Devolver Co-Founder Announces New Publisher Focused on Games That Improve Mental Health
Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson is starting to turn career frustrations into hope.
He was frankly in the past that the fall of his first major venture, the Gamecock Media Group, was a good thing—his attempts to humorously ridicule the industry were more rowdy than benevolent. But its demise led to the founding of Devolver Digital, retaining its good-natured causticity but redefining indie relationships with publishers. Wilson also co-founded Good Shepherd Entertainment in a further effort to combat what he saw as harmful practices in independent publishing, and served on the board of gaming mental health charity Take This. And he has repeatedly given talks on the importance of good mental health, often drawing on his own struggles and personal experiences to support others.
Not too long ago, Wilson again became disillusioned with his career and felt he was “part of the problem” in an increasingly crowded, dirty, often toxic, and sometimes predatory games industry. He tells me that he felt “it’s all over with digital”.
It was in this free space during his pseudo-retirement period that Wilson met Ryan Douglas, a roboticist and former CEO of medical device company Nextern, who was in a similar state of frustration in the medical technology industry. They started playing tennis together and talking about their fields… eventually ended up doing the way others tried and couldn’t balance games and health.
From Wilson’s point of view, he saw firsthand the many benefits of video games, especially for mental health. For example, he received letters from all over the world about how Fall Guys, published by Devolver, helped people cope with depression in the midst of self-isolation. And more personally, he watched his son play games with his friends at the same time, socialize and have fun even when they couldn’t meet in person.
But while games have certainly had such an impact, mainstream games have been unable to capitalize on that power without the medical knowledge, tools, and resources to scientifically prove that the effects were real.
Meanwhile, on Douglas’ side, a host of medical and wellness companies were creating games and apps. But no one wanted to play them because they were so focused on the feel-good elements that they ended up being no fun at all.
We are just terrible at doing what is good for us unless we enjoy it
“We are just terrible at doing what is good for us, unless we enjoy it,” Wilson notes.
Douglas and Wilson agreed that what these companies lacked was that 40 years of work had already gone into figuring out what makes people enjoy video games. Wellness companies in this space have implemented external trappings—points, awards, and so on—but not thoughtful design. Douglas compares these attempts to gamify health to a company that makes jars, and then decides to “spread” them and become a company that makes “space jars.” Without something more behind it, it’s a pointless effort.
“If you create [a pill that cures cancer] but people don’t take it, have you really created a treatment, a solution? I think we need to start saying the answer is no,” says Douglas.
DeepWell executives Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas (right)
So Wilson and Douglas decided to combine their expertise and today announced the creation of a new company: DeepWell. DeepWell is a new game publisher dedicated to both developing and publishing games that provide proven health benefits, as well as partnering with existing developers and publishers to obtain similar health approvals for games already released around the world.
Wilson says that DeepWell will include games that are good for both mental and physical health, but with a strong focus on mental health. This is partly due to Wilson’s own experience with mental health promotion, but as Douglas explains, there has been a worrying trend in recent years. especially during a pandemic – a serious increase in depression and anxiety among the population, but there are not enough doctors and therapists to treat these problems. And those that exist often inaccessible to many due to cost, insurance issues, racial and wealth inequality, or a host of other reasons.
If you create [a pill that cures cancer] but people don’t take it, have you really created a treatment, a solution?
While they’re not ready to announce any specific games just yet, we won’t have to wait long – Wilson says he hopes to reveal something later this spring. In the meantime, he breaks down what we can expect from DeepWell into three types of games.
The former will be original, in-house developed games, built from the ground up to be not only entertaining but healing as well. Crucially, they will, he says, “look like games” and aim to appeal to an audience that may not be looking for health benefits. He wants them to be accessible and widely available, so no wobbly peripherals or special proprietary technologies. They will be on platforms that most game viewers already have access to.
Both the second and third are collaborating with existing game developers, especially indies. DeepWell looks forward to partnering with third-party developers who are already in the process of creating games that could meet its therapeutic standards and guide them through the approval process. Finally, DeepWell will work with already published games that may be beneficial to health so that these benefits are recognized.
“We can take these pre-existing very therapeutic games and present them to the world in a way that can be intentionally presented to people with problems and help them get treated,” Douglas explains. “Create real complementary therapies that can alleviate depression, anxiety, the stress in a world where [are] there just aren’t enough therapists.”
Even as someone who loves games and finds them good for my own mental state, it’s hard for me to see exactly how a video game can be classified as a drug. However, Wilson and Douglas assure me that the documents are in order. Part of their confidence comes from Wilson’s previous gaming experience.
Imagine that you just download your favorite game and it says: “This is indicated for the treatment of anxiety, depression, addiction…”.
“A lot of the way games are built, like the core principles of good game design, forces you to solve challenges, puzzles and achievements, put you in fight-or-flight scenarios, and force you to survive and progress through them.” He says. “And a lot of that is already good enough for people, just like other therapies are good for people. When we work through them, we do it subconsciously, because we just do what we like when we play.
“…So imagine you just download your favorite game, whatever you are playing at the moment, and all of a sudden it says, “By the way, don’t stop seeing your therapist or taking your medication, but it has been shown to treat anxiety, depression , dependencies, whatever it is for that particular piece of software.”
But in terms of regulation, it’s Douglas’ experience that gives games their due. His extensive experience in medical technology and communications was critical, but he says another key to making it all possible has been the great strides made during the COVID-19 pandemic in how regulators are looking at digital therapy, including more research, more financial and academic support, and greater recognition of the benefits. According to him, the environment is suitable for collaboration between medical professionals, scientists and game developers to create games that are both fun and useful for people.
DeepWell Advisory Board.
And they are not the only ones who think so. DeepWell has enlisted over 40 game designers, creators, scientists, and medical researchers who have donated time and resources to help define and fine-tune a set of core principles for therapeutic game design. In terms of games, these are 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, as well as numerous doctors and medical research experts.
“We have everything we need right now to bring early games to market, and we’re working on things that will make it easier and more accessible over time for game developers to still be game developers,” says Douglas. . “And don’t stop using tools like Unreal that they use. And it works out very, very well. It’s connected in such a way that things only seem to be connected when they’re supposed to happen.”
Whether it’s music, improvisation, video games, board games… it’s good to play. This is good for us.“
Wilson wants to emphasize that what DeepWell publishes will not be any one genre – we’re not talking exclusively about “wholesome” or non-violent games, although they are certainly part of it. After all, part of their mission is to make games that are entertaining, not everyone is entertained by the same things.
“To be sociable and therefore do some things that are necessary from a therapeutic point of view… it may not be rainbows and sunbeams that you can relate to,” says Douglas. “And sometimes going into a darker journey gives you a moment of distraction and fulfillment, which allows things to happen in your mind in a different way and can be very, very cathartic. And that’s what people have been saying about these games for a long time.”
Wilson hopes at DeepWell that his attitude to games isn’t just limited to games. He believes that interactive entertainment is not the only opportunity for media as medicine, and that it could open the door for literature, music, or films to eventually be recognized as therapeutic as well, if they can get the science behind it. Just as Devolver tried to change the relationship between publishers and developers, he wants DeepWell to change the relationship between science and entertainment by giving artists the ability to tangibly and quantify what he thinks they’ve wanted to do all along.
“For me, it all depends on what your intentions are when you decide to do it, whether you’re a developer, a publisher, or whatever? Is it necessary to take as much money and time from someone as possible? Or create something meaningful for you that you might enjoy and want to share with the world? And that’s what, in my experience, the vast majority of game developers do.”
It’s a huge mission, of course. But Wilson and Douglas’ first steps are in tight transition between their own familiar spaces, and really just highlight ideas we’re all already familiar with: playing video games is fun, often social, and can make us happy.
“Play on words, I think, is more important than pun,” says Wilson. “Because if you think of all the things that you could play in this life, almost all of them or all of them will be useful to you in one way or another. Whether it’s music, improvisation or video games, board games, plays, whatever it is… play well. It’s good for us.”
Rebecca Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.