Plagiarism is just what we do!

Subscribers to this blog may know that while I teach Computer Game Programming, I’ve had a long involvement in plagiarism in Academia, mostly through sitting on various national committees as well as actively campaigning for understanding why it occurs, rather than just blindly penalising it. Plagiarism is more of a hobby* than an actual research area for me, but through accident as much as design I have been in a position to influence the attitude of fellow teachers throughout the World. So, this article by @dantheduck, “Plagiarism as a moral choice”, which looks at the real world pressure to “clone” the work of others, is the collision of two normally separate worlds:
A Servant of Two Masters
The allusion to copying prior to it being considered a “crime” was/is refreshing. It brings home to me the value of working with creative “clay” rather than descriptive “pen” for assessment:

A) it’s hard to plagiarise an assignment when you are building rather than writing, and easy to spot copying when under the process of creation is missing.
B) it’s impossible in the medium to not encode traditional interactions, so novelty stands out, but competent copying is itself an achievement.**
C) on a vocational course – increasingly en vogue with this Government – competence is preferable to creativity for employers at least.

In the game industry, copying is difficult and is financially, if not morally, superior. There have been few legal battles over stolen content, ideas, techniques, compared to Art, Film and Literature. Creativity seems to be when copying produces better results than the original. The question is not whether but how much to copy.

It’s not theft it’s reuse

There is far more “recycling” in this industry than many others. Partly this is perceived as market-driven – as The Jam lyrics claim, “The Public wants what the Public gets!” – and in part is technical; film companies don’t tend to need to re-implement cinemas each time they make a movie. However, code reuse, if not level design, should be encouraged. And predictable user expectations for interaction – WASD anyone? – make game play straight-forward; there isn’t a BookFAQs web site explaining how to proceed with Lord of the Rings P1 by “turning the page and starting at the top of page 2” as far as I know.

Or is there?

Is the 90/10 copied to new ratio an extreme example of “standing on the shoulders of giants” ?

* I’ve tried to keep away from becoming a mainstream plagiarism researcher because I didn’t want to sink into depression.

** I tell my students each year that copying – i.e. reproducing in their own code – Miamoto’s 6502 assembler implementation of Mario’s jump in Super Mario Brothers is the ultimate challenge.

The ants pick the food, the ants eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave.

“Universities have been bashed over quality, relevance and value of computer games courses for too long. Like complaining that a cafe’s food is disgusting and the portion’s too small, now even schools appear to Gove, Livingstone, Hope and Braben et al to be failing. By turns it’s either too many or too few games, not enough programming, etc, that is to blame for the lack of a stream of compliant, skilled workers streaming from HE into the dark Satanic Mill of game development. Well, Education’s had enough. We aren’t training sweatshops. We don’t teach skills, we teach people. Now bog off and let us do our job!”

This is the summary and abstract for a talk I will be giving at Brains Eden in Cambridge on Monday 11th July.

The title is a quote from “A Bug’s Life”, but few know it was based not only on Kursowa’s “The Seven Samurai” (aka “The Magnificent Seven”) but also on one of my favourite Aesop’s Fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, where an individual of a playful nature does little to sustain his existence, then expects to long serving collective to support him with resources.

The analogy should be clear. Ok, yes, this IS meant to be controverial. Deliberately so, as the organisers have asked me to be. For the past couple of years Games Eden have organised ‘Brains Eden’, a gaming festival designed to bring together industry, academia and students. This year it will revolve around a 48-hour Game Jam hosted at Anglia Ruskin University, with representatives from the local companies speaking on Monday on a range of subjects. However, what the schedule seemed to be missing was someone from academia to do a 15 minute talk; “the livelier and more controversial the subject matter the better.”

It’s a double edged sword, this “rocking the boat” malarkey. Not one I am unfamiliar with, even outside of games, having singlehandedly destroyed Higher Education on at least one occasion – according to the Daily Mail
and the Telegraph, though (sadly) not the News of the World – or started a revolution in 21st century university assessment – according to the Times Higher Ed Supplement (THES) and the Guardian – it’s cleary time to don the asbestos suit again. However, this time it has been planned. There is much that is right, or potentially so, with Industry getting involved with HE, although why anyone would think that some form of company sponsored national curriculum was a good idea I don’t know, or even with computer games revolutionising Education generally. So this blog post is more about airing the subject for debate. A proto rant. Do you think the Brabens, Livingstones and Hopes of this World are right? That we should return to an 80s (Thatcherite) approach to teaching programming in schools, in the forelorn hope it will ignite a new generation of bedroom coders – just like it didn’t in the actual 80s? Or that HE has been doing such a bad job of fitting the loyalty chips in the necks of serfs bound for indentured servitude at the nearest Triple-A studio that Industry, which has little or no pedagogical expertise or interest beyond easing the recruitment/staff turnover (burnout?) problem, should step in and “well and truly sort us out!” If so, comment here. It’ll all be good ammunition or target practice for me, when next week I’m thrown to the Lionheads; see what I did there?

It’s not just about Games, it’s far less serious than that.