Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
World of Warcraft, Cognition, and the Sequester
Friday, February 22, 2013 - 03:16 PM
This week, the story that leads the news cycle (and, not coincidentally, leads our show) is the looming sequester. With Congress seemingly at an impasse, Republicans are demanding significant cuts in government spending, while Democrats are demanding an increase in tax revenues. Being that I play video games and find partisan congressional hackery so boring I could die, I naturally focused in on the one gaming story that has anything to do with the sequester.
Earlier this week U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor posted a note on his website citing specific examples of government waste. Among them: "The National Science Foundation spent $1.2 million paying seniors to play 'World of Warcraft' to study the impact it had on their brain." The claim was quickly picked up by other Republicans as a talking point, with House Speaker John Boehner writing "no one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cellphones, and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines."
World of Warcraft? What is this study? How can I get on board?
The grant in question was awarded by the National Science Foundation to the North Carolina State University's Gains Through Gaming Lab as part of the 2010 stimulus. But, as Jason Allaire, co-director of the Gains Through Gaming Lab told me, it has nothing to do with World of Warcraft. "We did receive 1.2 million dollars, but it was for a very large study that was designed to see how and why certain aspects of a video game might improve cognition," Allaire told me over the phone. "And then it goes on to create a video game and then test that video game to see how well it improves older adults' health and well being.
"We finished that World of Warcraft data collection before we even got the NSF money," says Allaire, "and the World of Warcraft study, we did that with $5,000. It was kind of like a pilot study. It only had 39 participants, they only did about a week or two of playing World of Warcraft. So it was a pretty small proof of concept study that we just did."
The Gains Through Gaming lab has been a target of small government Republicans since shortly after receiving the NSF grant in 2009. In 2010, their project appeared in a report by Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain called "Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues." Coburn singled them out again in a 2012 editorial on his website, again referring to the grant as being World of Warcraft oriented.
For his part, Allaire is not too worked up about the criticism. He just wants politicians to know what they're criticizing. "I don’t mind research being criticized, I think that’s a healthy debate," he says. "But if my research is going to get criticized, I definitely want it to be factually correct when it’s criticized. What these guys tend to forget is that the NSF and NIH are non partisan and the people who make these decisions about granting – it’s super hard to get a grant. If this isn’t going to have an impact on people’s lives or on science, you don’t get the money."