DeepWell gamifies breathing therapy for mental health

DeepWell's Zengeance
DeepWell DTx

Studies have shown that controlled breathing exercises may help to reduce stress and improve mental health, leading to a surge in public interest in activities like meditation that can deliver these benefits in-person and remotely.

DeepWell DTx was set up a couple of years ago to help people get the same benefits in a gaming environment, seeking to overcome one of the main problems with ‘breathwork’ therapies – they can be hard work and patients can struggle to motivate themselves to participate regularly.

Now, after years in development, the company’s solution has been officially launched. It takes the form of a virtual reality (VR) action shooter game called Zengeance that it says can help users tackle stress and gain emotional resilience “with every breath.”

The idea is that it is much easier to immerse oneself in a game for the time required to get a benefit from breathing exercises, a strategy that is being explored for other game-based digital therapeutics.

In Zengeance, players breathe audibly – or alternatively, hum, chant, or sing – to control their Orb in the VR world, uncover hidden Dark Wraith enemies, and shoot them. The Orb returns to the player on an inhale and is fired on an exhale.

“The more you master your breath and vocalise through ‘vocal toning’, the more potent the Orb becomes, revealing even the stealthiest of Wraiths and empowering your arsenal of sacred weaponry,” according to the game blurb, which adds: “Play better in this world – feel better in your own.”

The health premise is that vocal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and reducing stress and blood pressure. Combining breath, motion, precision, and rhythm effectively can regulate emotion, release endorphins, and provide positive distraction that avoids negative rumination, according to the game’s developers.

A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials of breathwork on stress and mental health published in the journal Nature last year concluded that, overall, the approach seems to provide “small to medium” benefits.

Alongside the action shooter part of the game, players can enter a separate Zen Garden VR space that teaches breathwork techniques in a calm setting and generates rewards that can be transferred to the regular gameplay.

“As the world continues to combat the global mental health crisis, mental health support is still largely inaccessible: 70-80% of people with mental health issues do not manage them due to stigma, accessibility, and cost,” commented Ryan Douglas, DeepWell DTx founder and chief therapeutic designer.

“Where some people find meditation or daily breathwork apps boring, uncompelling, or not fun enough to use regularly, Zengeance is designed to meet people where they play with an enjoyable world-class game.”

Zengeance is available on the Meta Game Store, with a current price of $19,99, and is compatible with Meta Quest 2 and 3 VR headsets.