Q-and-A with researcher on fantasy video game to help Inuit youth build resilience

Yvonne Bohr’s research team

Faculty of Health Professor Yvonne Bohr took a critical look at a 3D video game developed halfway around the world and realized it could have application in Canada. SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts) was designed by researchers at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, for Maori youth to help with stress, depression and anxiety.

After a 2012 British Medical Journal article concluded that SPARX helped youth by building resilience, Bohr wondered if this game could be revamped to support Canada’s Inuit youth. Her team then won funding of over one million dollars from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)  to investigate this possibility, and launched their study “Making I-SPARX Fly in Nunavut” together with Nunavut communities and partners Embrace Life and Pinnguaq.

Bohr sat down with Brainstorm to discuss this hugely promising work.

Q: How did SPARX first come to your attention?

A: In 2012, while I was leading the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York, we secured a contract to provide research services in child and youth mental health to the government of Nunavut (GN). The focus of the contract was on the identification of e-interventions for youth.

“Truly valuing Indigenous models involves embracing genuine, community-led, collaborative inquiry.” – Yvonne Bohr

We knew that SPARX had been used successfully with Maori youth in New Zealand and, for that reason, might be suitable for Canadian Indigenous youth who share characteristics, including a history of trauma and oppression. It seemed worthwhile to test this hypothesis, which we initially did with a pilot study funded by the GN.

SPARX video. Public domain

Q: What were the goals and key findings of your 2015-16 pilot study?

A: GN requested that we engage 20 communities. We did this work remotely by sending laptops, and tele- and web-conferencing. In the end, 22 youth participants and 11 mental health workers, in 11 communities, completed the pilot study.

Using conventional standardized measures, we found that the youth who completed all levels of the game showed less catastrophizing, less rumination and less hopelessness. This was very encouraging.

All participating youth found the game very useful and gave us examples of how the strategies benefited their everyday life. The facilitators also had very positive things to say. However, both groups told us that they would like to see a culture-specific version of this game.

Map of Nunavut. Ontheworldmaps.com

Q: Please explain how cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) builds strategies for when kids are feeling stressed or hopeless.

A: CBT is based on a simple principle: how we think affects how we act and how we feel. For example, if you believe that you’re not a good student, you will feel anxious when you have a test. You may decide to skip the test, and thus fail the course, which reinforces your negative self-assessment and leaves you feeling lousy.

CBT helps learners challenge such thoughts, to perhaps consider: “If I give this test a try, I might just pass. Although I may not do terribly well, I can always improve myself.”

Q: How is the project unfolding and how are you shifting the cultural context from Maori to Inuit?

A: This summer, we travelled to five partner communities, recruiting youth leaders and elders who will be working with us for three years. The youth collaborate with the elders on identifying cultural content useful for bolstering wellness and mental health in the context of the game.

“The youth who completed all levels of the game showed less catastrophizing, less rumination and less hopelessness. This was very encouraging.” – Yvonne Bohr

In our first sessions, many productive ideas were generated. Youth and elders have been astute at identifying cultural practices that may be useful for illustrating CBT strategies in view of making I-SPARX a community-centric wellness program. For example, in CBT, breathing strategies are used to help with emotion regulation when dealing with anxiety. The youth suggested we build an episode about hunting into the game, because hunting is very important in Inuit culture. When young people learn how to hunt, they must learn how to be very quiet and to regulate their breathing.

Pangnirtung, Nunavut, one of the communities where the researchers are working with local youth to develop I-SPARX

Also, the participants suggested that the environment in the existing SPARX game be altered: Indigenous hunters and fishermen might replace Maori warriors, for example.

Q: Will a new game for Inuit youth be on the market soon?

A: We’ve been gathering information for our partners and technical experts at Pinnguaq, who will work with youth to redesign the game. By spring 2019, we hope to have a draft to present to the youth at a retreat in Iqaluit. They will have opportunity to provide feedback, the game will be finalized, and they will then roll it out and assess its usefulness in their communities.

Q: What kind of difference could this make in Nunavut?

A: Our community partners are very hopeful that this project will provide a platform for youth, elders and community members to come together and have discussions about the role of culture in mental health, using the game as a catalyst. 

“We are committed to the Two-Eyed Seeing Framework, which integrates Indigenous and Western ways of conducting research, understanding that we can learn from each other.” – Yvonne Bohr

The communities’ focus is on the facilitation of reciprocal interactions in which elders teach youth about culture, and youth teach elders about technology. A large part of this project is about building capacity in communities through youth engagement.

Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Traditional “country food” meal shared with youth and elders

Q: Tell us about your approach to research.

A: Our research team and our community partners are committed to the Two-Eyed Seeing Framework, which integrates Indigenous and Western ways of conducting research, understanding that we can learn from each other. The project’s framework relies on Indigenous values and models. We are using Inuit philosophies on well-being and leading a good life. We are taking this approach very seriously.

We are also very aware of the challenges this presents to researchers, such as ourselves, who have been trained in Western models for conducting scientific inquiries. However, we are all – from researchers to community elders – very committed to this integration.

Q: How can York foster Indigenous-informed and -led research?

A: York can do this by understanding that truly valuing Indigenous models involves embracing genuine, community-led, collaborative inquiry. This may, at times, test a conventional academic institution’s tolerance for real evolution and change, which takes time. The journey that we have undertaken with this project presents a worthwhile opportunity for our collective growth in that area.

To read the results of the pilot study, see a technical report on the I-SPARX website. To read the 2012 British Medical Journal article, visit the website. To learn more about Bohr’s work, visit her faculty profile page.

To learn more about Research and Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca