DeepWell Digital Therapeutics (DTx) plans to develop and publish games that have therapeutic value and can treat a variety of health conditions.
The Seattle company was founded by medical device expert Ryan Douglas and Devolver Digital cofounder Mike Wilson, who has a decades-long career in games. Devolver went public in November 2021 with a valuation of $950 million, and that enabled Wilson to finance his new dream.
DeepWell hopes to combine entertaining gameplay and medical benefits at the same time, said Wilson, in an interview with GamesBeat. DeepWell believes that video games have the potential to change lives and these games can be available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to better themselves through the power of play.
Wilson has formed a team of game industry experts and medical luminaries with Douglas, who is the former CEO of the medical device company Nextern. DeepWell will make its own games, working with independent creators worldwide to publish new titles spanning every platform and genre.
And it will open the company’s research-driven technologies to assist developers in designing and repurposing games to magnify their innate therapeutic value. DeepWell is already hard at work on a slate of DTx-enabled games that will support the company’s patented technical processes and systems.
The company will offer support for other publishers or even self-publishing game makers to ensure their games are more beneficial for players. On top of that, Wilson said the company will identify games that already exist and are beneficial players — and then it will promote them.
Wilson has worked on more than 100 games over two decades. The company has been doing research for the past 18 months to ensure that there is some real science behind the intentions of making games that are good for people. Wilson, who has been active on social media about how it should be OK for people to acknowledge their mental illnesses in public, has long cared about mental health. Wilson feels like it has given him more purpose.
“Our medium is often harshly judged for its perceived negative impacts on the mind and body,” Wilson said. “But the scientists who study video games, as well as the developers that build them at the highest levels, already know that the opposite is true. DeepWell is bringing entertainment and medical science together to build upon the proven fact that video games can be good for you, and, thanks to global digital distribution, they’re an important tool to make treatment affordable and accessible.”
He also said that games that are legitimately fun, and patients and players will seek out their positive benefits repeatedly. He said that, soon, some of the best video games in the world will be recognized for what they are – powerful medicine – and game designers will be shaping a new discipline with the potential to reach the biggest audience on the planet.
Conceived during the pandemic, DeepWell’s DTx-enabled games represent a new tool to confront the widespread crisis that continues to threaten healthcare systems around the world. As disparities in access to quality healthcare have both persisted and worsened during the course of the pandemic, so too have forecasts for the future.
The United States Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) predicts that, by 2030, mental health will become the leading medical concern, while the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the global population of more than a billion people currently affected by some form of disability is on track to steadily increase in the coming years.
“In order to produce games that provide tangible results, we’ve made engaging gameplay DeepWell’s first principle, since without engagement there is no treatment potential for any therapy,” said DeepWell cofounder Ryan Douglas, who has overseen the design and launch of more than 20 FDA-cleared medical devices, in a statement. “With our team of world-class developers at the helm, backed up by cutting-edge science and medical professionals, we’re building and repurposing games that look like, feel like, and play like pure entertainment, but that come imbued with potent digital therapeutics that align with our hardwired, neurological reward mechanisms. This is a groundbreaking moment that will bring video games and medicine together in a way that neither field has ever truly contemplated before, prioritizing a level of patient engagement that has eluded most of modern medicine.”
More than 40 creators, game designers, scientists, and medical researchers have joined DeepWell as a response to the urgent public health concerns associated with psychiatric conditions – exacerbated incalculably by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the need to expand the availability of digital health therapeutic devices to combat it.
Its expert advisory board has been donating time and resources, and collaborating on defining and regulating the central tenets of therapeutic game design in order to enhance the power of interactive media for a generation to come.
Game experts on the advisory board include well-known industry leaders, such as Tom Hall, Zoe Flower, Rami Ismail, Lorne Lanning, and American McGee. Doctors and medical research experts on the board include respected figures such as Samuel Browd, Leeza Maron, Anne Marie Porter, Justin Systma, Len Hatlelid, and educator Jeff Hopkins.
DeepWell’s inaugural slate of games is expected to debut in 2023. Developers interested in partnering with DeepWell and exploring the capabilities of the company’s proprietary toolkit can contact their team directly at www.DeepWellDTx.com.
Wilson’s decades of work
I first met Wilson decades ago at the end of an E3 conference, and we ate hot dogs. He was the “biz guy” at id Software at the time, and he went on to cofound Ion Storm, Gathering of Developers (sold to Take-Two Interactive), Gamecock Media, Good Shepherd, and eventually Devolver Digital.
“I did not expect to wind up here, but this project, and all that I’ve learned, in researching it quietly — it helps me make a lot of sense out of what I’ve been doing here with my personal passions and what I find to be important in this life,” Wilson said. “I never would have imagined that this industry that I know would go this way. I beat myself up a lot of time about spending so much of my years on this planet in this industry. It honestly seemed pointless a lot of times. I made my peace with that by trying to make the industry better for the developers.”
But then he started thinking of how games could be good for people, good for their mental health, or good for their mental sharpness.
“Now it’s so obvious because I have the research and I have the benefit of retrospect,” he said. “Looking back at all the letters we’ve gotten over the years of people saying that this game or that one was life changing for them, or brought them out of a dark place, in the same way that movies are a great or you find a great book — it hit right in the heart during the pandemic.”
With Devolver’s Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout cute battle royale game, the popularity soared during the pandemic. And more letters than ever flowed in.
“That was a really poignant moment for me to be appreciative of the fact that we could reach the whole world overnight,” he said. “Just think of how many people were self-medicating, for lack of a better term, with games all this time. They were in a low place, or they were in need of connection. Or just needed a reminder of the joy of just playing. When things get heavy, that’s easy to forget. And then my son, who just turned 14, dealt with this pandemic largely through his connection with his friends and games. It’s it was definitely eye opening for me at a time when I was pushing away from anything digital. I was really wanting to bring people back together and to physical spaces.”
That’s when he met his partner, Ryan Douglas, in a random meeting on Vancouver Island in Canada. Wilson was working on a project about pulling people back into physical spaces and enjoying interactive art together. They started talking about various kinds of therapeutic treatments. They both wanted to create breakthrough therapies for mental health. They started gathering a big advisory board, even before they had a company.
“When the lawyers and accountants started working for free, that’s when I knew we were on a proper mission,” Wilson joked. “To be honest, I haven’t felt like I was on a proper mission since that original Godgames (Gathering of Developers) crusade, which we finally got to see come to fruition as Devolver a couple of decades later.”
Wilson noted that these luminaries were willing to put their reputations on the line around the controversial idea that “not only are games not bad for you, but they are often quite good for you.”
He added, “I feel like our job is to basically educate people on what that means, both among creators and consumers. It is like we learned during our lifetimes of the difference in nutrition and food that we consume and how that might affect our health and mental health and moods. My instinct is that, armed with that knowledge, a lot of people will make better choices, both in what they buy and what they create.”
Wilson said he was also inspired by Akili Interactive, which received Food and Drug Administration for a game that helps treat attention deficit disorder (ADD). That effort took many years, and there was a very slow process of developing the game and getting clinical trials done and then iterating on that process.
“You can imagine how stifling that is to creativity, and it basically has rendered the process impossible,” Wilson said.
But Douglas had filed a patent on a way to expedite that system, without upsetting the FDA.
“It’s just a way for it’s a way to let game developers do their thing without being bossed around by clinicians or bureaucrats or whatever,” Wilson said.
The impression many people have about games is they can lead to addiction or extort time and money from people, Wilson said. It’s a bit like abusing drugs that otherwise might be good for treating one specific problem. But on the positive side, when we’re having fun, we’re more open to learning and creating new neural pathways, Wilson said. You get deeper results like social connections or a sense of satisfaction, and that means games can be therapeutic, he said.
“A lot of us have been self-medicating with games for a long time, the same way we do with other media,” Wilson said.
On top of that, using games to treat people is a lot more accessible and less risky than giving them drugs or alternative medical treatments, Wilson said.
Wilson hopes that the FDA has acknowledged the mental health problem that has arisen during the pandemic, and it has said that it is willing to expedite treatments for it based on an emergency order authorized in April 2021. That means DeepWell can move faster, so long as it sticks to its science and provides documentation that the FDA can review.
“We can release digital interventions without running clinicals for seven to 10 years because of this emergency order,” Wilson said. “So we will actually be able to release products out in the wild with claims that they’re good for depression, anxiety, hypertension, and a range of things. And then we get the data back from the wild with many more people reporting back to us. We hope it will be a Devolver for medicinal games.”
The team has found that a lot of games that already exist are quite good for people, and DeepWell hopes to guide people to those games.
A pipeline of new games
The initial games are in the works and they could start coming out in the next year or so.
Part of the idea is to recognize that a lot of games are already quite good for people. You may have experienced that if you feel much better after you play a game and have a sense of achievement or feel more connected with your friends. Wilson said he enjoys playing games like Pistol Whip in virtual reality. Games like that, and Beat Saber, can help you lose weight because they’re so physically demanding. People who play these games may not realize that they’re improving both their physical and mental health, Wilson said.
“We know there are feel-good movies and TV shows, and we’re just now getting to the point of understanding our brains well enough,” he said.
The company is spread out and operates remotely. About half the team consists of game developers, and half are medical experts. Wilson has been funding it so far and the company is starting a fundraising process. Wilson said the company will have to be careful about the claims that it makes.
“We know not everything is going to work the same for everyone. We’re not trying to replace anybody’s doctor or psychologist or psychiatrist or their meds,” Wilson said. “Just we’re just looking at ourselves as more of an adjunct or a helper for those things that are more readily available and perhaps more enjoyable.”
A big group of advisers
As for the advisers from the game industry, Wilson said, “These are just friends that I knew where their hearts were. And I knew when I reached out and shared the mission, they would be in without any sort of direct understanding of how they’ll contribute. They just want to help.”
While Wilson enjoyed his time at Devolver Digital, he sees this as different and he believed it was a big enough idea that it wasn’t just a side project.
“This needs to be its own thing,” he said. “I believe it’ll be bigger and very quickly scale out of my experience, level, and expertise. But my particular knowledge of the magic that independent developers can bring when given the tools and the direction is what makes me an important part of this right now. I very much look forward to this effort outgrowing me. And I think it will pretty quickly. I’m happy to help bring it into the world.”
Wilson said it was fulfilling to do this kind of work.
“It’s giving me a sense of pride that I did not have about my career, and sense of why I’ve been at this all this time, as the answer. And yeah, I’m proud of it and proud my kids have been helping with this. I’ve been dying to tell you and other good friends from the industry,” Wilson said.
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