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Majority Leader Eric Cantor incorrectly cites WoW study as using $1.2M in federal funds, actual cost is $5k from NC State [UPDATED]

Earlier this week U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R - Virginia) called out, amongst other things, the wasteful government spending by a World of Warcraft study conducted by North Carolina State University's Gains Through Gaming Lab. The study he was citing, as published on his own blog:

Pay to Play Video Games: The National Science Foundation spent $1.2 million paying seniors to play "World of Warcraft" to study the impact it had on their brain.

Majority Leader Cantor is focusing on this as part of federal spending from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that could be cut instead of the bipartisan sequester that will be taking place later this year, unless Washington is able to avert it.

After publishing a story on the World of Warcraft tie-in, we were contacted by Jason Allaire (who we previously interviewed on the study), Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, and co-director of the lab where the study took place. He had the following to say:

The funding for the WoW study ($5K) came from NC-State as part of a pilot research funding program. The results of the WoW study were published last year ... so for some reason that paper got equated with our NSF grant. We do in fact have $1.2 million dollar grant from NSF that examines what aspects or mechanisms are responsible for improvements in cognition due to playing digital games and funds our development of a game based on these findings. This NSF grant is still on going.

Allaire follows up with:

The NSF study has absolutely nothing to do with WoW.

So just when exactly did the WoW study start and how is it funded?

Allaire tells us the study was funded by North Carolina State in late 2008/early 2009. The WoW study started in the spring of 2009, and completed its data collection in August 2009. The NSF funding, which is what Majority Leader Cantor is criticizing, started in September 2009; a month after the WoW study was completed.

Additionally, the WoW study only cost $5,000 -- not the $1,200,000 cited by the Majority Leader. Allaire tells us the WoW study was used as pilot research for the NSF grant. Dr. Elisabeth Whyte, PhD. Lecturer and Post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University (and WoW player herself) explains what a pilot study is, and how it impacts future research:

Pilot research is small-scale studies proving "proof of concept". This is often done with smaller, limited funds - often costing between $0 and $60,000 to conduct... For example, while a full-scale research study may have between 40 and 10,000 people participate, a pilot study may have between 5 and 20 people participate. If the results are interesting in the small pilot study, then the grant agencies know that they are placing their money and resources into something that will likely generate important and usable data in larger studies.

The WoW study only had 39 participants and was done with $5,000 in non-federal funds from North Carolina State University, and not from the NSF. Additionally, the NSF funds are in no way being used to study World of Warcraft.

The NSF funds that the Majority Leader is citing are being used as part of a three phase project, according to Allaire, and are spread out over four years. "...we used BoomBlox and BoomBlox Bash Party where we assign people to groups where the play with someone else (social impact) or alone and in a low or high attentional demand condition," Allaire says. He goes on to say that "We are currently using the results of the study to create a game that can specifically impact cognition," and that they will be testing the efficacy of this new game this spring.

Allaire further says on the NSF study scope:

The NSF study is a HUGE study. The first phase had almost 200 participants that did pretest, 2-3 post-tests, and up to 15 days of repeated training. We had a pretty big staff of testers... It also funds 2 - 3 grad students. The other phases also support grad students and will require a lot more testing and training.

We've reached out to Eric Cantor's office for comment and will update this article if we receive a reply.

Update 11:50am, Feb. 22, 2013: Eric Cantor's spokesman Rory Cooper has responded via our colleagues at the Huffington Post concerning this issue:

The President of the United States said he was going to have turn criminals loose on the street. He has created a false choice between raising taxes or near-apocalyptic conditions. In reality, we need to make choices on how we spend taxpayer's hard earned dollars. While some of these programs may even have some merit to some people, should they be saved before preventing the drastic scenario the President painted yesterday?

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