Video games tend to have a bad rep of fostering addiction and encouraging people to waste time—however, as gamification proves a handy tool in conservation, humanitarian initiatives, and in combatting climate change, video games may also become a rising star in another arena: health.
Video games for mental health
Mike Wilson, co-founder of indie game developer Devolver Digital, and Ryan Douglas, founder and former CEO of medical device company Nextern, came together to launch DeepWell Digital Therapeutics. This is a tech-med start-up that plans to make video games that are both entertaining and helpful in terms of providing treatment for an array of health issues, zoning in on mental health, which is one of the fastest-growing areas of concern among children and teens.
“Mental health is where we intend to focus, and one of many underserved areas of healthcare where video games can have a major impact,” Douglas told Fast Company. “Games both provide a level of engagement and an actual therapeutic enhancement for mental health treatment.”
So how do video games improve mental health, you ask? Douglas continues
“They open people up to think and act in a different way through self-actualization, biofeedback, agency, and role play, and can accelerate learning of new skills through increased neuroplasticity.”
“Our medium is often harshly judged for its perceived negative impacts on the mind and body,” added Wilson. “But… video games can be good for you, and, thanks to global digital distribution, they’re an important tool to make treatment affordable and accessible. Moreover, with games that are legitimately fun, patients and players will seek out their positive benefits again and again.”
Video games for health isn’t new
Researchers have seen the health potential of video games for years now and have consistently promoted their use in this way. In 2015, for example, McGill University in Montreal and Ubisoft collaborated to create a game designed to help people with amblyopia (also known as lazy eye). The game, Dig Rush, can only be accessed by those with a prescription and uses both eyes to train the brain, using different contrast levels of red and blue and a specialized pair of stereoscopic glasses.
A study from the same year came out of the University of Freiburg in Germany that found that games, specifically story-based games, could benefit people with autism by satisfying their need for socialization. Several more studies back the claim that integrating video games with physical therapy can help people with Parkinson’s disease boost their balance, gait, and mental faculties.
A new business model
On top of making its own titles, DeepWell wants to encourage other developers to start identifying video games that are in development that could potentially be used to treat medical conditions. Selected games can leverage DeepWell’s toolkit to incorporate therapeutic technology, and the team will help secure the required approvals so that the game(s) could one day be used as a treatment option. DeepWell will also be the publisher and promote games that integrate their technology.
Creating a programming ecosystem of development tools and promotion, DeepWell can quickly grow its business model and move towards accomplishing its mission of demonstrating how games can be more than entertaining.
“Now that we’ve come out publicly with what we’re doing, we will be actively engaging with a wide range of publisher and developer partners,” Wilson said. The first batch of games is due next year, and the overarching hope is that the DeepWell platform will be able to help players find the right games for them and their health journey.