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DeepWell Digital Therapeutics (DTx) cofounder Mike Wilson has started Medicinal Media, a nonprofit group and media publication that highlights the connection between games and healing.
Funded by Mike Wilson and his wife Melissa Wilson, the nonprofit will serve as an independent journalistic resource shining a light on games that can help people with mental health and more. It goes beyond what DeepWell is doing in making its own games for mental health and hopes to cover the entirety of efforts in this direction.
The publication’s first day is today, May 1, which is also the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month.
The goal is to illuminate the art and science of “beneficial media” with an emphasis on mental health, said Wilson, in an interview with GamesBeat.
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“The importance of digital media as a tool for healing in the ongoing mental health crisis — which we’re currently losing by a landslide with traditional means, even when people are lucky enough to have access to them — cannot be underestimated,” Wilson said. “Digital media is accessible to most people around the planet, much of it for free or at a significantly lower cost than traditional therapy and medicine.”
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Elizabeth Seward is the executive editor of the publication and Kelly Knoche is the executive director of the non-profit. They think of games and other interactive experiences as “digital therapeutics,” which can help people in various ways. The idea for the publication is to inspire curiosity, hope and change.
The publication has queued stories told in a first-person narrative and where possible they cite evidence-based studies to back up the notion that video games can be good for us. The publication will also cover stories that have to do with other digital salves like music, YouTube videos and social media, Seward said. The work started on the concept about 18 months ago at Wilson’s suggestion, she said.
“We’re just trying to explain to people that this is real,” Seward said in an interview with GamesBeat. “We’re bringing the science into this.”
The funding comes from a charitable fund called LALA, named in honor of Lisa Wilson, Mike Wilson’s sister, who held a doctorate yet took her life six years ago after a lifetime of mental health struggles. It is also backed by Nanea Reeves, CEO of Tripp; and Terry Gross, a prominent civil rights attorney.
The goal is to be an online publication unlike others with a focus on digital media offerings.
“We’re showing readers how to use media, including art, more mindfully,” said Seward. “Our stories cover media that’s been designed specifically for wellness — like video games that can offer therapeutic treatment, playlists created by music therapists, and apps meant to assist with meditation — but also everyday art and media offerings that can be enjoyed and embraced in evidence-based ways for better health.”
The publication features original, curious, and inspiring stories that help readers understand how to best consume, create, and otherwise utilize media with intention. You’ll find just as much science as you will personal narrative, the company said. The visuals are also unique, as they will be originally created by Jennymarie Jemison, Medicinal Media’s art director.
“Finding artists that align with the perspective of the authors and being able to pay them for their beautiful work is so rewarding,” said Jemison, in a statement.
And Rob VanAlkemade will be the executive producer and video creator.
“From my first job in media interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation many years back to producing and directing Digital Addiction episodes for A&E a few months ago, I’ve been so motivated and grateful when my work has been beneficial in some way — socially, culturally, historically,” said VanAlkemade, in a statement.
He said that having projects that feel deeply rewarding isn’t always the norm, but things are different with this undertaking.
“Now, at Medicinal Media, there’s a full-time, intrinsic benefit to this work — making media about beneficial media, addressing so many critical issues with compelling science, art, and incredibly life-affirming information,” VanAlkemade said.
Wilson is known throughout the world of indie games having played key roles at Devolver Digital, Gathering of Developers, Gamecock Media Group, Take-Two Interactive, id Software and Good Shepherd Entertainment. He has witnessed the transformative power of media, specifically video games, over the course of his career.
When Devolver Digital went public at a valuation of $950 million in November 2021, Wilson’s entrepreneurial dreams paid off. And so he and his wife Melissa set up a foundation to do charitable work. After his sister’s suicide, Wilson became more outspoken about mental health struggles and how it’s necessary for people to speak out about them.
It’s rare these days to see new games media jobs created, as many publications are shutting down or laying off people in the downturn. But Medicinal Media is unique in its mission and purpose, and there isn’t really another publication like it in gaming.
Wilson also cofounded DeepWell in 2022 with medical device expert Ryan Douglas. Their aim was to develop and publish games that have therapeutic value and can treat a variety of health conditions.
DeepWell hopes to combine entertaining gameplay and medical benefits at the same time. DeepWell believes that video games have the potential to change lives and these games can be available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to better themselves through the power of play.
Wilson formed a team of game industry experts and medical luminaries with Douglas, who is the former CEO of the medical device company Nextern. DeepWell will make its own games, working with independent creators worldwide to publish new titles spanning every platform and genre.
At the same time, Wilson got the ball rolling for Medicinal Media. Wilson tapped friends and acquaintances who helped assemble the team for the publication and the nonprofit. He hopes the publication can find the hopeful stories and the good sides of media across industries like games and film, as those things don’t often get highlighted.
“We want to find the intersection of beneficial media and science,” Wilson said. “The range of things we got from our call for pitches was really surprising.”
Wilson said the original idea was to put Medicinal Media inside DeepWell, which is making games for mental health. But Wilson and others decided it would be better to have it be an independent website. He also thought the nonprofit status and independence would help with the legitimacy of the journalism.
He also hopes that the publication can move into documentary production as well. Wilson believes the area of study could be vast, with lots of ideas. DeepWell held a game jam and it got more than 100 entries for it. That’s a sign of how far the category can go beyond DeepWell itself.
“It may have an article about something DeepWell does. But I really see this whole category as growing much bigger than DeepWell,” Wilson said. “I just wanted a nice home for this sort of thing. All of this news — that games can be good for you — and all this new science emerging around it — that’s something that we want to share in a way that is visually appealing.”
Knoche has a background as a K-12 teacher and founder of The Teaching Well nonprofit.
“I see Medicinal Media as another iteration of what has moved me professionally since the beginning: a desire to make the practice of self and collective care accessible to as many people as possible,” Knoche said. “In a world where we are simultaneously intertwined with technology while loudly stating our fears of it, Medicinal Media searches for ways we can have a nourishing relationship with technology that’s worth celebrating.”
Knoche said she wants to specifically find and highlight games that are oriented to providing beneficial therapeutic support for their participants and to tell stories of ways that people are finding themselves and finding community through gaming.
“Mike’s goal is to be able to really lift up the digital therapeutic intersection of gaming and other forms of media into the forefront,” Knoche said. “He wants to make sure there’s a neutral third party that tells the good stories and tells the ways that gaming and other forms of media digital media are being used for the benefit and the care of our society.”
A new digital therapeutics collaborative
Internally, Medicinal Media is also building a digital therapeutics collaborative. Knoche hopes to round up companies with common interests and facilitate their cooperation in the nonprofit. For the collaboration, Knoche hopes to gather a group of 10 to 30 companies to share best practices and move the digital therapeutics industry forward.
“We’re gathering together game companies, medical device companies, and the whole intersection of digital therapeutics and helping them build breath, practice and relationships,” Knoche said.
Pursuing the link between games and medicine
Seward is a 20-year veteran of journalism as both a writer and an editor. She’s also a science nerd and she has a passion for both art and music for healing.
“I’ve always known, first hand, that stuff works,” she said.
Knoche said that when Wilson approached her, she thought back to being a seventh-grade teacher, when some students had a harder time engaging in class or being verbal. But those students would come to life when they talked about gaming and how that had drawn out their confidence, intelligence and connections.
“I knew this was a form of mental health support for those students, and they were building social and emotional skills that were harder in school environments,” Knoche said.
She also knew a writer who managed her health anxiety in dealing with a chronic illness by playing Stardew Valley.
“That transformed her mental health anxiety and it would reduce the impacts of that chronic health anxiety in her life and in her relationship with her husband,” Knoche said.
Seward grew up in a home where games were strictly forbidden but she came to see the self-determination that players have while engaging in an immersive experience that other media don’t really offer.
“A film might come close, but you’re not you’re not there and you’re not in it in the same way,” Seward said. “For me, it was more like brain training games like Lumosity. I was into that service for years. I was budgeting for Lumosity so that I could wake up every day and I could go to my work, feeling like my brain was super sharp.”
She also used a VR headset during the pandemic and felt how it could help her with her ADHD. Seward also watches her daughter engage with games on a laptop and how she plays games like Rollercoaster Tycoon to unwind after a hard day at school.
Knoche said she doesn’t consider herself to be much of a gamer but she got into Crash Bandicoot in school. She also enjoys playing the Nintendo Switch with her husband and stepchildren.
“I was a college athlete and I took rigorous academic classes. And Crash Bandicoot was like the place I could go and hide from my obligations and expectations for a while and still feel like I’m I was moving forward and achieving and having fun,” Knoche said.
“Being a musician has been my lifelong passion, recreationally. I’ve always known that music works and that music therapy is real. That neuroscience is there,” Seward said. “My mind was expanding on that concept and seeing what else gamers offer to the sciences. It doesn’t mean that every single game out there is medicine because someone says so.”
Putting science first
As to whether games are simply fun or they are doing something good for your mental health, that’s a harder call to make.
“I think at the end of the day, you’re the judge,” Seward said.
She noted a study by United Kingdom researchers found that car accident victims who play Tetris within 20 minutes of an accident can head off the painful, intrusive memories that can follow trauma. Seward said there are a lot of other studies to be done. Akili also has Food and Drug Administration approval to use its game as a treatment for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Knoche said the notion of having a good media diet makes as much sense for your wellbeing as good nutrition. Figuring out the right “dosage” of your media matters too, as the amount of your media consumption can often make the difference between a good diet of media and addiction to it.
“This isn’t a group of people who will say that gaming for mental health is good all of the time,” Knoche said. “This is a group that is discerning and is really committed to telling stories of connection and wholeness of people coming toward themselves because of digital media.”
Seward said the formula for the writing will involve writers bringing their personal narratives and mixing that with solid science.
“That’s what I’m looking for. Because I think we have to remember that a lot of this is slightly anecdotal, even if there is science behind it,” she said. “Certainly for me, I feel inspired when I’m hear someone’s personal story.”
Benefit vs addiction
As for whether games are more medicinal or addictive, Wilson said he believes there is a spectrum.
“Somebody might be much more likely to get addicted to a certain game, for instance, and have it take their life than somebody else. It’s just like a drug,” he said. “And, similar to drugs, we can consume too much.”
In that way, playing games could be similar to gambling — which is bad for some people when it comes to addiction. After the pandemic, more parents may have noticed that their children may have been getting more benefit from staying connected to friends and doing something together, Wilson said.
“Play has been something n our culture that we’re doing less of, and everybody is supposed to work more or take on a third or fourth job to make more money,” he said.
“The more people are doing it, the more research will be done and the more valid the science will be,” Wilson said. “Our original directive is to be science forward. If we have a story that doesn’t have research yet, we just say that. We’re not trying to sell anything here.”