The story a couple of weeks ago was that a writer for IGN was caught plagiarizing his content. On July 24, Boomstick Gaming reviewed the game Dead Cells. Then on August 6, IGN posted their own review, which was almost a point-for-point recreation of the Boomstick review with some different phrasing. Boomstick noticed this and posted a side-by-side comparison of the two videos:
IGN took down the review, investigated, and then fired the author after they concluded the reviews were far too similar to be the result of happenstance. The plagiarist then posted an apology to his personal YouTube channel that came off as a clumsy insincere deflection rather than as a true confession and apology. The apology got so much negative response that he’s since taken it downI didn’t see it before it vanished. I’m sure you can still find copies of it on YouTube if you’re willing to go hunting for them.. Once the story came to light, people looked at his back catalog of content and found that he seems to have plagiarized a lot of other content over the course of his short career. The Dead Cells review wasn’t his first act of plagiarism, it was just the first time he got caught.
This has gotten a lot of coverage, to the point where I’m kind of uncomfortable joining the dogpile. The plagiarist’s name and face have been broadcast all over the place for weeks now. His reputation is ruined and his career is over. Those are both appropriate responses to his actions, but after a certain threshold the whole thing starts to feel vindictive. It’s not that any one story went overboard. It’s just that the cumulative effect of so many articles has unintentionally elevated the response to extreme levels. It’s not like he killed somebody. Nobody was even really all that hurt. The main victim was IGN, who had to take down all of the plagiarists archived content and spend resources re-reviewing the affected games. That sucks and I don’t blame IGN for being upset, but I don’t feel any personal need to direct additional rage towards the guilty. He got caught. He got fired. Story over.
I want to use this story to talk about this style of “rephrasing plagiarism” in general, but I don’t want to add to the ongoing public shaming. So for this article I’m not going to use the name or face of the guilty. If you want to dig into that side of the story, other people have you covered.
Why Do This?
This is a strange crime, isn’t itWe’re using “crime” in the general sense as in “American cheese is a crime against the idea of food itself”, not in the specific sense of “criminal act that can land you in jail”.? Why would anyone go to all the trouble of becoming a reviewer and then copy the opinions of others?
Being a games journalist is not a glamorous job. The pay is low compared to other sorts of journalists, job security isn’t great on account of how quickly gaming sites come and go, there’s often a lot of travel, you’ve got to deal with harassment, the deadlines are tight, and you’re always being pushed to take a nuanced opinion and boil it down to a stupid number. If this job has anything going for it, it’s the privilege of inflicting your opinions on the world. This is like hiring a prostitute and then having a stunt double have sex with her on your behalf. Why are you outsourcing the only thing this transaction has going for it?
Sure, there’s the stereotype that games journalists “play games for a living”. Maybe that idea would draw in the unwary, who don’t realize the work involved until they’ve already committed to it as a career. Even then, doesn’t playing a game cause you to form an opinion on it? I just can’t wrap my head around the mentality of spending a few days with a videogame and then – when presented with a platform to speak to hundreds of thousands of people – expressing someone else’s opinion. Even ignoring that, I have to wonder what the typical long-term plans are for a serial plagiarist. You can’t expect to do this for an entire career, and the longer you get away with it the more it will hurt when you’re finally exposed and have to find a new career.
How Do We Prevent This In The Future?
Even in the internet age, detecting plagiarism is hard. Sure, it’s trivial to discover simple word-for-word copying once the Google crawler finds the source. But if the perpetrator is doing rephrasing on a semi-obscure source then to detect the crime you’d have to manually read everything ever written on the topic. That’s completely infeasible, even if both the source and the plagiarist are working in text. And if both are producing video content? Forget it. There’s no way an editor can catch that. You have to publish the article and leave detection to the crowd.
This doesn’t mean we’re helpless to fend-off would-be plagiarists. We can’t catch them before we publish, but maybe we can catch them before they’re hired. I suggest adopting an interview style similar to the ones used in the field of programming. Regardless of how impressive their prior work might be, how solid their education is, or how nice they seem in the interview, have them do some writing for you on the spot. Nothing will test their skills like asking them to use those skills during the interview. Put the applicant in a room with an obscure game for (say) forty minutes. Tell them you want a three-paragraph summary of their opinions when their time is over. Maybe they’ll play for ten minutes and write for thirty. Maybe they’ll play for twenty-five and write for fifteen. Maybe they’ll alternate between playing and writing until they’re out of time. They don’t need to give some definitive ruling on the game, they just need to be able to form an opinion and articulate it.
This is a task that should be trivial for someone with critical writing experience and incredibly difficult for a dedicated plagiarist. As a bonus, it should also give you a peek at their observational acuity and time management skills. Yes, often these kinds of tests are a little unfair to people who are bad under pressure. But when it comes to games journalism, time pressure is part of the job. If you can’t handle it now, then there’s no way you’ll be able to get it done while hungover and sleep-deprived at E3 next year.
So those are my thoughts on this. I don’t think it was a huge deal, and I think IGN handled it about as well as can be expected.
 I didn’t see it before it vanished. I’m sure you can still find copies of it on YouTube if you’re willing to go hunting for them.
 We’re using “crime” in the general sense as in “American cheese is a crime against the idea of food itself”, not in the specific sense of “criminal act that can land you in jail”.
The Best of 2012
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Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
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The Biggest Game Ever
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Mass Effect 3 Ending Deconstruction
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A Star is Born
Remember the superhero MMO from 2009? Neither does anyone else. It was dumb. So dumb I was compelled to write this.