Understanding Video Games text-book
Understanding the educational potential of commercial computer games through activity and narratives

Date posted: November 15, 2006

By Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen (sen@game-research.com)

This article presents some thoughts on educational use of computer games focusing on why we should look to socalled process-oriented games rather than games that relies more directly on narratives for providing the game experience. One may start by asking where the infatuation with computer games for education stem from? Is it just a passing phenomenon so well known from other new media emerging or does it have more holding power? Educational researchers have embraced radio, television, computers, and computer games for their ability to engage and motivate students (Calvert, 1999; Prensky, 2001). The idea of using computer games for education is not just a concept forged by educators and hopeful game researchers but is also found in game designers description of the most basic incitements for playing computer games. In the words of game designer Chris Crawford (1982) “The fundamental motivation for all game-playing is to learn”. Apparently a very basic premise for playing computer games is to engage with an unknown universe, and slowly find ways to surmount seemingly impossible barriers.
For a computer game to work the player on a very basic level need to learn. Computer games may have different tolerance levels for bad learners but in all games you need to learn to advance. This makes computer games quite different from other media as the responsibility for the game activity and progress lies with the player. The role of the player have important ramifications for learning through computer games as it presents an alternative to the distanced, abstract, and representational form in other media. When computer games work best they give an internal understanding of a given system by embedding the player in the game universe (Gee, 2003). The player will not only be presented with text, pictures, sounds, and explanations but will have to act on these connecting them meaningfully to the actions performed. The player cannot abstain from constructing a meaningful response to what happens in the game, as this will in effect bring the game to a stop (although this may just mean a restart) (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2003a).
The learning in computer games may take very different forms in the action game Space Invaders you improve your ability to react swiftly with utmost precision shooting down those damn aliens. In adventure games like Leisure Suit Larry you are forced to constantly acquire new knowledge, solve puzzles to advance, and understand the mindset of the avatar Larry. If you fail to get a clue or figure something out, you are stuck. The game will come to a halt. The demand for actions and making the play situation meaningful by connecting the different output is closely related to everyday learning experience.
This paper will argue that the structure found in computer games are more similar that other media to our everyday life, and how we learn from everyday situations. Computer games may therefore be a way to cross the border between an educational setting and an everyday setting that have notoriously been a hard nut to crack for educators. With other words making sure education is accessible outside the setting, where the learning experience takes place. Narratives will play a central role to understand how we can engage with everyday situations. Narratives can potentially play a central role in computer games facilitating learning .
On the above background it doesn’t make much sense to treat learning in computer games from a narrow perspective, where learning is perceived as occurring only in computer games specifically constructed for educational purposes or other specific genres. This is also in line with James Paul Gee’s (2003) argumentation concerning learning in computer games. I furthermore find that all computer games possess a potential for educational use, with some more explicitly catering for the instructive dimension. Of course, depending on your educational goals some computer games may be more or less appropriate for education. However, whether a computer games is considered educational or not is more than anything a question of perspective. The decision as to what is educational primarily rest on what knowledge, skills, and attitudes we as a society find relevant to nurture.

The focus on simulation games in educational game research
Some educators have intuitively identified some computer games more worthy of pursuit than others for educational purposes, often after growing weary of traditional edutainment titles relying mostly on drill-and-practice learning principles. It has almost become a mantra for people talking about computer games and their educational potential to bring forward SimCity, a second after Simcity has been mentioned other familiar titles will emerge like Civilization, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Railroad Tycoon. However it seems that SimCity is the game when it comes to having a metaphor for education through computer games. The other titles are not too different from SimCity but can be described as process-oriented computer games. The genre process-oriented somewhat overlap with what is called simulation and strategy games but are more explicitly open-ended in the sense that you don’t have to complete specific goals. I will in the following elaborate on what I mean by process-oriented by looking at the characteristics of SimCity. By this I do not mean to state that SimCity should be our preferred genre for educational use of computer games however it is a suitable starting point especially for the educational perspective I will bring forth.
SimCity has been accentuated as a significant example for teaching about societal dynamics, urban space, and city planning through experimentation with building and running a virtual city (Adams, 1998; Betz, 1996; Miklaucic, 2001; Prensky, 2001; Squire, 2002; McFarlane, Sparrowhawk & Heald, 2002; Kuntz, 1999). The gameplay seems to lend itself to educational purposes in respect to the game’s content, and there exist a potential for establishing an environment of social interaction around the game. In this social environment it becomes possible to discuss experiences in the game, challenge the underlying model, and the different outcomes of students’ actions. The social-cultural environment surrounding playing a computer game should not be neglected as important for facilitating the learning experience, however in this paper it will be somewhat in the background.
It is interesting that SimCity is quite an unusual computer game. First of all nobody expected SimCity to become a success – some even question if it qualifies as a computer game. Mainly the objections are connected with the lack of explicit goals in the game: how and when did you win. Will Wright, the designer of SimCity, has since become well known for his design style that he characterises with the following lines:

Instead, we give them [the player] a rich environment with goals embedded in it […] I’m interested in rewarding imagination: letting them leverage creativity to build an interesting external artifact of their imagination. (Brown, 2002) .

It is not the lack of goals that are central but rather the possibility to create a more open game universe: The goals are set by the player but are still a part of the game context. Especially the last part is quite interesting from an educational perspective, where Wright specifically label a large part of the game process, as the player’s building of external artifacts of their imagination. From his perspective it seems that computer games are not well defined and finite for the player but instead serves as a mental construction set. The player can interact and construct a game session, where the player’s own prior knowledge and the game artefacts are combined. It is less important what the result is as long as you have fun with exploring the different potentials for building a city. Of course you will still be disappointed if a neighbourhood falls flat but still the game experience is primarily the process of building the city. The outcome of your game actions primarily serves to inform future processes and ultimately as an indicator that you have internalised the game’s model of urban planning.
The success of SimCity points to the factors in games that educators and researchers find interesting properties for educational purposes. The general idea seems to be that games for educational use should be open-ended, creative, process oriented, dynamic, complex, and toy-like. This also implies that a lot of game titles would not be suited for educators’ purposes. There are for example few similarities between SimCity and the so-called edutainment titles, which is the current label for computer games specifically targeted at education. There is common agreement that edutainment has not fulfilled the potential of computer games for education (Van Deventer, 1997; Brody, 1993; Leyland, 1996), so it seems obvious to instead distil some characteristics from a commercial computer games, SimCity. A problem is that if we take the properties of SimCity as necessary elements in educational usage of computer game we limit the scope of games for education and favour process-oriented games. This is hardly in line with my starting point, where I saw all computer games as learning experiences and potential educational. Towards the end of the paper I will try to extend the focus to other genres to avoid this trap.
Closely connected with process oriented computer games is a research preference for simulations and experiential learning. The simulation genre is one of the most researched genres when we look at traditional games and education. Simulations entered education in the 1960’s but are far from the only genre in the modern age of computer games (Duke & Seidner, 1975; Dempsey et.al, 1993). The simulation genre lends itself well to the underlying learning paradigm in the game research community, namely experiential teaching (Gentry, 1990). In line with experiential learning theory simulations make it possible to perform actions in a virtual setting resembling the real actions as closely as possible. We should however be careful not to perceive the ideas of experiential learning to literally, and we should not make experiential learning the only theory. We should also be aware that when we choose experiential learning as a starting point it points in the direction of simulations.

A few words on educational theory
The focus of this paper will not be traditional educational theory as I will focus on the role narratives play in understanding the actions we perform. In that sense narratives are the central tool for learning as they frame and reflect our practice. Still, it might be worth introducing a few theories and concepts used throughout this paper. I use learning to refer to all activities and contexts we engage in, where we change or support our patterns of action (Bateson, 1972). This is as broad a perception of learning as they come, and a tighter focus is appropriate. Drawing on Bloom’s et al. (1956) I differentiate between knowledge, attitudes, and skills concentrating on the knowledge aspect of learning. Knowledge can take different forms including memorization, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. Memorization is the most basic form whereas synthesis and evaluation is the most complex. The higher levels of knowledge are built on the lower levels. With the term education I refer to a more controlled process, where we engage in an activity with the purpose of learning specific things.
The landscape of educational theory is rich but I primarily use the experiential approach represented by John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, and David Kolb as their focus on connecting concrete experiences with abstract representation and thinking is most suitable for my purpose. In an experiential perspective it is not enough to simply hear or read some information, we have to engage with them, and connect it with our existing knowledge and concepts. They also stress education’s roots in everyday learning and try to find ways to cross the border between school and everyday life. It is also a common trait in the experiential tradition to stress the learner’s existing knowledge. The challenge is to expand on the existing concepts learners have about a given area, and constantly relate the learning to the learner’s everyday life. The everyday life is where the existing knowledge has been constructed, and for the new knowledge to take root it has to connect with the everyday experiences (Kolb, 1984; Dewey, 1938; Vygotsky, 1978; Bruner, 1990).
It is also worth shortly mentioning Vygotsky’s theory on zone on proximale development as it is central to how I understand the learning experience. The zone of proximale of development describes the difference between a learner’s current competence and the potential competence that can be achieved under the right circumstances. These circumstances are facilitated through different forms of mediators for example language, teachers, and peers. Computer games could be one mediator but it will often not be enough. Wertsch (1991) stress that tools will stress different aspects of a relevant area, and computer games are in that sense not different than books, television, teachers, parents, or peers. Language is the primary mean for a tool to reach the learner, and this sets certain limits. Some tools are capable of supplementing the learning experience with other forms of modalities (Jewitt, 2003; Wertsch, 1991).
It is critical to understand why some tools are more appropriate for learning. This is partly because the zone of proximale of development works, there is a fitting distance between actual and potential zone. Constructing this zone should be understood through narratives which is the way a learner constructs a concrete instance of a situation. I will expand a bit on the role of narratives in the following.

A different kind of narratives
When Henry Jenkins (2002) in his paper Game Design as Narrative Architecture, points to the obvious problems of applying film theory to computer games, the flexibility of the game universe is one of the key points. He states that he wants to formulate a position “examining games less as stories than as spaces ripe with narrative possibility” (Jenkins, 2002:2). A computer game supports different interpretations and routes. Jenkins is trying to follow in the footsteps of legendary game designers like Will Wright and Sid Meier. The game is not characterized by linearity, like other media, but Jenkins stresses that this doesn’t mean, that the narrative potential is all lost. He advocates for diversity in the genres, the aesthetics and the use of narrative in games. Narratives should have different roles, and be allowed to have different expressions in computer games. On this note I will try to outline a somewhat different understanding of narratives in computer games drawing on Jerome Bruner and Marie-Laure Ryan. The aim is to be able to capture the characteristics in process oriented computer games described earlier, and ultimately expand it to other game genres ultimately linking it to educational potential of computer games.
In her transmedial definition Marie-Laure Ryan (2004) identifies three properties of a narrative script, which are necessary for a narrative script to function:

1. A narrative has a world with characters and objects.
2. The world must change either as a consequences of user actions or events.
3. It must be possible for the user to ‘speculate’ around the events hereby creating a plot.

In the three points above Ryan focuses on the narrative structure. Ryan’s definition has the advantage of making it possible to distinguish between levels of narrativity in games, which will prove quite useful, when we discuss narratives across computer game genres, and later turn to the role of narratives in educational use of computer games. The three levels of narrativity can be thought of as properties describing a computer games from a continuum reaching from “possessing narrativity” to “being a narrative”. Marie-Laure Ryan (2004) proposes this distinction and sees being a narrative as attributable to the text (game itself), however in order to posses narrative quality the text must be able to evoke the narrative script in the user through immersion, agency, and transformation . So even though a game can be a narrative it doesn’t necessarily posses narrativity in the sense that the player is able to construct a meaningful narrative out of the game universe and its affordances. For example the game Mario Brother’s has a world with characters, object, and these changes as a consequence of a player’s actions, or by a random pattern, however the game do not necessarily posses narrative qualities from the players view. It is possible to speculate around the events of the plumber, killing monsters, getting closer to freeing the princess in the end, but the players only engage in this behaviour to a limited degree, and it is not the primary dynamic of the game.
We can observe that games are often set in a game universe with some resemblances to the real world (especially what I have defined as process-oriented games), and the player’s actions are fundamental for the game experience to progress. Excluding very abstract computer games like Tetris, and Pong, games often have objects, obstacles, and characters, which are interconnected, and change during the game as a consequences of the player’s action. It is possible to speculate around the game events but in a lot of games, it doesn’t really make sense. The meaning attributable to the narrative is so insignificant that it doesn’t qualify as a narrative, in the player’s interaction with the game. This is primarily because the player’s actions are not meaningful in relation to the game’s narrative. It does not make sense to connect, the plumber on a rescue mission for his loved one, with head butting little boxes to gain points. Even though the narrative is potentially there, and the objects, characters and events are interrelated, it is not deep and relevant enough to engage the player meaningfully.
The distinction between being a narrative, and possessing narrativity, is important because it points to a common misunderstanding, when thinking about the educational potential of computer games. Even though a computer game may as a text contain elements relevant to any curriculum they may not be central to the playing experience. A player of Age of Mythology may superficially recognize the Greek mythology used in the game however the mythology is of little relevance to the concrete playing, and will therefore not really form the playing experience, and therefore also only to a limited degree facilitated a learning experience about Greek mythology. In Age of Mythology the Greek mythology narrative will be quite weak for most players because the distance between the gameplay (activity) and narrative is quite abstract. Indeed Age of Mythology could have taken place during the American Civil War or Second World War. This doesn’t mean that Age of Mythology cannot learn some player under some circumstances about Greek Mythology however it depends more on the players existing affordances and active construction than the computer game. A player with prior interest in Age of Mythology will appreciate the names, narratives, and objects hereby reinforcing knowledge about Greek mythology. What is quite certain is that all players will learn to perform the activities necessary to play the computer game. This illustrates the problem when using narratives in computer games compared to rules. The rules are finite, logical, and can formally be described. This is hardly the case for the narrative experiences which rest very much on the player’s interpretation (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2003). This also results in the narrative components being supplementary rather than core to the game experience. You can’t control the progress through the game by counting on the player’s precise interpretation of the elements that make up a narrative. There have been made different attempts to solve this problem with the quest structure as the most solid (Tosca, 2003). Still, even the quest structure only works because you identify central narrative elements for the player to acknowledge, which often become quite simplified – resembling rules.
The strength of narratives also becomes its weakness in an educational perspective. Narratives rely on the player’s subjective interpretation which opens up for new player experiences and a more elaborate game universe, but also leave the actual learning outcome more at the mercy of the player’s approach to the game. We can further explore the potential of process-oriented games by looking closer at the limitations of relying on narratives in educational use of computer games.

The relation between narrative, language and mental images
Marie-Laure Ryan (2004) states that she finds that language is one of the best carriers of narrative but that narrative is not a linguistic phenomenon but rather a cognitive phenomenon, where we construct a mental image of the experience we participate in. Taking this further, the mental image comes before the narrative. We construct a mental image of the activity we are engaged in and only when we reflect over it, under special circumstances, do we turn it into a narrative. In this way narratives become a way to understand and handle the world by making it meaningful.
If we turn to the psychologist Jerome Bruner (1990: 67-99) the importance of seeing narrative as something very fundamental becomes clear. According to Bruner, language is learned through praxis, which he calls an everyday drama: narratives without a narrator. Bruner sees the first drive for acquisition of language as a way to control these everyday narratives, and frame them according to ones own goals and pleasures. Therefore, it is not strange that to understand and communicate narratives the natural medium is language, which originally is a way to master our everyday life, and frame it to our benefit, by using narratives. However it is also very clear that the experience of a narrative is not related to language per se. It doesn’t really make sense to call our everyday experiences for a narrative, even though they resemble them. Our everyday experience is life but when we talk about them and construct the experience it happens through language manipulation. They become narratives. To make events manageable we narrate them, and put perspective on.
Therefore the experience of agency a player has is not to be seen as a narrative but rather the other way around. The player venturing into a game, experiencing things, and dealing with these, is participating in virtual life. Like life itself it can with different degrees of relevance and success be transformed into a narrative. But, just like life, the game is not a narrative as such although it as life may have narrative potential (Remember Ryan’s distinction between being a narrative and possessing narrative). An experience is not necessarily attached significant and constructed as part of the narratives a person ‘carries’ around.
Drawing on Bruner (1990) the narrating process is often activated when it violates canonical narratives. Although life in action is not a narrative we still constantly live and navigate in and through narratives. Everyday life is framed within a social praxis that consists of canonical narratives, but these are not explicit in our everyday life, rather background noise. When the background noise comes too much out of tune with our life (narratives are violated), we search for ways to make these deviances meaningful. The language becomes a tool for the narrative process.
This implies that narratives are problematic as the very building blocks for educational experiences. Rather, the narratives can serve as ordering tool for the concrete experiences we have in real-life, or in the process-oriented games. Here lies the strength of process-oriented games – they provide the building blocks not just the finished narratives of other media, that can be very hard for many players to relate to (depending on initial knowledge and hooks for understanding the narrative)
With this theoretical framework it is important to maintain what constitutes the activity in games – what is the actions you perform. These actions are not the background story in Age of Mythology, the description of wonders in Civilization, the scenario description in Medal of Honour, or the aesthetic expression in SimCity with still more beautiful buildings. In these games it is the actions of moving armies, clicking to attack and making the right buildings – these will be strong elements for an educational experience, and secondarily the overall narrative that are of course also a part of these games. Often, these narratives are, however, quite simple and relies on recognition from the player rather than brining new knowledge as Sid Meier have revealed (Brake, 2002). The narratives are presented through language, which is a tool of manipulating basic building blocks rather than actual learning new blocks. This doesn’t imply that language is not a very capable tool for learning, but it requires that you have the necessary buildings blocks to form.
The game universe in process-oriented games is not build through language but through a wide range of means like genre awareness, kinetic activity, spatial, and audiovisual dynamics. Language plays a smaller role, and is usually not necessary to come to terms with, what is going on in the game, by creating a narrative. At least not until someone ask you, and you thereby reflect on your practice. It can also occur when you have to make sense of a specific conflict or problem in the game for example objects, characters or events that deviate from traditional genres, narratives or gameplay.
The point I want to stress is that we should not be fooled into believing that games are necessarily better off by drawing more heavily on abstract representation (language), which seems to be he case in some circles, where adventure games with a strong narrative component is preferred (Cavallari et al., 1992). Process-oriented games have other means and effects for facilitating educational experience. Games are closer to our everyday activities than to other media types, and we should not build on top of classic media theory. Instead you will have to move closer to theories of everyday life, to understand, what goes on in computer games.

Characteristics of games in a learning context from a narrative perspective
Narratives in a classic sense are not the main attraction of computer games, and in line with the thoughts not usually a part of the playing a game (excluding adventure games) In most computer games the dynamics comes from playing with life in a social praxis with another frame than everyday life. Just like everyday life happens within an overall narrative (Bruner, 1990), so does games but without taking on immediate consequences to our everyday life. The narrative is framing the perception.
From a learning perspective this is quite interesting, as this is actually close to the very definition of a learning environment. It is a place where we can experiment and gain important experiences and knowledge, without too much risk (Dewey, 1938). It has long been argued that games are well suited for offering the opportunity to practice and experience different areas without the consequences of real life (Boocock, 1968). The main question is how strong the relation between the digital learning environment and everyday life is.
Adventure computer games are a popular way to create a digital learning environment through games although the evidence on the learning outcome and the correct teaching application is limited (Cavallari et al., 1992). In a study by Oluf Danielsen, Birgitte Ravn Olesen & Birgitte Holm Sørensen (2002) a school class plays an environmental adventure game, and experience different events, thereby forcing them to think about environmental issues. What is interesting in their research project is that the degree of success is measured through test questions on environment, and it supports the researchers in their conclusion that learning do occur. The environmental information are presented through language, and tested through language. However this does not mean that the children change their everyday practice, in this study the researchers found this to be unlikely . With the exception of the few homes, where the children parallel with the computer game playing in school, engaged in environmental relevant behaviour. When the children at home engaged in environmental issues it became possible for the players to cross the border between the narratives constructed through language by playing the game, and their everyday activities. Adventure games are quite traditional and close to the written media in their learning process, using language as the primary requisite . Therefore it also makes sense to talk about a narrative to a certain degree although it is rather clumsy implemented in this particular environment game. However the adventure game rest heavily on traditional learning theory, where we acquire information and then learn about them. We read or hear information, and then learn them (Bandura, xxx).
In opposition to this learning theory I will point to experiential learning represented by John Dewey (1938) and David Kolb (1984), which stress then importance of ‘Learning by Doing’. In their perspective it is not enough to simply hear or read some information, we have to engage with them, and connect it with our existing knowledge and concept.
A better example of a learning game, which lends itself more to experiential learning perspective is Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus presented by Debra A. Lieberman (2001), which is within the action genre, in the sub genre called platforms games. You control Bronkie, a little dragon that must fight the bad Tyrannosaurus Rex to assemble a wind machine to clean the air. During the game you must fight evil dinosaurs, and engage in proper asthma management to win the game. The story has minor significance except setting the scene, and is quickly forgotten, when you jump over enemies and avoid obstacles that will deteriorate your asthma, trying to make it to the next level. In the game a lot of necessary asthma management tools are embedded in the game universes and the activities you perform. The use of language is limited to a few multiple-choice questions between levels. The pre- and post-test are not done through language, but is rather observed directly in the children’s everyday life, where the game leads to significant improvement. These improvements were for example observed in communication about asthma with peers, clinical staff and parents. In another similar game called Packy & Marlon the same guidelines were used for helping children to improve their management of diabetes’s. Here, in addition to improved communication, a post-test showed a 77-percent drop in visits to urgent care and medical visits (Lieberman, 2001).
In best case the information the game designer wishes to convey to the player is part of the game experience, the actual actions you perform, like in Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus and Packy & Marlon. Here primers for the information you wish to convey have been integrated as a natural part of the game activity and are necessary for succeeding in the game - the game actions are directly related to the behaviour you want to learn the player.
The adventure games do have a potential for learning as have been argued by Amory et.al (1999) but I argue that the real potential for learning through games lies in other game genres like the action, strategy and simulation genres, where virtual life is to a higher degree practised. Here the social virtual praxis is constituted through narratives but as in real life the narrative is a distant, framing device. In everyday life it is possible to manipulate these narratives through language, framing a situation differently, or exploring other narratives by reading them. But the narrative part comes after the game experience, after we have done something. Before challenging our experience through narratives we have to experience ‘something’ – both in life and virtual life. We have to get the small blocks for toying with in the game before we engage in reflection, and narrative discourse. Computer games can very well be the carrier of this something, providing it can give the necessary physical sensations (audiovisual, tactile, kinetic, and motor skills) for a given situation to be constructed meaningfully by the player. The real challenge when using computer games for learning, is to stay focused on the areas, where computer games can give a better learning experience: Not because the player is ‘tricked’ into the learning processes through his favourite pastime but because the computer game can offer a safer, better, and fuller experience. With a safer, better, and fuller experience I am referring to the game as environment, where you can explore, experience, and manipulate without the same risk as other environments, and get input that is otherwise more restricted.
In the genres, action, strategy, and simulation, the process-oriented potential of games is an interesting feature for educational use. The narrative experience is formulated and constructed by the player (under the right circumstances) for example about how he managed asthma in a game, or changed light bulb from a normal bulb to a low-energy bulb. Although this is beyond the scope of this paper it could be argued that a design strategy for games for facilitating learning could be to strengthen the game’s narrativity by leaving it to the player’s imagination to form a narrative interpretation, rather than explicitly telling a story through language. Perhaps this explains the attention that SimCity have drawn in educational circles. As I explained at the start of this paper Simcity is characterized by giving the player more options for setting own goals, and playing the game. It becomes possible for the player to play a game of own device, and to construct a narrative experience, which supports their game experience, and not the game designers. In this perspective the closer a game simulate real life, the better. This is not necessarily the whole truth. In the future work will have to be done on identifying different learning set-ups in computer games.
When examining learning games from a simulation perspective (learning by doing) we would be wise to be cautious with games trying to communicate abstract information, concepts and ideas, which are learned through language, and are primarily represented by language. By using language we run the risk of reducing the player’s creative options severely to the process of constructing a narrative. This is not sufficient; instead we should stress the importance of actually engaging in play, and do concrete things in a safe environment. We should also be wary of our tendency to fit our conception of learning games within the current educational practices, which clearly supports learning through language. Furthermore we should be aware that the computer game genres today are quite rigid, and the expectations of the players make it limited what activities they will engage in. Computer games are somewhat conservative in their content, interface, narratives, use of time, space perception, and progression.


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