Project Evo is aiming to be the first video game to ever be FDA-approved, NPR reports. The game is focused on therapy for cognitive disorders such as ADHD, autism, and depression. There’s a chance that it could help diagnose Alzheimer’s during clinical trials, which would cut down costs significantly—the team has partnered with Pfizer to this end.
However, while there are tons of therapeutic video games out there, developers don’t typically go for FDA approval. There are a lot of reasons why that is.
When electronic media want that official FDA stamp, the process can take up to four years, and four years is a terrifying amount of time in digital terms. The technology will inevitably become outdated, not just in terms of graphics or gameplay, but also in terms of what platforms the developers need to design for. Four years from now we could be in the middle of the virtual-reality revolution and have sworn off traditional consoles altogether. (It’s highly unlikely that the landscape will change that much, but the point is we don’t really know what the future will hold, and anything could happen.) It’s also exorbitantly expensive to go through FDA-approval. It costs millions of dollars—a cost most game developers can’t afford, even if they were willing.
And not everyone thinks going through official channels is a good idea in the first place. Randal Engle of the Georgia Institute of Technology has doubts. “Because it’s a proprietary thing at that point—and that’s a problem. If it becomes proprietary, the only people who can do unfettered research on it are the people who own the procedure.” NPR points out that this is how it currently works with traditional drugs, of course.
On the other hand, the benefits of FDA approval are substantial. Doctors would be able to prescribe the game to treat ADHD, for example. The developers are hopeful that Project Evo could replace drugs or traditional therapy, where non-FDA-approved games would be limited to a supplementary role. This would also be an opportunity for insurance companies to step in and pay for the game.
While the team behind Project Evo hopes that the game will replace drugs, not everyone agrees. Dr. Michael Ehlers, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer of neuroscience (Project Evo and Pfizer are partners) says that “…it’s just essentially a digital version of otherwise typical kinds of psychological and cognitive behavioral therapy.” This doesn’t mean the game is without value, of course—just that its goal may be a bit too lofty.
Regardless, it will be interesting to watch where this all ends up; will we see Project Evo in doctor’s offices in three or four years? Or is FDA approval a meaningless designation when it comes to digital media? We’ll just have to wait and see.