Paying People to Play Video Games

March 17 [Sun], 2013, 23:49
House Speaker John Boehnertweets that the Obama administration is spending $1.2 million paying people to play video games. Thats misleading. The government did pay $1.2 million for university research that includes the study of how video games can stimulate the cognitive abilities of seniors. A fraction of that cost went to compensate seniors who participated in the study, researchers say.

Boehner was one of several prominent Republican congressmen who sent out a flurry of tweets hashtag #cutwaste distorting the research. Some Republicans said the money was spent to play the video game World of Warcraft. Thats wrong. World of Warcraft is not part of research funded by the federal government, although the study does use, in part, the Wii game Boom Blox.

We take no position on whether spending $1.2 million studying ways to improve the cognitive abilities of seniors is a waste of taxpayer money. But the Republicans should call it what it is and not distort the facts even if they get only 140 characters to make their case against it.

But before we get into the facts of the research project, lets dissect the anatomy of this Republican talking point.

The first volley in the World of Warcraft Twitter campaign appears to have come from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Feb. 19.

: President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft.

The link goes to afrom Cantors office listing a number of examples of federal government waste, including: The National Science Foundation spent $1.2 million paying seniors to play World of Warcraft to study the impact it had on their brain. Thats not exactly right, but even that incomplete description gets further distorted in a series of tweets from Cantor and other House Republicans on Feb. 20.

: Federal Government spends $1.2 million paying people to play World of Warcraft video games. Instead of raising taxes, lets

: Pres Obama wants more tax hikes, refuses tolike $1.2M spent paying people to play video games

.: Not a kids fairytale: fed govt actually pays ppl w taxpayer dollars to play video games. Time to .

: Did you know the govt paid $1.2 million to pay people to play World of Warcraft?Instead of tax hikes

: Waste of the Day: $1.2 million tax dollars used to pay people to play World of Warcraftdont raise taxes

: Tax dollars at work: govt paid $1.2 million to study seniors playing World of WarcraftInstead of tax hikes

: That awkward moment whensays We dont have a spending problem then it comes out the Gov paid $1.2 mil to play video games

: Did you know the govt paid $1.2 million to pay people to play World of Warcraft?Instead of tax hikes

How did this research grant suddenly become the poster child for government waste? It traces its roots to , Sen. Tom Coburns list of 100 wasteful government expenditures. The project in question was No. 87.

Coburn, Wastebook 2012: 87) Should grandparents play World of Warcraft ? (NC) $1.2 million

Soon, grandma may have to skip dinner to join her World of Warcraft guild in a dungeon raid. Researchers believe they have found another means to help our memories as we age: the World of Warcraft, a fantasy video game featuring characters like orcs, trolls, and warlocks. The team of academics used part of $1.2 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to continue a video game study this year.

The study asked 39 adults ages 60 to 77 to play World of Warcraft for two hours a day over two weeks. In the game, players choose a character and rove around the virtual world participating in guild (group) missions, casting spells, and defeating evil creatures.

Millions of people around the world play, with the average player spending almost 11 hours per week playing.

At the end of the two-week study period, researchers found no cognitive improvement in older people who already scored well on cognitive tests. People who started out with lower initial results, however, experienced some improvements.

Its true that the National Science Foundation using funds from the economic stimulus funded two grants totaling $1.2 million to study the ways in which the use of some video games by older people can improve their cognitive and everyday abilities, such as memory and reasoning. You can read the abstracts for the two grant awards and .

More broadly, according to the abstract, the researchers hope to advance the knowledge and understanding of how cognitive trainingreduces age-related decline.

The project is being led by Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire, both at the North Carolina State Universitys ,which is dedicated to conducting applied research examining therelationship between playing commercially available video games andimportant psychological constructs and specifically how video gamescan improve cognitive functioning.

We spoke to McLaughlin about the way her research was being characterized by Republican leaders in the House.

Misleading doesnt describe it, McLaughlin said. It is entirely inaccurate.

For starters, she said, the research that included the World of Warcraft game was not funded by the National Science Foundation, though it helped to set the stage for the federally funded project.

The initial study looked at the effects of playingan attentionally demanding game in this case, World of Warcraft onthe cognitive abilities of seniors. For the uninitiated,is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). (Its the game featured in episodes of and the sitcom .)

The study cost a total of $5,000 and was funded entirely by N.C. State, McLaughlin said. It was initiated as a pilot and showed some promising results in improving the cognitive abilities of some seniors, particularly those who scored poorly in the cognitive pre-tests. Results of this study were featured in stories by the , and , as well as in a .

Spurred by those results, McLaughlin and Allaire sought and were awarded two grants from the NSF to perform a much larger series of studies in part employing the interactive Wii game .

By manipulating various aspects of the game, they are trying to pinpoint what kinds of game play best improve cognition and functioning forolder adults, McLaughlin said, as well as determining the effects of playing alone versus in groups.

Thats just the first phase. Then, in collaboration with computer whizzes at GeorgiaTech, theyhope to develop guidelines for games for older players thatwill leadto a new class of brain games with reliable effectiveness, according to the abstract.

The whole purpose of this is to generalize beyond any game and promote cognitive improvement, McLaughlin said.

Begun in 2009, the research is still in progress, McLaughlin said.

For the record, McLaughlin said, We dont pay anyone to play video games. We pay them to participate in a study.

Participants first take a three-hour cognitive test to use as a baseline. Then they are asked to come back and play a video game for an hour a day for 15 straight days. Then they are given another three-hour cognitive test immediately afterward, and then two more tests one three months later and the last a year later. The amount of the $1.2 million grant money spent on paying the participants of the study is a small fraction of the overall cost, McLaughlin said.

We initially were led to the grants after making an inquiry with Cantors office seeking backup material for claims about the federal government spending $1.2 million for people to play World of Warcraft.

In addition to passing along links to the study abstracts, Megan Whittemore, Cantors press secretary, offered this response: The President of the United States said he was going to have to turn criminals loose on the street. Clearly, he created a false choice between raising taxes or near-apocalyptic conditions. In reality, we need to make choices on how the federal government spends taxpayers hard earned dollars. While some of these programs may have some merit to some people, should they be saved before preventing the drastic scenario the President painted this week?

Again, as independent fact-checkers, we take no position about whether these grants are a worthwhile use of taxpayer money. Cutting budget deficits a stated goal of both Republicans and Democrats is going to require some tough choices. But the facts simply get in the way of this Republican talking point. Paying people $1.2 million to play video games sounds a lot more outrageous than studying ways to improve the cognitive abilities of seniors. And it misleadingly twists what the grants are all about.

Robert Farley
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