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Video games and health: research offers fresh perspective

4 May, 12 | by BMJ

Video games have come under attack by the mainstream media in the past few weeks, with extensive coverage of Anders Breivik’s apparent use of first-person shooter games as training aids before the Utoya massacre. Conversely, health researchers are becoming increasingly aware of the positive attributes of certain computer games.


This week’s most popular BMJ article looks at SPARX; a new cognitive behavioural therapy based computer game for young people with depression.

Researchers from the University of Auckland found that adolescents suffering from depression can benefit just as much from specialised computer therapy as they do from one-to-one therapy with a clinician.

SPARX is an interactive 3D fantasy game, similar to World of Warcraft, where a single user undertakes a series of challenges to restore balance in a virtual world dominated by GNATs (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).

Results showed that SPARX was as effective as usual care (face-to-face counselling by trained clinicians) in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least a third. The authors concluded that SPARX 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.”

Listen to  Sally Merry, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Auckland, explain how SPARX was created >>

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A study presented at the British Psychology Society’s Annual Conference last month suggests that flashbacks, considered by some to be the central hub of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can be significantly reduced by engaging in the visual-spatial tasks of video game play.

To test their idea, researchers asked subjects to view a disturbing film — an admittedly poor but sufficient simulation of real trauma. Within six hours of viewing this film, the period during which memories are thought to be consolidated for long-term storage, test subjects were randomly assigned to one of three tasks: answering trivia; playing Tetris, the 1980s video game that involves optimizing visual-spatial cues.

Over the following week, subjects who had played Tetris reported experiencing significantly fewer flashbacks of the film than the others did.


Glasgow Caledonian University eye specialists are letting children with amblyopia (also known as ‘lazy eye’) play a Tetris-style puzzle game to help treat the common visual impairment.

In the treatment, which was developed at GCU, children wear a pair of fetching “gaming goggles” and play a specially-designed version of Tetris. The goggles can show a different image in each screen, so a bright image is sent to the lazy eye and a dim image appears to the normal eye. One eye sees the falling polygonal blocks, and the other eye sees the wall of bricks. It forces the two eyes to work together.

After playing the game for an hour a day, over a period of a week to ten days, early tests have shown an almost immediate improvement. Parents of children with amblyopia also reported improvements in reading and school work.


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