A special computer game is as effective for treating adolescent depression as one-on-one counselling with trained clinicians, Australian researchers report in the British Medical Journal.

Researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand observed 187 young people12 to 19 years old who showed mild to moderate depressive symptoms.

Roughly half played SPARX, a 3D fantasy game that has users work through a series of seven levels dealing with a range of topics, including:

  • Emotions.
  • Finding hope.
  • Recognizing unhelpful thoughts.

Over four to seven weeks, players must restore balance in a world dominated by GNATs, or gloomy negative automatic thoughts.

Another group underwent face-to-face treatment by trained counsellors and psychologists.

According to the researchers, SPARX was as effective in reducing symptoms of depression. Moreover, 44 per cent of those who played at least four levels completely recovered compared to 26 per cent in usual care.

The results were based on several depression rating scales.

SPARX improves qualify of life

The authors concluded that SPARX is an "effective resource for help seeking adolescents with depression at primary health-care sites," resulting in a "clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety and hopelessness, and an improvement in quality of life."

Those in the SPARX group also reported high satisfaction levels with the game. Ninety-five per cent said it would appeal to other teenagers and four-fifths said they would recommend it to friends. Similar satisfaction levels, however, were also reported for standard treatment.

The study noted up to one-quarter of adolescents will experience a depressive disorder by age 19 while fewer than 20 per cent get treatment.

The authors suggested a computer game-based treatment could be cheaper and could increase access to treatment, noting that SPARX is able to be played at home. The game could be an option for adolescents who are reluctant to seek conventional treatment.