The Crossword Plagiarism Scandal & Escape Rooms

FiveThirtyEight recently broke the story of a crossword plagiarism scandal that spans over a decade.

FiveThirtyEight's logo.

What’s the scandal?

The short version of the story is that “Since 1999, Timothy Parker, editor of one of the nation’s most widely syndicated crosswords, has edited more than 60 individual puzzles that copy elements from New York Times puzzles, often with pseudonyms for bylines, a new database has helped reveal.”

Over at Room Escape Artist HQ, we’re pretty big fans of Will Shortz, so we’re displeased… but that’s beside the point.

How does this connect to the escape room world?

I’ll be blunt. I’m certain that some of the escape rooms I’ve played contained copied puzzles.

There is at least one major puzzle from one very big and successful company that I am 99% sure is entirely plagiarized.

The interesting thing is that no one will ever be able to surface the habitual plagiarizers and call them out because the escape room owners are so paranoid of having their games documented.

The only reason that the crossword puzzle case came to light was because of a database of puzzles.

And for what it’s worth, in my experience, the most paranoid owners tend to have some of the least original games.


  1. If you were to breakdown the % of puzzles that are entirely original, loosely borrowed, pretty borrowed, and entirely copied, what would that look like? And has that shifted over the last 2-3 years?

    1. That’s a very good, very difficult question to answer.

      There are a lot of escape room cliches, and common patterns that have emerge (black lights, stopped clocks, etc). These are especially prevalent in the bottom half of the quality curve. Are these companies copying one another, or just taking the easy, obvious route? It’s tough to distinguish.

      There is only one game that I have encountered where I am confident that a significant portion was copied. It had the same structure, and a the very same multi-step solution that even yielded the exact same code.

      I think the lesson of the crossword scandal is that it’s very difficult to spot plagiarism. If it weren’t for an available data set, and someone skilled analyzing it, that never would have been uncovered.

      I’m not necessarily saying that the escape room industry needs this, I just think it’s an interesting thing to think about and discuss.

      1. Very helpful – thanks. As long as we have a higher number of creators that prioritize the experience relative to those that prioritize profitability we should be just fine. Once the pendulum swings the other way is when the industry has a risk of falling into “fad” territory, which would be a real shame.

      2. I think it’s possible to strive for both. It’s the companies who are prioritizing rapid scaling that freak me out the most. I think it leads to lazy design, poor quality control, and probably some copying.

        You can’t build high quality products, inexpensively, and quickly. It doesn’t work.

      3. Agreed. My comment around prioritizing profitability is geared to the ones you described perfectly in your comment – those that are in non-stop growth mode without prioritizing QC.

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