The game, called "SPARX," which stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts, was developed by researchers and teachers in New Zealand.
Players choose an avatar and navigate seven realms in a 3D fantasy world. In each realm, they learn classic mental behavioral skills for combating depression. They learn problem-solving in a part of the game called the mountain province, for example. And in another level, they fight their way through a swamp of where they're assailed by black, smoldering balls called GNATS (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).
"These GNATS fly at the avatar and say negative things like 'you're a loser,'" says researcher Sally N. Merry, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Auckland. Players have to shoot the GNATS and put them into barrels that classify them as particular kinds of negative thoughts. If gamers get it right, the GNATS change to SPARX. The SPARX, glowing balls that look like fireflies, compliment the players and balance is restored.
"We used a lot of allegory," Merry says.
Each realm takes about 30 minutes to navigate. And players complete one or two steps of the game each week for three to seven weeks.
To test the game, researchers assigned 187 teens with mild to moderate depression to either play the video game or get usual treatment from trained counselors at schools and youth clinics. The average age of the kids in the study was 16. More than 60% were girls.
Researchers used psychological tests to assess depression before, during, and three months after the study, which was funded by New Zealand's Ministry of Health.
Both standard therapy and "SPARX" reduced levels of anxiety and depression by about one-third. And the video game helped more kids recover from their depression. About 44% achieved remission in the "SPARX" group compared to 26% in usual care. The research is significant, Merry says, because the vast majority of depressed teens never get help.
"Around 80% of young people with depression never get treatment," she tells WebMD. "When you do the calculations of how many therapists you need to meet that need, it's enormous."
She thinks a video game like "SPARX," which doesn't require supervision, could help fill treatment gaps, particularly in underserved areas. And it's a private way for kids who may feel wary of talking with an adult to get help for their problems.
Merry is working with the University of Auckland to make "SPARX" more widely available.
The study is published in the journal BMJ.