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A Computer Game to Fight Depression in Adolescents

Update Date: Jul 31, 2012 09:04 AM EDT

Psychiatrists have developed a game that can help adolescents fight depression. The game is aimed towards those teenagers who hesitate or fail to get help for their problems.

After various studies that have linked computer and video games with isolation and depression in teenagers, the games are now being used to tackle the opposite.

In an innovative New Zealand programme, computers are being used to deal with adolescent depression.

The game, SPARX, is different from other games and does not encourage teenagers to engage in mindless destruction. It is designed using a psychological approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counsels the children subtly.

It is a fantasy game for those teenagers who are generally reluctant to seek counseling and bored by well-meaning advice on how to cope with depression, stated the press release.

While playing the game, the teenagers adopt a warrior avatar the rule of the game is to blast negative thoughts with fireballs, saving the world from drowning into pessimism and despair.

According to project leader Sally Merry, the approach has proved to be very popular with teenagers and allows them to address their problems in their own pace.

"You can deal with mental health problems in a way that doesn't have to be deadly serious," she said in the press release. "The therapy doesn't have to be depressing in and of itself. We're aiming to make it fun."

Merry said she is keen on treating the problem of depression and making it more accessible.

"The problem of depression in young people is an international one, it's common and mostly untreated," she said.

According to Merry, around 80 percent of adolescents with depression do not get help and then help and depression has its consequences like poor grades in school and social isolation.

"Often young people can be feeling low and not really realize what it is," she said.

"They just know that they're feeling 'blah' and accept that as something they have to put up with."

The game is aimed at 13- to- 17- year- olds and has seven levels, each reflecting a counseling session. A guide or a mentor in the game helps them, cross through the levels and each stage of the game has an embedded lesson it like anger management and conflict resolution.

"We had to look at the learning objectives and still design it to be a game," Metia Interactive managing director Maru Nihoniho said in the press release. "That meant keeping the entertainment value, such as interactive 3D environments, puzzles and quests that you'd find in commercial games."

"We knew we couldn't have shooting because of the nature of the game," she said. "So instead of having your character going around shooting or killing with machine guns or bombs, we gave the avatar a staff so they could shoot lighting bolts to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. It was about compromise," she added.

Merry further said that the game has won an innovation prize at the UN's World Summit Awards and has generated interests in countries like United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, while non-English speaking countries looking to translate it.

Clinically, the approach has proven useful in reducing mild to moderate depression as effectively as traditional counseling. This could be helpful in rural areas where mental health services are not available.

Even for people with severe depression or mental illness, for whom the game might not be suitable for, it could certainly encourage them to seek counseling.

"It's not going to fix everyone," she said. "But for those it doesn't help, some may be more receptive and interested in getting counseling."

"I'm very aware that, as a psychiatrist, when young people come to see me they sometimes enjoy chatting and so on, but it's not necessarily what they want to do most with their time. "I'm trying to find a way of doing things that is much more engaging."

The release date of the game is yet to be finalized.

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