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Playing a 3D computer game could be just as effective at treating young people with depression as face-to-face counselling, new research has suggested.

The study, published on British Medical Journal website bmj.com, found that many adolescents are reluctant to seek help for mental health issues.

To tackle that problem, researchers developed an interactive fantasy game called Sparx, which sees each player choose an avatar and then face challenges to restore balance in a virtual world overrun by ‘Gnats’ (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).

They found that the self-help game, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to help young users, had as much benefit as more traditional treatments, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least a third.

Of the 187 young people in New Zealand studied as part of the trial, significantly more recovered completely in the group playing the computer game. A total of 44% of those who completed at least four of the seven modules in Sparx recovered, compared to 26% of those who were receiving face-to-face treatment.

The authors of the study, who are based at the University of Auckland and the University of Otago, said Sparx was an “effective resource for help seeking adolescents with depression at primary healthcare sites”.

They added: “Use of the program resulted in a clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and hopelessness and an improvement in quality of life.”

The game treatment could prove a cheaper, and more accessible, way for some teenagers with depression to get help. In the Sparx group, 95% of the adolescents said they believed the game would appeal to other teenagers.