In a previous article, I wrote about the potential of games to treat depression. In this article, I’d like to review two depression games, SPARX and SuperBetter, and share some thoughts about two more: Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight. Please note that we rate games on their transformative ability, not how “good” they are. See our rating system for more details.
Pros: Teaches a proven method to treat depression
Cons: Few gameplay elements, little replay value
Bottom Line: More of a digital textbook than a game. This proves the concept that depression games can be effective, but SPARX is not the game changer that people are looking for
SPARX is a game that got a lot of attention a few years ago when an article appeared in the British Medical Journal suggesting that it was effective in treating adolescents with mild to moderate depression. As of the publication of this article, the game is playable through the LinkedWellness website. If this is no longer true when you read this, the above trailer is an accurate depiction of the first few minutes of the game as well as some of the gameplay.
SPARX received a rating of 5.5 out of 9. The game contains helpful information about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a proven treatment for depression, but this information is often presented in lecture format. The game is exceptionally easy to play because there are very few gameplay elements, and there is little incentive or need to replay the game once the lesson is conveyed. A detailed breakdown of the overall rating is below.
Ease of Learning: 3/3
SPARX is very easy to play. All you use are 4 directional keys to move and the mouse to click on objects. The game is very linear and mostly consists of moving around, talking to people, and clicking on objects.
Most of the player’s time is spent listening to non-playable characters who teach healthy habits and the principles of CBT. In this way, SPARX resembles a digital textbook more than a game. There is little incentive to replay any mission, unless you somehow want to hear the lesson again. Since SPARX is geared toward adolescents, perhaps this is a legitimate possibility, so it gets 1 star.
Delta Value: 1.5/3
Teaching the basics of CBT has the potential to help kids that suffer from depression but are reluctant to see a counselor (1 star). However, given the way that the material is presented and the fact that many American kids play much more sophisticated games at an early age, it is questionable whether SPARX will appeal to its target audience in the U.S. I certainly hope that it does because we need all the help we can get when it comes to depression. Thus, it gets an extra half star for hoping.
Pros: It works if you play it often and make friends along the way. Informative videos explain the research behind the techniques. Possibly replayable to help you overcome any future challenge
Cons: Those looking for a traditional game might be disappointed and may lack the motivation to play
Bottom Line: For some, this is perhaps more gamification than a game, but it will help you get better if you put in the work (which is the key to success at anything in life, really)
This is an interesting one to rate. Some people would argue that SuperBetter is more of a gamified personal coaching app than a game. You set your goal (example, “overcome depression”), and SuperBetter helps you get there by tracking your progress and giving you encouragement and tips along the way. There are “bad guys” (e.g. chair) and “challenges” (e.g. “get out of the chair”), but you are responsible for doing these things in real life and logging the results in the game. Do enough quests and you “level up,” unlocking rewards such as videos clips that tell you how and why the techniques you just learned work. It’s like a RPG in which you are the hero and your allies are real people that you either know or befriend through the game. They encourage you, and you encourage them, and you all get SuperBetter. That’s the basic idea.
SuperBetter received a rating of 7 out of 9. Game or no game, SuperBetter works if you play it often and make friends. It is easy to play and replay, and the techniques are research-based. The idea is that you “learn by doing,” eventually building up good habits that can help you succeed at anything you want in life. The catch, of course, is that you have to play regularly, which may be a problem for traditional game players expecting to be entertained. SuperBetter will not wow you with addictive gameplay, epic story, or awesome graphics. Its primary goal is motivation. A detailed breakdown of rating is below.
Ease of Learning: 3/3
SuperBetter is very easy to play, mostly consisting of typing and click on dialogue boxes and videos. The challenges are not difficult–example, “get out of your chair.” There is no way to “fail” aside from not doing them, although you could always lie and said that you did. The game will only ask if you if you did them or not. You control your own game progression.
The game is designed to be almost infinitely repeatable (2 stars). This is because you set your own goals, and once you achieve them, you can set new goals. There is no set story to the game. You are the hero; you create your own story as you go. This is a cool concept, but I wonder how many people reuse SuperBetter once they finish their original objective?
Delta Value: 2/3
There is no secret to how SuperBetter works. Everyone knows (or should know) that self discipline is a key to success. By logging into the game every day and doing a few quests, you level up, feel better, and eventually do better. Keep this up for long enough, and you will achieve your goal. The trouble with discipline is that it can be monotonous and unexciting. SuperBetter gamifies it, which helps to make it a bit more attractive and doable (1 star). I also like how it explains the science behind the techniques (1 star). The better you understand the techniques, the more confidence you’ll have in them, and the better they will work.
The Catch-22 of all of this is that the people who need the most help often have the least motivation. Traditional games often entice players with storyline, gameplay, or graphics. SuperBetter doesn’t, and it’s a fair question whether it is capable of engaging players who are used to being extrinsically motivated in this manner.
Depression Quest uses a technology called Twine, a text-based interactive storytelling tool that allows you to make “choose your own adventure” stories and post them on websites. The player can choose between several options to advance the story, but aside from that, s/he is just along for the ride. Actual Sunlight was created using RPG Maker, so players can explore a 2D world and interact with objects and people. But like Depression Quest, the game is all story. There are no levels, puzzles, or quests.
I have played both games, and both are depressing, which is the point. Why make or play such a game? For the developers, it offers a creative release, a way to come to terms with their struggle. For players, it offers a sense of community to those than have experienced depression and understanding to players who have not but might know people who are.
If you are interested in more thoughts on either game, please check out the following articles:
- Thoughts on Actual Sunlight
- Buzzfeed article on both games
- Kotaku article on both games and two others
As games continue to mature as an artform, there will be more and more games like the ones above, and that’s a good thing. We need all the help we can get to combat depression. But games don’t need to be “depression games” in order to help. Here is a list of traditional games that helped one person through depression. Have games helped you through depression? Please feel free to share your story in the comments below, or send it to us, and we’ll gladly post it on this site.
In the movie, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone.” In the 21st century, we play to know we are not alone. Let’s share our experiences, help each other out, and beat this depression thing together.