Role-playing game aims to help Nunavut youth deal with anxiety and depression

A game out of New Zealand that promises to help teens with anxiety and depression is being reimagined by Nunavut youth.

Researcher consulting youth one-on-one for Inuit-specific redesign of New Zealand game

SPARX was designed for youth in New Zealand who were seeking help for depression. It is being redesigned for Nunavut youth. (SPARX)

A role-playing game out of New Zealand that promises to help teens with anxiety and depression is being reimagined by Nunavut youth.

I-SPARX is a project to bring Inuit culture to a redesign of SPARX, which was originally created for Maori youth by researchers at the University of Auckland. 

Yvonne Bohr, an associate professor of psychology at York University, is the project lead for I-SPARX. (Submitted by Yvonne Bohr)

York University researchers want to replace Maori warriors with Inuit heroes for a Nunavut-specific redesign.

They are teaming up with Nunavut organizations Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council and Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre to adapt the game for Nunavut youth.

"We've been very impressed with the youth we've worked with who are very wise in terms of cultural elements they feel might be useful in healing and in helping youth get beyond feeling hopeless and negative," said Yvonne Bohr, a psychology professor at York University and the project lead for I-SPARX.

New Zealand's SPARX is a role-playing game featuring warriors who travel to places like the "Volcano Province" where they focus on "dealing with emotions." It's proven to help adolescents with mild to moderate depression and is as good as counselling, according to a 2012 study in the British Medical Journal.

Could be in Nunavut next year

Bohr carried out a pilot project in 2015 and 2016 with the government of Nunavut to survey youth remotely about their thoughts on the game. Now, with a $1.3 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Bohr is visiting communities to consult young people one-on-one.

She estimates the Inuit-specific game will be released next year. By then, schools and hired community leaders around Nunavut will encourage adolescents with anxiety or depression to play.

The game uses principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on strategies for positive thinking. SPARX presents these techniques — breathing techniques, for example — in the form of a fantasy adventure game.

"This is an intervention to build resilience," Bohr said. "It's supposed to provide youth with skills and strategies that they can use when they're feeling very stressed or hopeless."

In the Maori version, players enter a world shrouded in darkness and must overcome obstacles and puzzles while learning to cope with depression. The new Inuit-specific game will reflect the consultations in Nunavut.

SPARX uses a fantasy adventure game format to teach techniques for stress-relief and positive thinking.

Bohr is asking young people and elders to submit ideas on how to adapt the current game, using examples of stress-relief and positive thinking that are Inuit-specific. 

Local tech company Pinnguaq, which runs week-long coding sessions alongside Bohr's visits, is hoping to get young adults to participate in the redesign themselves using their newly-acquired programming skills.

Video games, especially violent ones, are often blamed for aggressive behaviour, though recent studies have contradicted this theory.

The World Health Organization classified compulsive video-gaming as a mental health disorder last month.

"People are playing games whether we like it or not," said Ryan Oliver, the executive director of Pinnguaq. "We can choose to provide experiences that are negative or perceived as negative, or we choose to provide experiences that are positive."

The I-SPARX team was recently in Baker Lake and Pangnirtung. They're in Pond Inlet this week and head to Cape Dorset next week. Bohr says she plans to visit Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk in August.