Future Tense

FDA Approves First-Ever Prescription Video Game

A child uses their tablet on a desk during class. There are three pencils pencil cases on the table next to the tablet.
Children will be able to play EndeavorRx on tablets and smartphones. Damien Meyer/Getty Images

A new video game is just what the doctor ordered, at least for some kids. For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has approved a prescription video game. Now, physicians may prescribe Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx, formerly known as Project EVO, to children between the ages of 8 and 12 who struggle with ADHD.

The game challenges users to dodge obstacles and collect targets as they navigate icy winter wonderlands and lava rivers, guided by aliens who zip around on flying saucers. The developers say the game stimulates neural systems that are intrinsic to attention function. It also features adaptive algorithms that monitor each patient’s progress as they play, allowing for personalized ADHD treatment.

The decision follows seven years of clinical trials. Over five separate studies, researchers examined more than 600 kids to determine whether EndeavorRx could affect their ADHD symptoms. One such study found that 30 percent of the children “no longer had a measurable attention deficit on at least one measure of objective attention” after playing EndeavorRx for 25 minutes a day, five days a week for four weeks. According to Akili, these changes persisted for up to one month following treatment with EndeavorRx. The most common side effects were frustration and headache, which seem mild in contrast to traditional medications.

Although the study’s findings bode well for the effectiveness of EndeavorRx, it is important to note that it was conducted by doctors who work for Akili Interactive, the game’s developer. The researchers also wrote in the conclusion that their results should not be read as a suggestion that EndeavorRx be used as a substitute for established ADHD treatments. The FDA recommends that doctors prescribe game as a supplement to other treatments, such as therapy and medication.

The possible benefits of video games are not new to the health community. They have been proven to be a powerful source of both distraction and exercise. In 2011 for instance, a virtual reality game was used to ease the pain of burn victims.

Looking to the future, ADHD patients may not be the sole benefactors of prescription video games. In 2014, the Verge discussed the potential of video games in treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.