Japanese Entrepreneur Uses Video Games to Fight Depression

A Japanese entrepreneur has imported a role-playing game from New Zealand to help patients suffering from depression.

According to Hikari Lab founder Ayako Shimizu, she first noticed how mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are perceived and dealt with more openly in other countries during her year-long stay in Australia. She found this to be much different than in her home country, as minor mental health problems still carry a stigma in Japan.

Shimizu discovered SPARX, a video game aimed at treating depression, in 2014 from a fellow student at the University of Tokyo while in a graduate clinical psychology program. She soon contacted the game’s creators at the University of Auckland and finalized a licensing agreement a year later.

SPARX, an acronym for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts, was developed in the late ’00s by researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand to help young persons with mild to moderate depression, stress or anxiety. It is designed specifically to help players learn more about their thoughts through subtle cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, Japan Times reported.

While the original English version for the game is still only playable in New Zealand, the 30-year-old head of the online counseling firm was able to bring the mobile version to Japan in May 2016.

“I was studying CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) at university and knew it was a highly reliable approach,” Shimizu explained. “But in Japan, many people with depression had heard of CBT but didn’t know where to go to receive a session. I thought the game was a perfect way to introduce CBT to people who were interested but were still scared of undergoing it face-to-face.”

“When a counselor tells you in person, ‘Let’s be hopeful,’ it doesn’t quite sink in for many people. But if a character in a fantasy world that you trust says this, it can convince you,” she added.

Throughout the game, users are guided on how to properly manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. In the game’s first ‘level,’ for instance, SPARX players learn breathing techniques while their in-game characters and environments adapt accordingly, instilling a sense of positivity.

“SPARX still feels like a medical intervention,” she was quoted as saying.“Games won’t appeal to many people unless they are genuinely entertaining. I want to create games that make people feel better without them even noticing that they are receiving care.”

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