On Videogame Criticism

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Editor’s Note: I’m very pleased to share the following letter series, and I thought I’d give a brief preface to the conversation you’re about to read. The past few years have seen the rise of some creative and intelligent new voices in games criticism, and Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari stand out among the very best of them. Tom is an award-winning author whose new book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is one of the most purely enjoyable collections of videogame writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Simon is a doctoral student at Georgia Tech’s well-regarded Digital Media program, where he recently co-authored the book Newsgames: Journalism at Play. He has a very cool way of analyzing design, and he seems to have a special knack for dissecting unpopular game mechanics and regarding them in a different light.

I’ve counted myself fortunate to get to know both gentlemen over the past year or so, and have personally found a huge amount of value in both of their (very different) approaches to videogame criticism. I was aware that they disagreed on a fair number of things, and that Simon was particularly and publicly critical of Tom’s work. A little while back Tom casually asked me about this Simon Ferrari fellow, and why did he take such vehement umbrage with Extra Lives and the rest of Tom’s work? So I told him who Simon was and pointed him to a few of my favorite of Simon’s pieces online. I also mentioned that I would love to see the two of them talk and attempt to hash out their differences, in large part because the conversation had the potential to be so very interesting. One thing led to another, and they both agreed to write the letters that you are about to read.

I hope you enjoy this exchange as much as I did, and that you’ll weigh in on the discussion in our comments section, on twitter, or on your own blogs or websites. Simon and Tom, I thank you both and hope the three of us have the opportunity to shoot some digital zombies together soon. – Kirk]

From: Tom Bissell

To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

The first thing I read by you—and which I really, really liked—was your analysis of Red Dead Redemption’s dueling system1. You persuasively argued that it was ridiculous both expressively and mechanically, and pointed out that the dueling system of Call of Juarez was vastly superior. Not only did you convince me to download Call of Juarez (haven’t played it yet), you pin-pointed the subtlest and in some ways most significant mechanical failure of a game celebrated for its game-mechanic sophistication. (And hats off to RDR, really: I never thought the tappity-tappity of riding a video-game horse could be so pleasurable.) Then, on Kirk’s advice, I read your paean to Call of Duty’s respawning enemies2. I now know this was your response piece to something I said about my hatred of respawning enemies in Slate’s year-end Gaming Club round table3, which confabulation I know you did not care for at all.

You are, I think, a proceduralist, which I understand as video-game analysis that begins in structure and is most interested in the non-verbal ways games communicate. I guess I’d say I’m a narratologist, which is to say someone who is most interested in games as a storytelling medium. (I know that “narratologist” is not exactly a term on the bleeding edge of sophisticated video-game discourse these days, but, to quote a renowned celebrant of spinach eating, I am what I am.) I’d like to think I’m a qualified narratologist, though, in that I recognize that the ways games best tell stories has almost nothing to do with traditional narrative. So, when I write about video games, I’m usually trying to do two things. The first is to capture something of the quality of the game-playing experience itself. The second is express my personal, highly subjective response to an aspect or aspects of the game that held my attention, which may be story or mood or characters or a mechanic or, really, anything. I like thinking about procedure, but I’m not very knowledgeable about matters of formal game design, which makes me cautious to talk about it too much. (Plus, I’ve now heard too many developer acquaintances of mine complain about how so many civilians’ attempted critiques of game design stuff comes from a place of howling ignorance: criticizing “hit detection” without knowing what that really is, lambasting a game’s “enemy AI” and citing as examples stuff that’s not actually an AI issue, and so on.) That’s also what makes me value the merits of a procedural approach. It’s one I consistently learn and benefit from.

My approach, I have now gathered, is a problem for a lot of game academics. An academic critic of mine wrote the following in his highly negative review of Extra Lives: “Experiential writing and anecdotal evidence can be worthwhile additions to discussions of meaning. However, I remain unsure if either stands all that well on its own.”3.1 He went on to note his disapproval of my use of terms like “character,” “narrative” and “story,” which terms, he said, I throw about “in an irresponsible manner.” The basic complaint, as I take it, is: Who gives a shit about what one dude feels like when he plays video games? I get that critique. While I very much hope that my vigorous use of language and anecdote is proof enough that you should very much give a shit about how games make me feel, I realize that not every one’s going to follow me down that path.

What I don’t get is rejecting the entirety of the experiential approach to games. What I also don’t get: How academics can take words like “story” or “narrative” and turn them into little hand grenades so tremblingly unstable that they can only be lobbed by those rated to do so. As a fiction writer, I think I’ve earned the right to discuss story without outside citation. Intellectual rigorousness is not a footnote. Please know I’m no professor basher, and that “academic” is, to me, not necessarily a dirty word. For god’s sake, I’m an English professor myself. But I don’t want to cede an inch of ground when it comes to the value of experiential writing—and not only because I am, of course, chauvinistically certain that the people most opposed to experiential writing are those who are least able to do it well themselves.

Serious writing about games has hardly been around long enough to have developed factions. And yet it has. Why can’t I write about your side without obvious bitterness? And why can’t your side address my side without airily dismissing its goals? Or am I overstating things?

Yours,

TCB

1Simon Ferrari, “When A Bell Tolls

2Simon Ferrari, “Popping Smoke

3The 2010 Slate Gaming Club

3.1James Schirmer, Our Review: Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell

From: Simon Ferrari

To: Tom Bissell

Dear Tom,

I kind of expected this to happen. As you’ve noted, we disagree in many ways. But we don’t seem to disagree in the ways that you think we do. Most of my quarrels with how you write about games come from small asides that I fear you assume to be commonly held. You close with the claim that “serious writing about games” hasn’t been around all that long. What I’m about to do is going to come off as monumentally unfair; believe me when I say that it highlights a major ideological difference.

Serious writing about games is ridiculously old. Even by a conservative account, you’ll find numerous critiques and celebrations of play, sport, and games in Greece and China from the 4th century BCE and on. If you take the Chinese scholar gentleman as an early model of the contemporary academic, then the game of Go can be seen as one of history’s first PhD-level skills (along with calligraphy, painting, and music). Here’s a quote from Confucius (translated by David Hinton):

“All day eating and never thinking: such people are serious trouble. Aren’t there games to play, like go and chess?” (Analects, 17:21)

Doesn’t this sound much like something you’d hear from, say, Jane McGonigal today? And, okay, I’ll admit: he follows that with, “Even that is better than nothing.” Mencius was even more negative, citing a preoccupation with Go as one of the first major cases of what we’d now call “problem gaming.” You can see the same tension in European writings on Chess, immortalized in poems of chivalry and monastic missives. Some writers celebrated the game as an allegory for the battles between Heaven and Hell, with the white queen representing the Virgin Mary. Others denounced Chess along with simpler games of chance, citing their shared ability to inspire lethargy, preoccupation, greed, anger, and other vices (I highly recommend Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen to anyone interested in learning how single games can develop over the course of history).

Now, I’ll stop myself with the correction on everyone’s tongue: “But when Tom said ‘games,’ he was talking about videogames.” Here is a major difference between us. I hold that there are few formal differences between the design of analog games and digital games, while nevertheless recognizing that there are financial differences, cultural differences, differences in taste, and differences in apparatus—for instance, the encyclopedic and procedural properties of the computer allow for the storage and retrieval of complex game states; dynamic or realtime play; and the material, rather than conventional, execution of rules.

Many contemporary, non-academic writers on videogames see themselves in contradistinction to mainstream critics of videogames. Videogame bloggers, for instance, may seek to correct what they justifiably view as the shortcomings, misunderstandings, factual errors, or economic fealties perpetrated by major players in gaming’s enthusiast press. But as an academic, I write in continuity with the history of game studies in the fields of social theory, media studies, design, philosophy of sport, and aesthetics.

Something that troubles me is that you, as a professor, would assume that game academics are all of a kind. The negative review of Extra Lives that you cite was written by a Professor of English, with a background in education, rhetoric, and creative writing—a number of specializations that you both share. But I don’t claim any of those fields of expertise. As an interdisciplinary field, game studies takes all kinds.

Early in your first letter, you alluded to the former quarrel in game studies between the so-called “ludologists” (those who study videogames as games before all else) and “narratologists.” In fact, the argument by ludologists wasn’t against the dual study of games and narrative (narratology) as such, but against what they saw as the colonizing influence of “narrativists” (people who think that all media are storytelling media first and foremost). A common complaint by many ludologists, who had a background in the study of literature, was that the narrativists clutched to naïve, Victorian or early modern conceptions of narrative.

I share this basic criticism—because it is far too often that I see people apply ideas of authorial intention, auteur “theory,” and singular artistic vision to works created by a multitude of skilled designers, engineers, visual artists, and project managers (which is to say, most videogames).

Those who recommended my writing to you are the same people who recommended yours to me. We both participate in a complex ecology of writing about games that, as you’ve pointed out, is in no way monolithic. And many people who care about taking games seriously find reason to read us both, rather than shutting one out to focus exclusively on the other. This makes me happy beyond words, because I want to make it quite clear that I don’t hold any grudge against experiential writing of the kind you practice.

When I began studying game design and criticism, one of the first texts I read was a foundational work in experiential videogame writing: alwaysblack’s “Bow, Nigger.”4 Maybe it biased me toward preferring the style applied to multiplayer games, which seem to me more likely to produce unique experiences worth sharing. Precious few writers know enough about descriptive writing to make an experiential account of a singleplayer experience in any way exciting to me (obviously you’re among them). That’s why I stay away from it. My own few attempts at “new games journalism” were a profound embarrassment, to say the least.

What I’d like to know is what writing tradition you see yourself as taking part in or coming from. Do you think that videogames are substantially formally different from analog games? And what are these narrative structures or storytelling methods that you identify as “non-traditional,” that you think games can or do embody?

Yours,

Simon

4alwaysblack, “Bow, Nigger

From: Tom Bissell

To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

First, I will say in my defense that I do not assume and have never assumed that all academics who study games are the same. And I will try not to use our conversation again as an occasion to publicly lick a small wound. I should probably confess that, reading your response, I realize I may have projected onto you (the generic, academic You) a lot of the anxiety I feel as a fiction writer. I am someone who spends a lot of time trying to create literature. And six times out of ten, when I meet someone who teaches literature at a university level, I feel real sorrow that we have almost nothing to say to each other about literature; the parallax doesn’t align because the difference in perspective is just too severe. I have artist friends—painters, filmmakers—who say the same thing about their experience with academics involved in their mediums. This is to discount the legions of practicing artists who are also academics, yes, but, as I said, it happens often enough to suggest that it’s not merely a canard. So that part of my earlier letter is colored by another realm of personal frustration that has nothing to do with games.

Now, as to games qua games. Yes, when I said “serious writing about games” I meant “serious writing about video games.” Here we are probably at a real impasse. Not that I don’t respect your interpretation of video games falling squarely into the wider tradition of games, because obviously they do. But that is, to me, one of the aspects of games I’m least interested in. Not because it’s not objectively interesting but rather it’s not what appeals to me about games and not what captures my interest.

I do feel that video games are different from analog games—at least for me they are. For one thing, my experiences playing, say, Risk or Axis and Allies do not flicker in my consciousness long after the pieces are back in the box. It’s the intellectual and emotional potency of the video game experience that most separates them from my experiences playing analog games. The moment I most love in playing a video game is the moment in which I don’t feel bound their many rules and proscriptions, where I feel the illusion of having escaped the game in some strange way, the same way I forget that I’m looking a words composed in some eighteenth-century font when I’m reading a novel. Video games are, for me, qualitatively but not quantitatively games, the same way, I guess, that fiction is qualitatively but not quantitatively language.

Let’s get to the interesting part, and maybe the terrifying part, because to be perfectly honest I have no idea what tradition my writing about video games falls into. One of the reasons I started writing about games was that I wasn’t finding the kind of stuff I wanted to read. My models in writing about games are, for the most part, not writers who write about games at all; in fact, they’re the same models I have for everything else that I write. (In my more megamaniacal moments, I confess to aspiring to be the James Wood or Randall Jarrell of video games—and before you say anything, yeah, I know: good luck.) I admit to liking the Kieron Gillen idea of video game writing as a kind of travel writing5, but I also see the dangers and limitations of that approach. For one thing, I’ve become way, way too interested in how video game experiences are designed to regard the Travel Writing Model as any kind of answer. I do, however, like to write about how games cross over into affecting, enriching, or profoundly messing with one’s life outside of game-playing. I guess I’d hold up my Grand Theft Auto essay6 as an example of me doing that as best as I can.

As for how game narratives differ from the kinds of narratives we’ve become accustomed to, well, a recent game-writing gig required me to investigate how open-world games go about arranging and designing a quest structure. I needed to learn how to create a somewhat sequential but mostly open narrative able to accommodate a large number of micro- and macro player decisions. There’s not really a queststructure.com you can go to, and most game companies protect their narrative material pretty fiercely, so in the end I wound up downloading a bunch of gamer-created PDFs that mapped out the mission structure of GTA IV, RDR, and Oblivion, after which I studied them for a few days. I had a bunch of questions. How many story missions can you have running at the same time? (The answer seems to be three.) How long can you can abandon one thread before coming back to it with a mission unlock later in the game? How do you, as the author figure, deal with the player-determined termination of certain narrative threads? How do you create a narrative space that is thematically coherent, interestingly varied, consistently surprising, but also open-feeling?

As a fiction writer used to, I guess, analog literary experiences, the experience of working some of this stuff out revitalized my faith in what makes video games—at least, those that attempt to tell stories—so interesting and exciting. And nothing about it seemed to me ludological at all. It seemed, and seems, like an entirely new way for the storyteller to think about storytelling. Now that I’m writing this out it doesn’t seem so profound, but within the experience itself, it was hair-raising.

I’ve gone on too long. So I’ll ask you a question: Does video game storytelling interest you at all? If so, how?

Yrs,

TCB

5Kieron Gillen, “The New Games Journalism

6Tom Bissell, “Grand Thefts

From: Simon Ferrari

To: Tom Bissell

Tom,

The short answer is, “No, I do not care about videogame storytelling.”

The longer answer begins with an anecdote (I’m aware that I’m telling a story to explain why I don’t like stories… bear with me). Charles Pratt, a game designer and lecturer at NYU, begins his courses by asking his students why they want to study game design. A solid majority reply that they’re interested in videogames’ “storytelling potential.” But when they later begin writing and talking in class about the games that they obsess over, that factor heavily into their daily lives, it turns out that they mostly play (for lack of a better word) “gamey” games: Halo, Madden, or Texas Hold’em. What causes this discrepancy?

One answer could be that for some reason they’re truly, deeply dissatisfied with their play experiences, and they think that better storytelling might be the way out. Another answer, the one favored by Charles and myself, is that this invoking of storytelling potential may be nothing more than a conditioned response. Throughout the course of our compulsory education, we’re taught that the study of storytelling is a worthy pursuit of scholars and artists. So when these students have to tell their friends, family members, or partners that they’re studying games, they drop this word that they know everyone can relate to and respect: “storytelling.”

Some prominent games designers, including Eric Zimmerman, argue that we’re now entering into a “ludic century.” By this they simply mean that game play and design will be the foremost cultural and artistic practices of the coming years—they don’t exclude narrative-heavy games from this zeitgeist. But it’s my contention that games are systems of rules and artificial spaces before they’re stories. And if we want to foster creativity, depth, and breadth in the design of future games, then we need to begin by teaching the reading, writing, and critique of rule systems at an early age. Ian Bogost calls this “procedural literacy,”7 which is distinct from but related to computational literacy (the ability to program).

This doesn’t mean that I think we should stop teaching literature classes in early education, but I, for one, am more than a little disgruntled that I was required to take so many without any opportunity to study film, television, or games instead. One of the reasons that many of us are so enthralled by visual and procedural (game-based) rhetorics is that few have been taught how to analyze them.

A more subjective answer to your question is that I tend to ignore videogame stories in order to maintain my sanity—I find almost all of them terrible in every conceivable way. Then there’s the simple fact that, in any given week, I get to see a lot more “game” if I skip through cutscenes and text bubbles. I’ll admit that I still count Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, two obviously story-heavy JRPGs from the SNES era, among my favorite videogames. But I haven’t played those two videogames in a long time, because I know that returning to them now would only replace my nostalgic idealization of their stories with a number of depressing realities about their narrative shortcomings.

Since you shared your recent experience in narrative design for a videogame studio, I feel compelled to tell you what scares me about some videogame writers (while hoping you will tell me that you’re different).

A couple of years ago I attended a small game development conference in Georgia. One of the keynote speakers was a prominent member of the IGDA Writer’s SIG. This guy stands in front of a crowd of BFA game development students (focusing on level design, game design, 3D modeling, texturing, and sound design) and tells them that, when they enter the industry sometime soon, he’d like them to push for the recognition of a game’s writer as its creative lead. He told them that the best way for good games to get made would be for them to accept that they were all crafting a tiny part of a writer’s vision. In his ideal studio, the writer would oversee each department to make sure every aspect of his storyworld was being built according to his specifications.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full of anger than I was that day. It marked a decisive moment for me. I realized that, no matter how much I wanted storytelling in games to improve, I was going to have to fight against writers who think that their authorial dictatorship is the only way to create a compelling, cohesive play experience.

Do I think that writers should be treated as equals in a game studio, not to be brought in near the end of a development cycle to apply a thin veneer of story as best they can? Certainly. But doing this at the cost of relinquishing or minimizing the medium’s unique ability to create meaning, emotion, and ideas through interaction and rules alone? Never.

How do we get around a problem as large as this one?

Yours,

Simon

7Ian Bogost, “Procedural Literacy

From: Tom Bissell

To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

Agreement! The idea of a writer being a creative lead on a video game project is just about the most misguided thing I can imagine. Video games are even less of a writer’s medium than film.  Anyone intent on telling a story as a writer first and foremost should not turn to the video-game medium as the cart in which to place their cargo. There’s simply too much in the way, too many other people of equal or greater implementational importance. I am wracking my brain, here, trying to think of a medium more ill-suited to the writer-auteur model than video games. Interpretive dance, possibly, or skiffle-band balladry. And that’s about it.

The little game stuff I’ve done, I’ve done in 100-percent mercenary mode, my lone goal being fulfilling the vision of the game’s creative director and doing the best I can with what I’ve been given or asked to do. I think most people who write for video games would agree with me on all this—and had I been at that lecture, I would have angry right along with you.

Anyone of the belief that games will better establish themselves artistically primarily through “better” storytelling is, I have no doubt, absolutely wrong. It’s not going to work that way, because it can’t work that way. My god is storytelling, but within this medium it’s a false idol before the Yahweh of rule systems. We agree there too. That doesn’t mean video-game stories have to be insultingly awful, or that accepting their awfulness is some kind of enlightenment.

Yet I’m not looking for games that are more, let us say, “literary.” I honestly hope, in other words, I’m not embodying any of these “Storytelling: fuck yeah!” conditioned responses you—quite accurately, I think—diagnosed. In fact, many of the narrative games I’ve most enjoyed have largely suppressed their storytelling or relegated it to primarily mechanical or environmental expression. However, if you’re going to create a game with with the plot-driven, character-enriched narrative trappings of a novel or film, you should aim for a storytelling experience that does not embody the worst failures of the worst genre fiction.

There is such a thing as good video-game storytelling. Yes, we’ve seen it infrequently, but we’ve definitely seen it. Most video game stories are junk—I agree there, too—and I love a whole bunch of games with junk stories, especially those that bring to the table some other element with which to engage. Two recent examples would be Vanquish and Just Cause 2. But a few games have figured out how to helixically entwine gameplay and storytelling (Portal, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2) to create first-rate fictional experiences that feel more like stories to me than games, even though they are manifestly games. Those games are my personal hope and ambition, but I don’t blame anyone for locating their hope and ambition elsewhere, in other kinds of games.

In the hopes of getting everyone drooling, I can say I’m involved in a game project that will incorporate storytelling elements in a way few have tried before, and, maybe, it will bring into a video game a kind of storytelling weight we typically associate with film or fiction but without any sacrifice in mechanics or rule systems. I think it’s going to be astounding. You’ll probably hear more about it at GDC. You’ll know what I’m talking about, I suspect, the moment you hear about it. I can’t decide if it’s a game you’ll love or hate, but I can promise that it might well prove to one of the defining—and possibly divisive—games of this generation.

Ludically,

TCB

From: Simon Ferrari

To: Tom Bissell

Dear Tom,

You put me in an awkward position, ending on such a conciliatory note. What’s the proper way to return this kindness? Do I step back from some of the things I said about storytelling, admitting that I’ve been somewhat boorish? Maybe I should trade information on my current side projects? Or is the only way out a descent into the murky depths of a closing rant?

I’ll admit that this game project of yours has me excited. But it highlights, in its own way, something that troubles me about the practice of writing about videogames. As both a profession and a hobby, it suffers from extreme brain drain. It seems that, whenever somebody finally figures out how to build an audience and begin making a decent living writing about videogames, a career change is imminent. Every couple of months sees another important writer taking a position in community management, or PR, or contract consulting.

I don’t deride the worth of those professions, or begrudge the desires of the writers in question to seek value and financial stability, but it saddens me nonetheless. And I’m not assuming that, as you take on more jobs writing videogames, you’ll stop writing as much or as well about them. I suppose that I’m just generally bummed at not being able to recall anyone (outside the academy) other than Bill Kunkel who’s been at it for longer than twenty years.

Like I said, I’m not frustrated with the writers themselves. I despair, somewhat pitifully, at the economic realities and consumer spending habits that have shaped the situation. I don’t want to live in a world where a videogame critic’s highest aspiration is to finally land a job doing something other than writing about videogames. There are definitely a few publications trying to work against this current, but only time will tell whether they’ll prove economically sustainable or not. Quality writing about games needs the support of readers and game creators.

This leads me to a second point, drawing from a few of your comments earlier in our conversation. You noted how disappointed you were that you often have little to say to the people who study literature. And you also mentioned a few times the dissatisfaction that many videogame developers have with the writing of videogame critics. You’re invoking, in your way, the age-old divide between theory and praxis.

As someone who’s studied both design and how to write about design, I often encounter friends in the industry who don’t quite understand what the value of writing about games might be if it isn’t useful in some way to those who make them. Some would rather hear easy praise than constructive criticism. Or there’s the dangerous attitude that I can’t or shouldn’t criticize something that I myself couldn’t make. They want to be taken seriously as artists, yet they chafe against the increased scrutiny that comes along with being taken seriously. Most of all, they can’t comprehend why I’d rather write about the things than make them myself.

I’ll admit that I enjoy seeing my words used by designers to describe their own work. There’s certainly a pleasure in knowing that I’ve caught, in some way, their intentions or expressive goals beneath my pen. But, even though I write about design, I don’t write for game designers per se. Any good critic, and thus any good game critic, should hope for nothing more than to be as true as possible to his or her own opinion, caring nothing for whether this opinion can be used or appreciated by anyone else. When I write, I only try to be less wrong than I was the last time I wrote. Artists don’t hold, in their hands and minds, the sole measure of the value of art—theirs or anyone else’s.

I think that, even if you don’t always know what to say to critics of literature (especially to critics of your own work), there’s something in what I’m saying with which you’ll agree.

Tom, I wish you the best on your current and future endeavors. I’ll definitely let you know whether this game you’re working on is worth any kind of damn or whether you should keep your day job (please, please keep your day job just a little bit). Many thanks to Kirk and Paste for giving us the opportunity to air our differences and find some common ground.

Anecdotally,

Simon

Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including God Lives in St. Petersburg, a short story collection; The Father of All Things, a hybrid work of history and memoir about the war in Vietnam; and Extra Lives: Why Video Games MatterHis work appears frequently in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker, among other magazines, and has won several awards, including the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches writing at Portland State University.

Simon Ferrari is a doctoral student in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Along with Ian Bogost and Bobby Schweizer, he is the co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010), a book about the journalistic applications of videogame design. Simon has worked as a research assistant on the Journalism and Games project studio for two years now, serving as an editor for the project blog; . The studio’s current project, funded by the Knight Foundation, is “Cartoonist”: a game development tool that will allow journalists with no prior game development experience to rapidly produce short, arcade-style videogames to accompany their articles. Simon also writes as a freelance game critic for publications such as Kill Screen Magazine.

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