May 25, 2022

The media and sports have helped many of us maintain our mental health through the last few years of anxiety, but it’s not just an escapism: Research shows that sports, in particular, offer unique therapeutic benefits. Deepwell is a new startup from gaming and medical industry veterans that wants to study and formalize these effects, so in addition to drugs and therapy, you can be prescribed Stardew Valley nightly sessions.

To some, the idea of ​​using sports as a therapeutic method may seem somewhat alien. Can fighting monsters and learning character stats really affect your mental health? But for others, including myself, this is understandable – after all, many of us have very consciously switched to games as ways to keep ourselves busy when illness and anxiety are just waiting for us. Watching the farm for an hour or two, blowing hell or hanging out with friends was an important part of our self-care routine.

Research shows this in several ways: sports can certainly provide a simple distraction, but they allow you to try out or experience more complex behaviors in a safe and controlled way. There is no organized way to track and understand these benefits that can be accessed like there is in real healthcare. It must be Deepwell.

I spoke with Mike Wilson, co-founder of independent publisher Devolver Games, and Ryan Douglas, who has researched countless medical devices, about their venture. Wilson said that (after trying to retire) he was trying to figure out how to use his connections and experience in the games industry to make things better.

“That’s how the conversation started about digital interventions that can help someone… Just how do we help people? Ryan actually started doing research, and the research kept bringing this game back – not as apps or medical experiments, just Talk — could be therapeutic,” he told gaming-updates. “That’s when we realized that so many games that already exist and have been studied are therapeutic in their own right, just by the very nature of their design, that’s when it became a reality.”

Douglas immediately noticed that no one claims that sports can cure someone’s depression or anxiety.

“We are definitely complementary medicine – we are here to support the doctor,” he said. “But before the pandemic, we were in a mental health emergency,” with about 12 percent of people reporting mental health problems. According to him, now this figure is approaching 44 percent, and it is unlikely that it will fall again in the near future. Not only are there not enough doctors, but too many cannot afford the costs. Alternative and preventive therapies are important if we are to reduce distress and avoid new ones. For this to happen, we must consider all possible directions – and games, as one of the most popular forms of leisure, must be part of this.

“There are some principles of medicine that apply very well to sports,” Douglas continued. “Like role-playing games, they are very successful at that. Movement, Biofeedback, Simulation, Recognition. You may be given free will or self-actualization, or perhaps just a distraction – CBT intersection [cognitive behavioral therapy] And the game is deep. We have the opportunity to take advantage of what the sport has already done to create new ways of thinking and how you create your favorite ways.

In other words, what if therapy was as fun as Fortnite? As Wilson and Douglas began to take the matter more seriously, they found that the idea resonated with many in both the gaming and medical industries. Dozens of people have volunteered their time in both. “Devin, the lawyers were working for free. That’s how I knew we were on to something,” Wilson said.

Deepwell co-founders Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas.

Deepwell co-founders Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas.

Self-funded and early on, Deepwell will play two roles: as a certification and recommendation body, and as a game publisher.

First of all, he hopes to work with other developers and publishers to formalize the learning and effects of their games. For example, if a game like Animal Crossing has been shown to help people with social anxiety or phobias, that information shouldn’t be hidden in a magazine article, but it’s actually Nintendo’s responsibility to state it. Instead, Deepwell will research and organize the information by offering a certificate documenting the process.

“We had to be careful with this and remain silent because this is a larger and more complex deal than a regular entertainment company – there is a lot to consider from an ethical and legal point of view,” Wilson said.

What the certification will be is still being developed; It depends on how regulators want to define it, whether a therapeutic effect is achieved, and so on. The goal will be to help classify effective sports as medical devices for certification. There are already many programs being used to treat various conditions, but these titles or digital products are usually created specifically for medical use, not entertainment.

Douglas said research has quickly shown that many games already have therapeutic effects, but software designed to produce similar effects does not have the gaming qualities that encourage people to interact with it. “They have to be great games first and foremost, and they really have to be thin enough to be sold as video games.” he said.

The second role is where Deepwell aims to bridge that gap. Like Devolver, they work with independent game studios, but instead of trying to find the next big indie hit, they’re looking for games that will have the impact they want. Although the company’s first game is still too early in development to discuss in detail, Wilson said the goal is to define what is therapeutic in core games and then double that without compromising playability.

“As designers, we know how to grab attention, we know how to capture it; And wherever we go, we can turn it into continuous therapy,” said Lorne Lanning, creator of the Oddworld series and one of the many creators who have signed on as consultants and collaborators.

And it doesn’t mean “sun and rainbows,” Douglas said. “Maybe somewhere deep, but where you can feel the freedom of choice. There’s no reason why you can’t use shooters or horror movies because it can connect people.”

Just like some are looking for light-hearted romantic comedies to escape stress, while others are looking for hardcore crime dramas, in which case the content needs to be specific to the consumer or patient.

In a way, Deepwell is moving forward and embracing a trend that has been around for a long time but never caught on. Sports are portrayed in the media as a violent, addictive waste of time that can be a common and potentially fruitful hobby such as knitting or a book club. Wilson and Douglas hope that Deepwell will be part of a new wave of understanding of the influence of media in our lives.

“It’s not just about our business and what we do, but how we interact with the media,” Wilson said. “Games are the most fun simply because you have to focus on them and take your mind off the story. All the tools we make serve the magic that these makers are already accustomed to. ,

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