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SPARX: The game that treats depression finds a publisher, planned for this fall

SPARK finds a publisher

SPARX — a fantasy role-playing game designed by the University of Auckland to teach young people with depression how to manage and overcome their condition — has found a publisher and distributor, it was announced today.

The game first came to the attention of the public when a clinical trial involving it was published in the British Medical Journal in 2012. The clinical trial found that not only was playing the game as effective as receiving face-to-face treatment with a trained counselor, on the secondary measure of remission, it was more effective.

The game is being published by LinkedWellness, a U.S. organization that focuses on bringing clinically-proven e-therapies to people suffering from behavioral health conditions. LinkedWellness' founder and CEO, David Burt, told Polygon that he first heard of SPARX last year at a health conference and shortly after flew to Auckland, New Zealand, to talk to its developers about publishing the game.

"Depression is so prevalent. About 30 percent of college kids have depression, and 80 percent of those don't get any treatment. The numbers are staggering," Burt told Polygon. "Roughly 10 million young people in the U.S. between 12-25 suffer from depression, and eight million of them don't get treatment."

"Roughly 10 million young people in the U.S. between 12-25 suffer from depression, and eight million of them don't get treatment."

Burt said that a large part of why those who suffer from depression don't receive treatment is because of stigma and lack of privacy. There are also other barriers to treatment such as costs and the availability of services. Burt told Polygon that because SPARX comes in the form of a video game, players can experience the game in the privacy of their home or dorm room.

"There's nothing like this game," he said. "It's the only game that's got a clinical trial showing that it reduces depression. It's by far, several years at least ahead of anything else out there."

Last year when SPARX first appeared in the British Medical Journal, we spoke with Karolina Stasiak, the SPARX study manager whose PhD thesis served as the pilot study for the game. She told Polygon at the time that many young people suffering from depression have limited options for treatment, especially if they suffer from mild to moderate depression. According to Stasiak, public health-funded services don't often see people suffering from mild to moderate depression, so there are few avenues for treatment.

"The options for young people are really limited," she said. "Some young people in rural or remote areas might find their access to services is limited. If a family can afford it they can see someone privately, but that's expensive and out of reach for a lot of young people."

Stasiak said that SPARX isn't a replacement tool for existing services — it's another tool for mental health professionals and for young people to access in their home time.

Our full interview with Stasiak where she goes into detail about how SPARX works can be read here.

David Burt told Polygon that LinkedWellness is currently in the process of bringing SPARX to Unity so it can be ported to multiple platforms. The game will initially launch on web browsers, with a tentative release window of this fall. The company is looking into the possibility of bringing the game to touch-screen devices.

More information about SPARX can be found here.

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