Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Paying People to Play Video Games

House Speaker John Boehner tweets that the Obama administration is spending $1.2 million “paying people to play video games.” That’s 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. That’s 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, let’s 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.

Cantor, Feb. 19: President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft. http://1.usa.gov/Y3NGOH

The link goes to a press release from Cantor’s 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.” That’s 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.

Cantor, 10:56 a.m.: Federal Government spends $1.2 million paying people to play World of Warcraft video games. Instead of raising taxes, let’s #CutWaste

Speaker John Boehner, 10:57 a.m.: Pres Obama wants more tax hikes, refuses to #cutwaste like $1.2M spent paying people to play video games #Obamaquester

GOP Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, 11:01 a.m.: Not a kid’s fairytale: fed gov’t actually pays ppl w taxpayer dollars to play video games. Time to #CutWaste. http://1.usa.gov/Y3NH4U

Rep. Ann Wagner, 11:01 a.m.: Did you know the govt paid $1.2 million to pay people to play World of Warcraft? http://tinyurl.com/bg8njug Instead of tax hikes #CutWaste

Rep. Diane Black, 11:03 a.m.: Waste of the Day: $1.2 million tax dollars used to pay people to play World of Warcraft http://bit.ly/UIG5oK #CutWaste don’t raise taxes

Rep. Renee Ellmers, 11:08 a.m.: Tax dollars at work: govt paid $1.2 million to study seniors playing World of Warcraft http://tinyurl.com/bg8njug Instead of tax hikes #CutWaste

Rep. Darrell Issa, 11:46 a.m.: That awkward moment when @BarackObama says “We don’t have a spending problem” then it comes out the Gov paid $1.2 mil to play video games…

Rep. David McKinkley, 12:15 p.m.: Did you know the govt paid $1.2 million to pay people to play World of Warcraft? http://tinyurl.com/bg8njug Instead of tax hikes #CutWaste

How did this research grant suddenly become the poster child for government waste? It traces its roots to “Wastebook 2012,” Sen. Tom Coburn’s 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.

It’s 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 here and here.

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

The project is being led by Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire, both at the North Carolina State University’s Gains Through Gaming Lab, which is “dedicated to conducting applied research examining the relationship between playing commercially available video games and important psychological constructs” and specifically “how video games can improve cognitive functioning.”

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

“Misleading doesn’t 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 playing an “attentionally demanding game” — in this case, World of Warcraft — on the cognitive abilities of seniors. For the uninitiated, World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). (It’s the game featured in episodes of “South Park” and the sitcom “Big Bang Theory.”)

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 Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and CBS News, as well as in a press release from N.C. State.

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 Boom Blox.

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

That’s just the first phase. Then, in collaboration with computer whizzes at Georgia Tech, they hope to develop guidelines for games for older players that will lead to “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 don’t 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 Cantor’s 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, Cantor’s 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