Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson and medical device development veteran Ryan Douglas are launching a new game publisher structured around the release of video games that can serve as treatment for different health conditions.
The company is named "DeepWell Digital Therapeutics," and combines Wilson's game industry experience with Douglas' background in creating devices and software that can obtain approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration.
In a conversation with Game Developer, Wilson explained that one of the primary assets DeepWell can offer developers interested in the space is experience merging the game development process with the FDA approval process. "Typically, getting a piece of software approved by a government agency can be quite arduous," Wilson said. "Software is often required to be built in a way that doesn't allow for iteration without starting over the whole process."
The end result is the ability to get games through the FDA approval process in a more compressed timeline.
DeepWell's mission statement seems to leave a broad window for what kinds of treatments DeepWell-published games could support, but Wilson spoke to us about games structured around cognitive behavioral therapy (otherwise known as CBT, which is the basis for much of Western behavioral treatment).
There've been a few other games released with the intent of acting as therapeutics. EndeavorRx received FDA approval for ADHD treatment, and there was a brief minute when Ubisoft tried to get into the field in partnership with Amblyotech in order to create games that could treat amblyopia.
Wilson explained that DeepWell's goal is to make games that can act as therapeutics, but also have function as normal, entertaining video games. The goal is to create experiences that patients would want to interact with, while regular therapeutics can involve exercises or medications that patients may struggle to interact with when unsupervised.
"What the people from the medical side of [DeepWell] are excited about is that is finally having therapies that people will actively voluntarily engage in because they're having a good time," Wilson explained. "When you're having a good time, you're much more neuro-available—to have breakthroughs, to get unstuck, and to see things in a new way."
He gave the example of games that trigger fight-or-flight instincts (anything from a horror game to a first-person shooter, for instance) being built with a "panic button" feature to allow players to instantly yank themselves out of stressful in-game situations, and start practicing a relaxing exercise.
"If you do that enough times in a virtual world...what happens is a thing called entrainment, so you are subconsciously learning a new neural pathway to activate when you're feeling panicked."
Is the market ready for games like this? Wilson told Game Developer that DeepWell's mission arose more out of principle than profit margins, and that the hope is they can work with developers to create mechanics that may be re-creatable in different games.
The angle is also to just build tools for people to begin thinking of games as mental therapeutics, even when they might never have thought of touching a video game in their life. He made an interesting comparison to the cannabis market, and how the slow path to legalization through the medical route helped more people find a treatment that could help with mental or physical pain.
DeepWell's mission statement is partly based in closing the gap between the number of available mental health care providers and the sky-high demand for providers that's emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic. It'll be a while before any of DeepWell's projects surface for the public, and it'll be interesting to see what kinds of games come out of this effort.