An In-Depth Look at DOACentral’s Plagiarism Charges

Come this morning, one word was on the lips of most everyone who follows the video game journalism industry.

Plagiarism.

Read on to hear my somewhat comprehensive thoughts on the accusations still reverberating around our little corner of the Internet.

The Story So Far

The accusations first arose this weekend on the forums of DOACentral, a Dead or Alive fansite. More than a few members of that forum noticed a more than passing resemblance between some of the site’s Dead or Alive 4 General Strategies, and a strategy guide for the game posted on 1up.

Specifically, the accusations seem to focus on a section of both guides that deals with evasions — moves that let you avoid attacks from other characters. Forum-goers accused 1up author Richard Li of copying content from this section without proper attribution to the author, who goes by the Internet handle VirtuaPAI on the DOACentral forums. VirtuaPAI made his case clear in a DOACentral forum post this weekend:

We all know what plagiarisim is, and [Li] did it to the fullest. Its ok to present facts to the readers, I have no problems with that. But When you start using other people concepts, and than passing it as your own, than you have problems. … Every person have their own distinct writing voice, and ours was stolen.

The story was quickly taken up by the chattering class over at the Gaming Age Forums, where 1up editor Che Chou initially put up a defense of the guide.

I’m not exactly sure what our strategy guide writer Richard Li’s methodology was when he wrote the DOA4 feature but I know for a fact that it wasn’t straight “plagarism.” Maybe his research started at the fansite level (where he might have found a list of moves folks were discussing a lot), but I sat with him for a week and a half while he went through every character and tried to discover move properties and effectiveness in actual matches. And he took a ton of notes. And he also got pretty good at the game as a result.

Did he look at DOA Central? Probably. Did he straight lift VirtuaPai’s strat? Fuck no.

The controversy soon came out of the forums and onto some rather high profile blogs this morning. By this afternoon, the guide had been taken down from 1up “pending a formal review,” according to a newspost [Update: 11:23 p.m., Monday, Jan. 23 — 1up has placed the guide back online. Read more]. Later that afternoon, Chou indicated in a Gaming Age forum post that 1up was “trying to contact the folks at DOA Central [to see if] they’ll let us re-publish the guide with proper credits and links.” Chou and Li have not yet responded to a request for further comment.

My Take

First, two facts to get out of the way — it seems apparent that DOACentrals guide was published first, and that it was not referenced in any way in 1up’s DOA4 guide. That being well established, the major issues in considering whether or not there was any wrongdoing (legal, ethical or otherwise) are:

  1. Whether the two works are similar enough to rule out coincidental similarity and
  2. Whether or not the content being copied is a fact or a unique expression of an idea.

On the first issue,the evidence pretty clearly falls towards DOACentral, in my view. The similarities between the evasion sections of 1up’s guide and DOACentral’s are hard to deny (For the purposes of this post, I’m not making any claims about other sections of the guide). Compare the following two passages — the first from DOACentral, the second from 1up — and see what you think.

Evasion in Doa4 is overall different than it was in previous doa games. Doa2 introduced free stepping, while doa3, and Doa3.1 made it possible to free step dodge. Doa3.2 and Doa4 no longer allow players to FSD a vast majority of single strikes. Now players can only evade Jumping and lunging attacks with ease. This force players to learn each characters specific evasive maneuvers, instead of relying on a homogenous system.

The current Evasion System underwent some drastic changes, forcing players to rely on character specific evasive maneuvers instead of freely side-stepping out of danger. Whereas DoA3 allowed the possibility to free step dodge (FSD) around the environments, DoA4 is extremely difficult to FSD the majority of single attacks. Now, players are limited to jumping and lunging moves to evade single blows, causing much more reliance to a character’s specific evade attacks.

While far from a word-for-word copy of the forum poster, the 1up passage clearly follows the same structure and thought pattern of the DOACentral post, and uses many strikingly similar turns of phrase (most egregiously: “Doa4 no longer allow players to FSD a vast majority of single strikes” becomes “DoA4 is extremely difficult to FSD the majority of single attacks”). It seems unlikely that these similarities would come from mere coincidence.

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “both sections merely describe facts about the evolution of the evasion system in the DOA series. DOACentral can’t claim an exclusive right to write about these facts.” This is true, and the underlying facts about the evolution of the DOA series can be used freely by anyone talking about the game (also “Right to Write” would be a great name for a Conservative creative writing blog). But while the facts are fair to use, it’s the relatively clear reptition of VirtualPAI’s style, structure and mannerisms that I feel pushes this example past fair use and into the realm of plagiarism.

This fine distinction between fact and expression of the fact comes into play in the next section of both guides. In that section, effective evasion moves for each character are listed, as well as a short sentence about what kinds of attacks these moves can evade for each character. In addition, the characters are placed on one of four tiers representing how good they are at evading. The two guides read virtually identically in these sections.

As much as this might frustrate some guide writers, I believe these move lists can not be used to bolster a case for plagiarism. The fact that hitting “up-up-punch” with Brad Wong evades most attacks is just that — a fact — no different from the fact that 100 coins gives Mario an extra life in Super Mario Bros. or the fact that the Konami code gives you thirty lives in Contra. Just as anyone can copy and use those facts out of an instruction book or cheat list, I believe anybody should be able to use the facts of these move lists as they see fit.

While it may have taken VirtualPAI hours upon hours of tedious work to determine that these moves are effective evasions, it’s impossible to prove that someone else who publishes the list didn’t go through the same process to determine their usefulness. Obviously, if the author did simply copy the list from this original source, some acknowledgement of the hard work that went into its creation would be nice. In the end, though, once this information is out there, it is part of the dialogue and I believe it can be safely used by other authors without fallnig into the realm of plagiarizing.

Li isn’t out of the woods yet, though. While the moves themselves are fair game, the ranking system that VirtualPAI used to distinguish the characters is not. As far as I can tell, this tiered ranking system is purely the creation of the author — a structural writing choice used to separate different groups of characters from each other more easily. The fact that Li groups the characters into the same four tiers in exactly the same way seems well beyond the realm of coincidence, and also well beyond the realm of fair use without attribution.

I realize that the distinction here between generally accepted fact and personally held strategy opinion is very fine, but I’ve tried to explain my reasoning as best I could. To be safe, one should carefully note the source when copying any even vaguely original or unique thought or format from someone else’s writing.

Next Steps

With the guide down and negotiations apparently underway to make amends to the wronged party, 1up is clearly not trying to sweep this matter under the rug. The final decision about what to do with the situation is obviously up to Mr. Chou and the 1up staff. From my outside perspective, I think that Mr. Li should be publicly admonished for his behavior, taken off of the strategy/cheats beat and possibly given some sort of probationary warning or unpaid leave. Barring any apparent previous history of similar plagiarism, I think outright firing would be too severe for the first offense. As for the guide itself, I feel that if the obvious influence of DOACentral’s forums were noted in the relevant section (or sections) then it could be re-posted without a problem.

How can editors prevent plagiarism like this in the future? There’s really no easy way that I can see. Without intimate knowledge of the accumulated wealth of strategy already compiled for a particular game, no editor can really know whether or not what their writer submits is wholly original. If the DOACentral forum-goers hadn’t seen the 1up guide online and made a fuss about it, the issue may have never come to light at all. In the end, the editor has to trust that his writers will act professionally and honestly in representing their work, and take quick and forceful action when it become apparent that such trust has been broken.

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