Although depression hits youth of all ages, a large percentage of young people are left untreated, CEO of LinkedWellness David Burt said during a talk at the Games For Health event in Boston this week. Causes that he cited included stigma, inconvenience of therapy appointments, fear of drug side effects and cost of drugs and therapy. While searching for a solution to this problem, Burt and his team came across New Zealand-based Sparx, a video game to help youth cope with depression that was created by University of Auckland Associate Professor Sally Merry. She and her team were grappling with the same predicament as Burt.
“This is the question Sally Merry asked herself six or seven years ago,” Burt said. “She’s trying to fix adolescent depression in New Zealand and all these people are playing video games, so her question was ‘What does Grand Theft Auto have that we do not have?’ Obviously it’s an immersive video game.”
The object of Sparx is for the player to rid him or herself of negative thoughts and aim to reach ‘hope’. Within the game, the avatars that a patient can play as have New Zealand accents, which Burt believes will add to the fantasy of the game for an American audience. Burt also sees this is a possible treatment option for the influx of patients that hospitals will receive after the Affordable Care Act fully takes effect.
“Games like this involve self efficacy,” Burt said. “The player develops his or her avatar and walks through the fantasy world shooting down negative, automatic thoughts which can cause and perpetuate depression [while] developing skills — skills that are sustainable. This is not taking a pill and waiting for something to happen to your brain.”
After conducting a clinical trial with 94 participants, some of which were indigenous Maori people, Merry’s results were published in the British Medical Journal. Burt plans on launching the product in the fall and then running a clinical trial with an American audience soon afterwards.