Therapy has a commitment problem. Despite the benefits of treatment plans and home exercises, people generally resist anything resembling work, which hampers the process of restoring mental health on all levels. Clinicians have attempted to bridge this gap with various devices and reward systems, but motivating patients to help themselves is still extremely difficult.
Video games have the opposite problem. Players can spend hours immersed in a single digital experience, sitting in one place and lost in their own world, but are often labeled as “lazy” for this behavior. Video games are widely considered a waste of time, even with growing research showing the psychological benefits of gambling.
So why not smash these industries together and see what happens? DeepWell Digital Therapeutics is a new video game publisher and developer from Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson and medical device creator Ryan Douglas, and their goal is to change the way people think about games and mental health. The DeepWell DTx Advisory Board includes more than 40 senior medical researchers, physicians, and game developers, including Tom Hall (Loss), Zoe Flower (Hellbent Games), Rami Ismail (nuclear throne), Lorne Lanning (Oddworld) and American McGee (American McGee’s Alice).
“We fight with commitment all the time,” Douglas said. He has worked for years with light therapy and other interventions designed to treat anxiety, depression and stress, but said accessibility and participation were constant battles. “And these [game developers] had cracked this code to such a level that they really hit the neurological reward centers in the brain so hard that the readiness to effectively change what people are doing and thinking at times of mental illness was vastly improved compared to anything I had seen before.”
DeepWell DTx is not about gamifying therapy tools or creating digital experiences based on strict medical models. Instead, the studio will analyze existing games for potential mental health benefits and, in some cases, work with interested developers to improve those mechanics. The team will then obtain regulatory approvals for these games to address mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD and addiction.
This is where Douglas’ expertise comes in. He is the founder and former CEO of medical device company Nextern and has obtained FDA approval for over 25 medical devices over the past 15 years; he knows how to navigate this regulatory process and he sees the games as a natural fit. He and Wilson started working on DeepWell about 18 months ago, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is a very specific regulatory pathway for this work,” Douglas said. “So a few key things – agencies have done a lot of work over the last two years to understand how software as a medical device and in particular digital therapy are going to work. The FDA cooperated in this work. And then, in this time of emergency, there have been more opportunities to do the work that we need to do to get them into people’s hands as quickly as possible. It’s tough but not impossible. »
Additionally, DeepWell DTx will provide a framework for players to recognize these benefits as they play – whether it’s a label on the in-game storefront, welcome screen, or other digital cue. – allowing them to adjust their mindset before pressing start.
“We’re super excited in large part because of the intellectual property that Ryan filed long before he met me, a few years before he met me,” Wilson said. “We believe we have a system designed to allow game developers – possibly other media creators as well – to work their magic and in a way that is already very beneficial.”
It takes a full minute before Wilson drops the phrase “digital psychedelics” into the conversation. It’s kind of his thing; he’s an evangelist for psychedelics, with endless stories about Burning Man and the personal and therapeutic benefits he’s gained from his travels. Psychedelic therapy was a starting point for Wilson and Douglas, and they seek to emulate the soothing and perspective-changing effects of these substances through accessible digital experiences. They focus on alleviating a mental health crisis that has been exacerbated by global quarantine, using tools people already have and naturally seek out.
“Although it’s not as powerful as sitting down with a macro dose of mushrooms and a few therapists, it might not be one session or two sessions or three, but it’s complementary therapy that’s good. for you, that you might be much more likely to engage and that the whole world has access to, even if they don’t have access to health care,” Wilson said. “These will be interventions that will be helpful to people who only pay regular game prices.”
Literally every game is up for review by the DeepWell DTx team, from platformers and narrative adventures to RPGs and shooters, and interested developers can apply starting today. There’s also an in-house development arm of the DeepWell beast, and its first game is already halfway through development, with a few more in pre-production. The first DeepWell games are expected to start rolling out in 2023.