From Maori to Inuktitut: how a therapy game is helping Indigenous youth

'SPARX' is a role-playing computer game designed to help Maori youth in New Zealand to manage depression and anxiety using cognitive behavioural therapy. Now researchers here are redesigning the game for Canadian youth in the North with a project called Making I-SPARX Fly in Nunavut.

Fantasy game offers mental health support in Nunavut

A screenshot from the ISPARX therapy game. (Pinnguaq)

In isolated or remote places, mental health support can be difficult to find. That's why the University of Auckland designed SPARX, an online therapy tool, to help Maori youth in New Zealand deal with depression or anxiety.

SPARX was shown to be an effective tool for mental health, and here in Canada that caught the attention of Yvonne Bohr. She's an associate professor of clinical developmental psychology at York University and a member of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York.

Yvonne Bohr (Horst Herget Photography)

At the time Yvonne was part of a team of researchers helping the government of Nunavut find similar technology-based mental health tools for youth. "SPARX seemed to be well suited to the Nunavut context because it had been designed for Indigenous youth." Bohr said, in an interview with Spark host Nora Young. 

Eventually Bohr became the principal investigator for a new project that's been underway for many years to create a Canadian version of the game. The project is called Making I-SPARX Fly in Nunavut. The 'I' stands for Inuit.

The original SPARX is a fantasy game that takes players through seven levels of problem solving. A narrator takes the player's avatar through the various levels. "The game is about reclaiming culture and that can be helpful in addressing feelings of depression and anxiety," Bohr said.

The computer game helps teach players to use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies to improve mental health. CBT has been shown to be effective in treating mild and moderate depression."The idea is to look at what kinds of negative thoughts might provoke your negative feelings," Bohr said.

For the I-SPARX project Bohr's team has been committed to using a community-directed research approach. The I-SPARX team has worked alongside Inuit youth, elders and developers in Nunavut to create the new version of the game. "We're really interested in having the communities themselves make decisions about what they want out of it"

Bohr said the game has already been reskinned, so the visuals are done. "Our youth are very excited to see their ideas on the screen. So what used to be a New Zealand context is now Arctic and it's really exciting for us and it's really beautiful."

They're now working on the audio tracks because the narrator still has a New Zealand accent, Bohr said. Some of the youth in Nunavut will be giving their voices to that part of the project. It will also be translated so the voices will be in English and Inuktitut to start.

She hopes that by the end of the summer they will be rolling out the game in communities in Nunavut with the help of the youth leaders there. There's also talk about designing a whole new game.

"Youth have many ideas for new concepts and really integrating Inuit cultural symbols and concepts into a new game," Bohr said, "and there are many other things we could do to boost mental health and wellness so we're really excited by that."


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