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Medicine Games

Computer Game Designed To Treat Depression As Effective As Traditional Treatment 190

Posted by timothy
from the defeat-the-zoloftians dept.
New submitter sirlark writes "'Researchers at the University of Auckland tested an interactive 3D fantasy game called Sparx on a 94 youngsters diagnosed with depression whose average age was 15 and a half. Sparx invites a user to take on a series of seven challenges over four to seven weeks in which an avatar has to learn to deal with anger and hurt feelings and swap negative thoughts for helpful ones. Used for three months, Sparx was at least as effective as face-to-face conventional counselling, according to several depression rating scales. In addition, 44% of the Sparx group who carried out at least four of the seven challenges recovered completely. In the conventional treatment group, only 26% recovered fully.' One has to wonder if it's Sparx specifically — or gaming in general — that provides the most benefit, given that most of the symptoms of depression relate to a feeling of being unable to influence one's environment (powerlessness, helplessness, ennui, etc) and games are specifically designed to make one feel powerful but challenged (if they hit the sweet spot)."
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Computer Game Designed To Treat Depression As Effective As Traditional Treatment

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  • Enders game? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Anyone? It's coming. Pretty soon our actions in video games will contribute to the profile built on our web habits. Fun fun fun.

  • Won't work (Score:5, Funny)

    by recrudescence (1383489) on Friday April 20, 2012 @11:01PM (#39753697)
    Won't work outside the lab. As soon as they release it to market and pump it full of DRM and premium-content-ads, they'll get depressed all over again.
    • by Nrrqshrr (1879148)
      Cure Your Chronic Depression soon in a Gamestop near you. Preorder now and you receive the "Get a Girlfriend" DLC!
  • by wmbetts (1306001) on Friday April 20, 2012 @11:06PM (#39753715)

    " One has to wonder if it's Sparx specifically — or gaming in general — that provides the most benefit, given that most of the symptoms of depression relate to a feeling of being unable to influence one's environment (powerlessness, helplessness, ennui, etc) and games are specifically designed to make one feel powerful but challenged (if they hit the sweet spot)."

    The thing a lot of people especially in the age group tested lack are the emotional tools to deal with normal feelings such as anger and depression. One on one counseling helps the patient build those tools and if the game is designed with that in mind then yes it's Sparx not all games. If it were all video games that made a person feel empowered then I really doubt EMO would have ever been "invented".

    • My take is that "traditional therapy" is a pretty low bar to pass, Sparx isn't necessarily doing much better than random chance (and neither is traditional therapy.)

      • by wmbetts (1306001)

        I think you're right in most cases of people that are really messed up, but if it's just because they don't know how to handle their emotions it can help.

      • Well, your "take" is incorrect.

        http://www.aafp.org/afp/2006/0101/p83.html [aafp.org]

        • "The study found no significant differences between the therapies; however, the two psychotherapies were slightly less effective than imipramine but more effective than placebo. A meta-analysis of four studies, which included 169 patients with major depression, showed similar results for tricyclic antidepressants and CBT."

          Now when they say placebo, they actually mean sugar pill. It's well known now that medication doesn't outperform placebo on most forms of depression so saying CBT is as good as that is a l

    • I'm replying but Mods, mod him up!

      See that other thread about Science Cheating!

      We have a classic case here!

      (Subset of Activity) proves results!

      But the broader activity is not tested! So they should have tested some 100 games, to see if Sparx is special.

  • Cure v. treatment (Score:5, Interesting)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday April 20, 2012 @11:37PM (#39753815)

    Depression can't be cured. It can be treated, very effectively, and the outcome will last a long time. But once you've had a depressive episode, you are more likely to have another. The longer and more severe the symptoms, the more likely you are to have a recurrance. Whatever it is that triggers depression can be abated, but it weakens the psychological fabric of the person it afflicts, permanently.

    I don't know why this is, or the underlying mechanic. There are many studies out that identify variances in neural activity and neurotransmitter levels that are associated with people having a depressive episode; It has a distinct pathology and has definate biological markers, unlike most personality disorders (as a contrast). But there is scant data on what differences persist in the brain post-recovery... only a marked increase in the odds of relapse.

    In that respect, it is much like chicken pox. If you've had it, the virus remains in your body, and for 80% of the population, after the acute infection, there are no further symptoms for the rest of their life. But for some, complications arise in the form of shingles. Depression is like that as well, but without the pathogen -- once you've had it, something is changed in you, forever.

    • Apply frustration,anxiety,hopelessness,despair,long period of unemployment or any other negative to a sane rational person for a length of time and you will get the end result: depression.
      The length varies but the result is the same.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No, that's not true. I know that that message is out there -- because I had a therapist who said to me what you just said to me. But my therapist was wrong.

      I survived severe depression that I experienced from about 11-19. For reference, I am 34 today. What helped me the most was journaling, journaling, journaling, re-evaluating my self-talk on a minute second by second basis, focusing on love, and a powerful willingness to recognize that the entire world can be wrong about things, and I don't need to le

      • by kermidge (2221646)

        Right on. Thanks. For me it's the continuing hobby of trying to become the human I'd like to live as, which requires the examination and changing of perception, reaction, thinking and doing. A "fun" job, and a good toolkit helps.

    • Re:Cure v. treatment (Score:5, Informative)

      by Okian Warrior (537106) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @01:21AM (#39754121) Homepage Journal

      Some depressions can be cured immediately and permanently.

      Some depression is the result of lack of vitamin D3. Spend most of your time indoors, never go out in the sunshine between 10 AM and 2 PM (the only time when you get vitamin D from sunlight), cover most of your body when you *are* out, and slather your skin with sunscreen at the beach. Oh, and the RDA was set abnormally low when it was first set. Take 8,000 IU of D3 for a week and see if you get better. You can say that it's the dead-end job, more likely it's the job keeping you indoors.

      Some depression is the result of lack of iodine. Iodine is almost absent from the modern diet. Salt used in commercial products has none (iodized costs more), and bread whiteners which used to be Iodine are now mostly Bromine. The Japanese get lots of iodine in their diet and have much less incidence of depression. Take some Kelp pills for a week and see if you get better. Or, you can go to a professional and learn to manage the symptoms.

      Some depression is the result of lack of Thyroid activity. No one knows what causes this (at the moment), but by some accounts 40% of depression can be cured by taking thyroid supplements. This has to be done with a doctor and lab tests, but thyroid extracts are available over the counter and could be taken for a week - see if it makes you feel better. Or, you can try the prescription "we've got it this time for sure!" antidepressant medicine that's in vogue this year.

      Some depression is caused by lack of sleep, which is itself caused by allergies. Get a Xylitol nasal spray and use it every 10 minutes for an hour, or until your sinuses are clear, and see if this helps. Or change your mattress if you're waking up sore or with back pain. Or otherwise change your sleeping arrangements to maximize your rest.

      Each of these is cheap and could be considered a $20 experiment - if it works, great! If it doesn't, you're out $20 so no big deal.

      The "like a virus remains in your body" is fatalistic reasoning - it's an excuse to give up looking.

      Another possible explanation is that Depression is a resource depletion disease, which can be cured by building up stores of that resource.

      Nota Bene: There is more than one type of depression. There is more than one cause of depression.

      • I'm still a bit skeptic about this D3 buzz lately. I think the biggest thing cheering you up when being outside is all the direct impact to your senses: feeling the warmth of the sun, looking ants marching and enjoying spare ribs and beer with your mates. I myself live in Finland though, so without doubt I would probably still get some benefits from vitamin D.
        • Well, we who have quite the time to adapt genetically to the lack of sun for half of the year, I guess we suffer less from a lack of D3 than people with ancestry that is mostly from around equator, where the day night cycle is quite stable compared to our yearly changes going from permanet night to permanet darkness.

      • So my choice is depression or melanoma? Decisions, decisions...

      • Other health ideas along those lines: http://www.changemakers.com/discussions/discussion-493#comment-38823 [changemakers.com]

  • by gweihir (88907) on Friday April 20, 2012 @11:51PM (#39753873)

    Looks like it to me:

    - "In addition, 44% of the Sparx group who carried out at least four of the seven challenges recovered completely."
    - "In the conventional treatment group, only 26% recovered fully."

    This seems to indicate high effectiveness of the Sparx treatment, yet it actually tells us absolutely nothing. The critically missing data is how many of the Sparx group completed four or more challenges. If it was 1%, them the overall effectiveness of Sparx may be as low as 0.44% and vastly lower than conventional treatment. If it was 100%, then Sparx has a 44% success rate and is vastly better than conventional treatment.

    Either someone is intentionally lying here (remember, these people are psychologists and know how to do it) or the reporter is a nil-whit without a clue on how to report statistics.

    • by bigtrike (904535)

      I'm glad you've discovered their anti-psychologist agenda.

    • by cmarkn (31706) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:38AM (#39754025)
      The article itself, but not the second-hand news release, contains the information you want:

      Adherence rates

      Eighty out of 94 young people who were allocated to SPARX returned questionnaires reporting number of modules completed. Adherence rates for SPARX were good, with 69 (86%) of participants allocated to SPARX completing at least four modules, 48 (60%) completing all seven modules, and 50 (62%) completing most or all of the homework challenges set.

    • This seems to indicate high effectiveness of the Sparx treatment, yet it actually tells us absolutely nothing. The critically missing data is how many of the Sparx group completed four or more challenges. If it was 1%, them the overall effectiveness of Sparx may be as low as 0.44% and vastly lower than conventional treatment. If it was 100%, then Sparx has a 44% success rate and is vastly better than conventional treatment.

      Only if you also adjust the conventional treatment group's statistics to reflect the recovery rate of those who only took half the course of treatment.

    • by guanxi (216397)

      Either someone is intentionally lying here (remember, these people are psychologists and know how to do it)

      Are you serious? Your sophisticated analysis is based on the assumption that psychologists are manipulative liars? Is there anything you feel you need to have a basis for stating, or do you just fabricate (or repeat) propaganda and string it together as needed?

      • by MattskEE (925706)

        Either someone is intentionally lying here (remember, these people are psychologists and know how to do it)

        Are you serious? Your sophisticated analysis is based on the assumption that psychologists are manipulative liars? Is there anything you feel you need to have a basis for stating, or do you just fabricate (or repeat) propaganda and string it together as needed?

        It's based on the fact that many researchers, or at least people reporting research to the media, will play games with statistics to make new research seem more effective or revolutionary than they already are. The concern that GP brings up is not trivial - it is a serious flaw not to have stated that in the relative completion rates of the two treatment methods in the article because this is a very easy way to mislead readers about the results. The researchers did address this is their paper, but as usua

        • by guanxi (216397)

          many researchers, or at least people reporting research to the media, will play games with statistics to make new research seem more effective or revolutionary than they already are.

          I agree, that's a real problem, but that's not what the GP said. They said,

          Either someone is intentionally lying here (remember, these people are psychologists and know how to do it)

          The implication is silly.

  • by hherb (229558) <horst AT dorrigomedical DOT com> on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:32AM (#39754007) Homepage

    The cited article is not informative. Read the original source at http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2598 [bmj.com]
    It answers most of the questions in the comments.
    You can view the trailer or learn more about the game as such at http://www.sparx.org.nz/ [sparx.org.nz]

  • It has been observed through twenty something years of firsthand experimentation with computer games that they do in fact offer the chance to deal some virtual destruction, which brings with it an immense sense of satisfaction. ...and these assholes needed how much money to come to the same conclusion!?

  • Better links (Score:5, Informative)

    by cmarkn (31706) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @01:25AM (#39754133)

    I am unhappy to see such a low-quality reference for this article, when the official press release from the journal is available [bmj.com] and the full article itself [bmj.com] are available online and

    This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See

    Most of the objections raised in the comments above are answered in the article, which looks to me to be about as high quality as is possible given the differences between the treatments used. Making accusations of "lying" before you have read the full article is unethical.

    The main weakness pointed out by the authors was that the compliance with the treatment protocols was reported by the adolescent participants, not by the machines or the professionals providing the treatment. Another was that some 13% of the participants who were supposed to receive treatment as usual were merely put on waiting lists, although that may be treatment as usual in some places; but the real kicker here was that excluding them made the treatment as usual even less effective! There have been plenty of previous studies comparing treatment with non-treatment that find treatment more effective, but testing treatments for depression is very tricky because pretty much anything is beneficial, even telling people they are taking part in an experiment and then doing nothing else, but this article reports “[w]e have carried out two small studies of computerised interventions for depressive symptoms; one showed a significant effect compared with placebo and the other was significantly more effective than a waitlist control.”

    I know it is futile to ask people to read an article before they comment on it, and I know it is equally futile to ask people who submit articles such as this to post links to original articles instead of second or third sources, but here goes: If you are submitting an article about an article in a scientific journal, please include a link to the original article in the original journal instead of a newspaper article based on a press release announcing the publication of the article. Thank you. And if you are drinking from the Firehose and come across something like this, at least vote it down, and better yet, submit a better article to replace it.

    • The thing about many problems of the mind is that there are many different reasons a person could have them, and thus different treatments can work on different people. For a number of issues you find that drugs, therapy, etc all have some success, and there is a fair bit of non-overlap (as in one failed, but another succeeded with the same person).

      So I could well see a game based therapy working for some people, but not for others.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Erpo (237853)

      I know it is futile to ask people to read an article before they comment on it, and I know it is equally futile to ask people who submit articles such as this to post links to original articles instead of second or third sources

      I don't believe it's futile.

      If you are submitting an article about an article in a scientific journal, please include a link to the original article in the original journal instead of a newspaper article based on a press release announcing the publication of the article.

      If I were submitting an article about an article in a scientific journal to slashdot, it wouldn't occur to me to look for (or follow) a link to the original article. Whenever I search for information on a topic online and there is a link in the search results to an article in a scientific journal, that article is almost always behind a paywall. Even more frustrating, it's usually set up as a tease so that it *looks* like it's a link to the full article but turns out to be a page

      • Search author / title for the academic article. You will learn pretty quickly what the paywalls are. If it's a university faculty page it's almost always not a paywall.

  • No, seriously. Reading about something like that is ultra-cool, especially since I now have something to point people towards who are trapped in the "computer games are evil and make you want to go out and shoot people" mindset - but only actually seing the thing with your own eyes is for real.

    • especially since I now have something to point people towards who are trapped in the "computer games are evil and make you want to go out and shoot people" mindset

      I think you're putting too much faith in them. No matter what you show them, they're probably going to continue to believe that video games are evil, porn is evil, that both hurt kids, etc. Even if it's all nonsense.

      • by Tom (822)

        I put trust in me being quite convincing if I have the evidence to support my arguments. That trust isn't baseless, I've basically convinced people of my POV as a job for a couple of years. And one thing I learnt is that argument alone is very weak compared to being able to having something to show.

        That's why newspapers print fancy statistics next to complicated things. Most readers will basically blank out after the second complicated word, but a graph going visible in a particular direction is incredibly

        • That trust isn't baseless, I've basically convinced people of my POV as a job for a couple of years.

          I was more so referring to religious family organizations who think that things like video games are the devil. No matter how many studies you give them, I'm sure they'd point to a (probably invalid) study that confirms their own views. They're the hardest ones to convince.

          I'm not sure if that "showing" part works with porn, though.

          That's the more difficult one. With the amount of anti-sex nonsense in America, accurate studies probably cannot easily be performed to begin with.

          • by Tom (822)

            They're the hardest ones to convince.

            Agreed, and I probably wouldn't waste my time on them, except for some ridicule. I do think that humour is the best weapon against religion, and we need to ridicule it at every opportunity.

            That's the more difficult one. With the amount of anti-sex nonsense in America, accurate studies probably cannot easily be performed to begin with.

            Especially on children. Then again, it also means there are no studies to confirm it. Though, honestly, I do think that porn does have a negative effect on children and teenagers. Not because of the sex, but because the porn sex isn't anything like actual sex. More sexual openness and a more realistic depiction of it woul

            • but because the porn sex isn't anything like actual sex.

              Yeah, but it's like video games: it's as simple as being able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. If they can't figure it out on their own, then their parents can simply tell them. It's not actually such a big hurdle to overcome. The younger ones probably wouldn't be interested, anyway.

  • Yes, I RTFA.

    Now, I played a fair amount of computer games in my life, and as far as I could tell, they all worked along those lines. They gave you a challenge, they gave you an obstacle to overcome, they gave you anger and hurt emotions to deal with (if for no other reason than you dying at the same boss for the n-th time) and a reward when you overcame it, rewarding you for the "helpful thought" that you bit the bullet and pushed through.

    What exactly makes this game special and different?

  • by bistromath007 (1253428) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @08:30AM (#39755375)
    It is NOT gaming in general. Gaming as a hobby, especially with a focus on challenge, encourages isolation, which is the kiss of death for mental health. The fact that a person is more powerful in games than the world isn't helpful either. At best it causes one to look behind the curtain too much; more commonly it simply generates a psychological dependence on escapism.

    I'm using a bunch of "psychobabble" here, but I should be clear: my years of experience are not in practice and study of the field. This happened to me, and I've known several others who got it worse. To be even clearer, I'm not saying that games are bad for you. In my best health, I enjoy them much more, in fact. Having a life in balance allows me to take on games that require more effort and which are deeper as works of art. But they are not good medicine unless they're made that way.

    A further insight as a sort of... tenured mental patient: if the game teaches people to "replace thoughts," it's teaching Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. While that method has seen some success, it's mainly because most cases of depression frankly deal with first world problems that people need to bootstrap themselves out of. People with physiologically-rooted cases, those who have experienced severe trauma, and those who see the man behind the curtain will see better long-term gains from a newer approach: Acceptance and Committment Therapy. Luckily, there's already a game for that! A significant portion of ACT is the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Bejeweled 3's meditation mode is surprisingly effective for a silly gimmick. :p
  • by DaneM (810927) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @08:38AM (#39755411)

    There have been multiple studies about how excessive gaming can lead to depression, and even a behavioral addiction. While I'm sure that taking this position is going to be massively unpopular among the /. crowd, I've experienced both the depressive and addictive aspect of video games, myself. Of course, I still love gaming, but I've found that if I don't exert some control over how much I play, my depression gets worse, and yes, I do get addicted (complete with a sort of emotional "withdrawal" when I stop playing).

    Here's a reference, though better ones are surely out there:
    http://www.videogamingaddiction.com.au/how-to-avoid-video-game-addiction-depression/ [videogamin...ion.com.au]

    That being said, it may well be the nature of the games I play: mostly ultra-violent FPS games, and a few RPGs (Skyrim, etc.). While it's surely also unpopular to remind people about the article on /. a while back about such games "turning-off" certain parts of the brain (especially the area that more-or-less monitors whether our actions are considered "acceptable;" I don't remember the name for it), I'll point the phenomenon out, anyway. Notably, other parts of the brain are stimulated in much the opposite way (motor cortex, etc.), and can find benefit therein. (Link contains a good info-graphic.)
    http://ansonalex.com/infographics/effect-video-games-brain/ [ansonalex.com]

    Don't take this as me saying "video games are evil," because I don't believe that. Still, misuse can be a problem and can actually cause episodes of depression, as I've experienced, myself.

    These researchers have probably hit on something important, and it would seem that the nature of the game plays a major role in how it affects a person. Congrats to them for being sensible about studying these things (rather than basing their findings on ideology). I should probably point out that this article deals only with comparison to traditional "talk therapy"--which not everyone finds helpful (and whose efficacy is extremely dependent on who's doing it)--and that this probably isn't dealing with severe, chemical depression, so much as socially-induced depression (which is certainly just as valid; it's simply different). Still, that the program was this helpful is quite remarkable.

  • It's 70 episodes give it a surprising rewatch value and it's just adorable. I can't think of a better non-chemical antidepresant except perhaps a box of kittens.

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