WASHINGTON, April 27, 2012 - It was bound to happen sooner or later. There is a 3D computer fantasy game that teaches good thinking habits as effectively as biological therapist units can. The game, designed for children and adolescents, is called SPARX (not to be confused with SPANX which are women’s undergarments).
SPARX stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts.
The game provides cognitive-behavioral therapy to the gamers. That means means it helps them replace Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts (GNATS) with positive SPARX thoughts. It was tested on adolescents and young adults from spring 2009 to mid-summer 2010. Participants had a single diagnosis (depression) but were not at risk for self-harm or suicide, and were not receiving other treatment.
As already indicated, SPARX was successful in relieving (in some cases alleviating) the young players’ depressive symptoms. “It is at least as good as treatment as usual [with a therapist], would be cheaper and easier to disseminate, and could be used to increase access to therapy,” wrote Dr. Merry, one of the study’s authors.
While some counselors may be miffed by this, I know one who thinks the program should be given to everyone that owns a computer, regardless of their age. She feels the world would benefit from a global increase in effective thought processing.
The idea of the game is for SPARX to take over a virtual world that is inhabited by GNATS. There are seven levels, or modules, that lead players through the process of cognitive restructuring (thinking effectively) while on their mission to nick the GNATS.
- Introduces GNATS, the idea of hope, and relaxation through breathing
- Is about taking action, progressive muscle relaxation, and basic communication skills.
- Addresses anger, hurt feelings, assertiveness, listening, and negotiation
- Teaches problem solving, and introduces cognitive restructuring via SPARX
- Teaches players to recognize different species of GNATS (names not in Latin)
- How to exchange negative thoughts for effective ones, and negotiation skills
- Reviews all the skills, teaches mindfulness, relapse prevention, asking for help
After the study, satisfaction questionnaires showed that SPARX participants liked being able to utilize the program at the clinic, school, or at home, and appreciated working through the seven modules at their own pace. Players also gave high marks for the look and feel of the game (like New Zealand, where it was created), and that it was designed specifically for young people.
Those participants in the study that did not use the game (control group), but saw a living, breathing counselor instead, took the same satisfaction survey and reported they liked being able to go at their own pace. They felt good being supported and listened to, and learned things they didn’t know.
Sounds like a draw. I’m sure all therapists are heartened to know they are as competent and appreciated as SPARX.
What’s Good About SPARX
- It can be an effective first step in treating depression.
- It is easy to obtain and inexpensive to offer.
- SPARX and other programs like it may provide help for young, depressed people that shy away from one-on-one therapy.
- It may prevent some young people from going on antidepressants.
- SPARX is fun so players stick with it.
Overall, the use of SPARX significantly reduced players’ anxiety, depression, sense of hopelessness, and improved their quality of life. This is remarkable for a self-help tool. A three month follow-up revealed the benefits of the game had continued.
My counselor friend said, “Who doesn’t want to have fun while they’re learning. If playing a game like SPARX gives children a leg-up in life, I’m for it. I’m not going to worry about digital counselors until they have emotional sensitivity, insight, and intuition. If that happens, I’ll take down my shingle and go see one.”
Abstract. The effectiveness of SPARX, a computerised self help intervention for adolescents seeking help for depression. BMJ. http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2598
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