Imagine playing a video game where you are a wizard fighting for good in a magical realm.
You must master control of your mind and body to increase your powers and abilities, creating a forcefield shielding you from enemies and strengthening your counterattack.
In these moments of high anxiety, more control makes you more powerful, and you learn to make better choices under pressure.
More than just a game, it’s a futuristic component of mental health therapy as envisioned by DeepWell Digital Therapeutics, a new entry in the growing field of treating and managing medical conditions with software.
“Through a lot of things we’ve seen in neurology, you can lead yourself to a place of entrainment and, over time, these are going to be preferential ways that you manage yourself,” DeepWell co-founder Ryan Douglas said in an interview.
His Seattle-based company launched in March with the goal of creating best-in-class gameplay that can entertain while simultaneously delivering, enhancing and accelerating treatment for an array of globally pervasive health conditions.
If they do their job well, patients playing the games will be so immersed in the roleplay that they won’t even think about the therapeutic side. Enjoying the roleplay makes the players more capable of learning skills and reaping the health benefits.
DeepWell’s founders were set to retire before they connected for their digital therapeutics venture. Douglas is a veteran in the fields of mental health, AI and surgical robotics, while co-founder Mike Wilson is a prolific executive producer in the video game industry.
Douglas said he found hundreds of well-rounded studies showing how effective video games were at helping people, even as many of those studies had set out to prove the opposite. In March, they unveiled DeepWell Digital Therapeutics to bring therapeutic value out of video games to help fight the mental health crisis most recently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was only through digital therapeutics that you could get the reach to do the kind of thing that needs to happen to support therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who are giving everything to a system that does not have a hope of winning the battle unless there are new interventions,” Douglas said. “We’ve got to figure something out, so now is the time to do it.”
Douglas highlighted the expansive potential of video games and the array of potential indications for use as a result. He said the power to engage provides a great but underutilized method for therapy delivery.
Could it be difficult, though, to convince the masses that video games can be that therapeutic vehicle? After all, stigmas have surrounded the games for years, while Douglas even pointed out many studies he observed were aiming to expose flaws.
Wilson said he has long dealt with the negative perception surrounding video games in his 25 years in the industry. He blamed the corner of the industry that has been designed to take as much time from people as possible, likening it to casinos built on gambling addiction.
But in his experience, Wilson has found the vast majority of games are not designed with that intent. While stigmas may exist, DeepWell is designing games to treat users, not consume them, he said.
“People are concerned when they see people just ignoring everything else in their lives in favor of this one experience, this one addiction,” Wilson said. “That’s just not what we’re going after. That’s not the intention behind these treatments.”
When Douglas came to Wilson with his research on the games and their appeal to different people with different perspectives, he saw the opportunity to offer new ways of thinking that so far seem only possible in gaming.
In that space, having fun remains key to creating a good product, and that opens up a new way of looking at things for DeepWell.
“Most efforts in this general direction have not resulted in the most compelling games,” Wilson said. “And it’s literally just a perspective. It’s putting the people who make the magic — the game developers — in charge. The science is in service of them, not the other way around.”
As far as bringing these games to market, Douglas said the regulatory environment is “pretty fluid,” with the FDA offering guidance and feedback.
DeepWell aims to bring its games to users over the counter as an adjunct therapy, catching people in a mild-to-moderate place. Therapists could use the games to identify when people are heading toward suicidal ideation and need specific interventions beyond DeepWell’s scope.
The company hopes to launch its first products in 2023. Development plans include DeepWell publishing its own games and working with other publishers to design their games with the intent to treat users.
“We’re going to work on tools and a platform for a greater level of delivery for these games over time,” Douglas said. “We’re hoping to take many that are already therapeutic and many more that are in development and bring them together for the greatest level of accessibility to people who are having these problems.”