Wednesday, June 29, 2022

New video game company wants to develop therapeutic games

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Mike Wilson, the founder of Devolver Digital, has teamed up with medical device expert Ryan Douglas to launch DeepWell Digital Therapeutics, a video game company that will develop both games that can treat health conditions. The company will also help outside companies identify existing games that have therapeutic value, the founders say.

Video game based tools can help with conditions such as: depression and ADHD, research shows. DeepWell Digital Therapeutics plans to build on those studies. “An astonishing amount of science had already been done,” Douglas says. “We started recognizing exactly how therapeutic these games already were.”

Often a game used as therapy would be designed as therapy first, with fun or engaging gameplay elements on top, he says. But DeepWell wants developers to build games in the most engaging way — and then go in there to see how they can help treat health problems. “Developers have figured out how to increase a level of engagement and get people to do things at an intensity that we’ve struggled with in the medical field,” Douglas says. “The pleasure is really the most therapeutic.”

Video games have been hailed as the future of medicine for at least a decade – they are said to be accessible and easy-to-use tools that could bring treatment to people’s homes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first prescription video game in 2020, approved for the treatment of children with ADHD. The agency has approved a handful of other digital therapies in recent years, and the industry has been given a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic when the FDA allows companies to market digital health products without going through the normal review process

DeepWell has plans to develop its own in-house games focused on mental health. It has one in development that aims to have it ready by early 2023. (Douglas declined to share details about that project.)

But the company also wants to help video game makers without a specific health focus identifies games that can benefit people’s health. Wilson already has extensive experience working with a range of notable indie game makers through Devolver, which has published hits such as Hotline Miami, Inscryption and Reigns. DeepWell would look to see if there are parts of an existing or developing game that require a player to make choices in ways that could overlap with techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy, for example. Then it might help to find out if there were ways that made sense in the game to ask the player to breathe a certain way or think a certain way to increase the therapeutic potential.

“We don’t necessarily make the game therapeutic. The games are therapeutic,” Douglas says. “And we can deliver it as therapy.”

DeepWell would identify those situations within games and help the companies get games approved as medical devices by the FDA. The company wants to go through the FDA first — not develop games that would be marketed as “wellness” products but wouldn’t be able to make medical claims. That’s important so the games can have clear language outlining their benefits, Douglas says. “We wanted to be able to say the things we needed to say to attract the people we thought we could help.”

A challenge for digital therapies across the board is evaluation – companies are still figuring out the best way to verify this if the games work reliably as treatments. The products are still new and it will take a lot of work and rigorous research before patients, doctors and other stakeholders can be sure how well things like video games match up with other standard treatment options.

Digital therapies do not have to undergo the same rigorous testing as drugs. Medications should raise the bar because they can be more dangerous than something like a video game if they don’t work or can have dangerous side effects. Douglas says many of the games will go through the FDA’s “substantial equivalence” process — meaning they can be approved because they’re similar to existing tools, not because they’re proven to work on their own. He says DeepWell will piggyback on existing research into video games and mental health. “Then, of course, we’ll study our stuff as they become more available in the market,” he says.

But even if they can show that the games work well, therapeutic video games aren’t a substitute for therapists or other mental health interventions, Douglas says. mild and moderate mental illness. “There are certain things that only a very well-trained physician and therapist can do,” he says. “But there are many places where there are gaps where we can be useful.”

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