Media and games helped many of us maintain our mental health during the last couple years of dread, but it isn’t just pure escapism: studies suggest games in particular provide unique therapeutic benefits. DeepWell is a new startup from games and medical industry veterans that aims to study and formalize these effects, so in addition to medication and therapy, you might be prescribed a nightly Stardew Valley session.
For some, the notion of using games as therapeutic techniques may seem slightly outlandish. Can fighting monsters and poring over character stats really affect your mental health? But for others, myself included, it’s obvious — after all, many of us quite consciously turned to games as ways to keep ourselves grounded when all that awaited us out of doors was disease and dread. An hour or two of minding the farm, blasting hellspawn, or questing with friends was an important part of our self-care routine.
Studies bear this out in various ways: playing a game can offer simple distraction, sure, but it also allows for more complex behaviors to be tested out or experienced in a safe and controlled manner. There just isn’t an organized way to track and understand these benefits in a way that might be accessible as a form of actual health care. That’s what DeepWell is meant to be.
I talked with Mike Wilson, co-founder of indie publisher powerhouse Devolver Games, and Ryan Douglas, who has studied and shipped numerous medical devices, about this endeavor of theirs. Wilson said he was (after attempting to retire) trying to figure out how his network and expertise in the gaming industry could be directed towards making things better.
“That’s how the talk started, about digital interventions that might assist someone… just, how do we help people? Ryan started doing some real research, and the research kept coming back that games — not like apps or therapeutic experiments, just games — can be therapeutic,” he told TechCrunch. ” When we realized that so many games that are already out, and have been studied, are therapeutic on their own just by the very nature of their design, that’s when it got real.”
Douglas was quick to point out that no one is suggesting that games are going to cure someone’s depression or anxiety.