An interactive fantasy video game that teaches children how to shoot down and label negative thoughts may serve as an alternative to traditional depression therapy, according to a new study.

Researchers from New Zealand created a 3D game called SPARX (smart, positive, active, realistic and x-factor thoughts) that works in as a computerized cognitive behavioral therapy designed to help teens conquer depression. 

Players create an avatar that will fight against a series of challenges to restore balance in a virtual world by destroying “gloomy negative automatic thoughts” or GNATs made up of seven topics, including emotions, finding hope and recognizing unhelpful thoughts, which are designed to be completed over a four to seven week period.

Players would for instance learn problem-solving skills in a game called the mountain province or go through a swamp and shoot down black balls of GNATS that say negative phrases like “You’re a loser” and correctly put them in buckets that label particular types of negative thoughts.  If the GNATS are put in the correct bucket, the black balls will turn into glowing balls called SPARX that give compliments to the players, according to researcher Dr. Sally Merry, an associate professor at the University of Auckland.

The study, which consisted of 187 adolescents aged between 12 to 19 years old with mild to moderate depression, compared those who played SPARX to those who received usual face-to face therapy sessions and found that the fantasy computer game was just as effective as traditional counseling in reducing depression and anxiety symptoms by a third. 

Additionally researchers found that 44 percent of participants in the SPARX group had recovered from depression, compared to 26 percent in the usual care group. 

Researchers conclude that the new game is an "effective resource for help seeking adolescents with depression at primary healthcare sites. Use of the program resulted in a clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and hopelessness and an improvement in quality of life."

They suggest that the game could be a potential alternative to traditional care and also be more accessible to young people with depression because it would be cheaper and easier to disseminate.

"Around 80 percent of young people with depression never get treatment," Merry told WebMD. "When you do the calculations of how many therapists you need to meet that need, it's enormous."

The findings were published in BMJ.