Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson is beginning to make a habit of turning career disillusionment into hope.
He’s been candid in the past about how the fall of his first major endeavor, Gamecock Media Group, was a good thing — its efforts to humorously lampoon the industry were more bully than benevolent. But its demise led to the founding of Devolver Digital, keeping the good-natured snark while redefining indie relationships with publishers. Wilson also co-founded Good Shepherd Entertainment in a further effort to push back against what he saw as harmful practices in indie publishing, and joined the board of gaming mental health charity Take This. And he’s done numerous speaking engagements on the importance of good mental health, often drawing from his own struggles and personal experiences to offer encouragement to others.
Not long ago, Wilson found himself once again disillusioned with his career path, and feeling like he was “part of the problem” in an increasingly crowded, messy, often toxic, and at times predatory games industry. He tells me he felt “done with digital everything.”
It was in that headspace during a period of pseudo-retirement that Wilson met Ryan Douglas, a roboticist and former CEO of medical device company Nextern, who was in a similar state of disillusionment with the med-tech industry. The two began playing tennis together and talking about their respective fields…eventually arriving on the ways in which others had tried, and failed to bring games and health together.
From Wilson’s perspective, he had seen firsthand the numerous benefits video games had on mental health especially. For instance, he had been receiving letters from all over the world about how Devolver-published Fall Guys had helped with people’s depression during the height of lockdowns. And more personally, he was watching his son play games with his friends during that same time, socializing and enjoying himself even when they couldn’t meet in person.
But while games certainly had that impact anecdotally, mainstream gaming was unable to capitalize on that power without the medical knowledge, tools, and resources to scientifically prove the effects were real.
Meanwhile, on Douglas’ end, plenty of medical and wellness companies were making games and apps. But no one wanted to play them because they focused so heavily on the wellness elements, they ended up not being any fun.
“We're just terrible at doing things that are good for us, unless we happen to also enjoy them,” Wilson remarks.
What Douglas and Wilson agreed those companies were missing was that 40 years of work had already gone into figuring out what makes people enjoy video games. Wellness companies working in the space were implementing the exterior trappings — scores, rewards, and so forth — but none of the thoughtful design. Douglas compares these attempts to gamify wellness to a company that makes cans, then decides to “space-ify” them and become a company that makes “space cans.” Without something more behind it, it’s a meaningless endeavor.
“If you create [a pill that cures cancer] and people won’t take it, have you really created a treatment, a solution? I think that we need to start saying that the answer is no,” Douglas says.
So Wilson and Douglas decided to combine their respective expertises, and are today announcing a new company: DeepWell. DeepWell is a new games publisher explicitly dedicated to both developing and publishing games that provide proven health benefits, as well as partnering with existing developers and publishers to win similar health approvals for games already out in the world.
Wilson says that DeepWell will include games that are beneficial to both mental and physical wellbeing, but will have a heavy emphasis on mental health. That’s in part due to Wilson’s own background in promoting mental health, but as Douglas explains, there’s been a disturbing trend in recent years - especially during the pandemic - of serious increases in depression and anxiety across the population, but not enough doctors and therapists to treat these issues. And those that do exist are often inaccessible to many due to cost, insurance concerns, racial and wealth inequality, or numerous other reasons.
While they’re not ready to announce any specific games just yet, we won’t have to wait long — Wilson says he hopes to have some things to show in late spring of this year. In the meantime, he breaks down what we can expect from DeepWell into three types of games.
The first will be original, internally developed titles made from the ground up to be therapeutic as well as entertaining. Importantly, he says they will “look just like games,” and will aim to interest audiences who may not specifically be looking for health benefits. He wants them to be accessible and widely available, too, so no wonky peripherals or specific proprietary tech. They’ll be on platforms most gaming audiences already have access to.
The second and third are both in partnership with existing game developers, especially indies. DeepWell hopes to partner with third-party developers who are already in the process of making games that might meet its standards for being therapeutic, and guide them through the process of getting them approved as such. And finally, DeepWell will work with already-published games that could have health benefits to get those benefits recognized.
“We can take these preexisting, very therapeutic games and get them out in the world in a way that they can be deliberately presented to people with issues, and help them get treatment,” Douglas explains. “Build real adjunctive therapies that can relieve pressure for depression, anxiety, stress in a world where there [are] just not enough therapists to go around.”
Even as someone who loves games and finds them beneficial to my own mental state, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around how exactly a video game could be classified as medicine. Wilson and Douglas reassure me that the paperwork is in order, though. Part of their confidence comes from Wilson’s experience with games already.
“A lot of just the way that games are designed, like the core tenets of good game design, have you working through challenges and puzzles and achievements and putting you in fight or flight scenarios, and having you survive those and get through it,” he says. “And a lot of it is already quite good for people in the same way that other types of therapies are good for people. In working through those, we're doing it subconsciously, because we're just doing something we enjoy when we game.
“...And so imagine you just load your favorite game, whatever you're playing at the moment, all of a sudden it says, ‘By the way, don't stop seeing your therapist or taking your medication, but this has been indicated for treatment of anxiety, depression, addiction,’ whatever it might be for that particular piece of software.”
But on the regulatory side, it’s Douglas’ expertise that’s getting games their due. His extensive med-tech background and connections have been critical, but he says another key to all this being possible has been the great strides made during the COVID-19 pandemic with how regulatory bodies look at digital therapies, including more studies, more financial and academic support, and more wide recognition of the benefits. The environment is right, he says, for collaborations to open up between medical professionals, scientists, and game developers to make games that are both fun and good for people.
And they’re not the only ones who think so. DeepWell has involved over 40 game designers, creators, scientists, and medical researchers all donating time and resources to help define and regulate a set of core tenets of therapeutic game design. On the games side, this includes id Software co-founder Tom Hall, Hellbent Games design director Zoe Flower, independent developer and speaker Rami Ismail, Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning, and Quake engineer American McGee, alongside numerous doctors and medical research experts.
“We have what we need right now to bring the first games out into the marketplace, and we are working on the things that would make it broad and easier over time for game developers to be able to access this without stopping being game developers,” Douglas says. “And to not stop using the tools, like Unreal, that they use. And it's coming together very, very well. It's connecting in a way that things only seem to connect when they're supposed to happen.”
Wilson wants to emphasize that what DeepWell is publishing won’t be just a single genre — we’re not talking exclusively about “wholesome” games or non-violent games, though those are certainly a part of it. After all, part of their mission is to make games that are entertaining, and not everyone is entertained by the same things.
“To be relatable and therefore to do some of the things that are necessary from a therapeutic standpoint…it may not be rainbows and sunshines that you're going to be able to relate to,” Douglas says. “And sometimes going on a darker journey gives you a moment of distraction and self-actualization, that allows things to happen differently in your mind and could be very, very cathartic. And that's what you've been seeing people say about these games for a long, long time.”
Wilson’s hope for DeepWell is that its attitude toward gaming doesn’t just stop at gaming. He believes that interactive entertainment isn’t the only possibility for media as medicine, and that they could be able to open doors to eventually get literature, music, or film recognized as therapeutic as well, if they can get the science behind it. Similar to how Devolver endeavored to flip the relationships between publishers and developers around, he wants DeepWell to flip the relationship between science and entertainment, empowering artists to be able to tangibly, quantifiably do what he believes they’ve wanted to do all along.
“For me it's all about: what is your intention as you set out to do this, whether you're a developer or a publisher or whatever? Is it to take as much money and time from somebody as you can? Or is it to create something that's meaningful to you that you might also enjoy that you want to share with the world? And that's what I believe the vast majority of game developers are doing, certainly in my experience.”
That’s an enormous mission, of course. But Wilson and Douglas’ first steps are firmly within the crossover between their own familiar spaces, and really just emphasizing ideas we’re all already familiar with: playing video games is fun, often social, and can make us happy.
“The word play, I think, is more important than the word game,” Wilson says. “Because if you think about all the things you could play in this life, almost all of them, or all of them are going to be beneficial for you in some way. Whether it's music or you play improv or you play video games, you play board games, you put on a play, whatever it is…play is good. It is good for us.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.