since grown into a sector of the market that rivals the film and music industries.


Many may be surprised to learn that the average “gamer” is not a young male parked on his parent’s sofa playing games when they should be engaging in a more productive pass-time. Surveys out of America show that the typical “gamer” is 37 years old and has been playing computer games for the past 12 years. Perhaps more fascinating is the fact that forty-two percent of players are female.

Due to this explosion in popularity surrounding video games researchers have begun to investigate how they could be used to positively affect a person’s mental health. The question they have asked is whether games can be as successful in therapy as they have in general entertainment.

Researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe this can be the case. In a study recently published in the British Medical Journal (that can be read in full here) they have found that specialised computer games can be just as successful as conventional therapy when it comes to treating adolescent depression,

The randomised controlled study conducted by the research team involved 187 adolescents aged between 12 and 19. All of the participants in the study had displayed mild to moderate depression. These young people who agreed to take part were randomly assigned into either standard one-on-one therapy or instructed to use what the researchers termed the specially designed computerized cognitive behavioural therapy intervention. Simply referred to as SPARX (meaning: Smart Positive Active Realistic X-factor thoughts).

The SPARX program involved placing the adolescent in a classic interactive fantasy world similar to the Lord of the Rings. The goal of player is to bring balance to the in-game world by eliminating what are termed GNATs (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts). To use typical game terminology, SPARX requires that the player complete seven differently themed “levels” that are based around accepted methods used in traditional therapy to treat depression. For a complete description of what the computer program entailed please refer to the link above or click here to link to SPARX’s own webpage.

The researchers conducted three months of follow up on the participants of the study and used a number of accepted mental health scales to base their findings. They found that the adolescents that underwent treatment via SPARX saw their overall symptoms of depression and anxiety decrease by a third. This figure is comparable to rates of traditional therapy. On top of this 44% of those who completed at least four of the seven “levels” of SPARX fully recovered from their depression.  Only 26% of participants had a full recovery using standard therapy.

SPARX also appeared to be popular with the adolescents assigned to trial its effectiveness. Of those who used SPARX 95% thought it would appeal to other teenagers. Also 81% of the participants recommended the program to their friends.

With around a quarter of young people experiencing some form a depression by the age of 19 the development of effective treatments is clearly vital. While one-on-one therapy has proven itself to be successful it can also be an expensive undertaking. Some kids will also not be responsive or forthcoming to a therapist. In such cases a program such as SPARX could be crucial to improve the mental wellbeing of distressed young people. Due to the high levels of depression in our society compared to other mental health issues it is important to encourage any non-traditional therapy that has shown the potential for positive results. SPARX and similar examples of computer-based therapy could yet alter how we treat mental health issues in the future.

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