CIRCA:Are Video Games a Form of Scholarship?


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In our presentation we responded to James Coltrain and Stephen Ramsay's article "Can Video Games be Humanities Scholarship?" In it, they tackle the issue of how video games have become a cultural object of study in humanities, but has not yet become a format in which to present scholarly findings. We argue that video games can be used as a form of scholarship by arguing that scholarship has always changed the formats in which it presents itself over time and that video games have clear constraints, rules, and goals scholars can utilize to argue and present their findings in ways both similar and unique to other formats such as theses, essays, and research projects.


"Can Video Games be Humanities Scholarship?"

We focused on key points from Coltrain and Ramsay's article as the basis for our presentation. These key points are that:

  • Games as a medium cannot be easily defined
  • Video games are an object of study for scholarship but not a form of presenting scholarship
  • Humanities scholarship “often takes the form of a re-creation of the author’s or authors’ experience (whether that is the experience of reading a novel, excavating an archaeological site, viewing a painting, analyzing archival materials, or any of the dozens of activities one might take with respect to primary and secondary sources” (Coltrain & Ramsay)
  • Video games have goals and aesthetic choices and forms that guide the player/reader--so too does scholarly writing
  • Scholars can build rules in a game space that guide the player through their interpretations of their research

With these points in mind, we chose to consider how the presentation of scholarship has changed over time and could reasonably incorporate video games as a form of presenting scholarly research.

A Brief History of Traditional Scholarship

What we call scholarship in the West can said to have started in Ancient Greece. Educated men would publicly debate about a variety of topics including plays and poetry, government policy and law, the human mind, the natural world, and more. These debates were written down and, along with their Ancient Roman successors, became the Classics. The Classics formed the basis of Western academic disciplines, but also formed the basis of how we present arguments and critical examinations; namely, we take an object or area of study, ask questions about it, and then present what answers we've found to these questions in a compelling argument.

How we present these arguments changed over time, particularly due to innovations in spreading, collecting, and presenting knowledge. The transition from papyrus scrolls to hand-written books by the Romans, for example, made it possible for scholars to create collections of essays on the same issue, or take a piece of classic, canonical text and package it with textual analyses from other parties. The invention of the book also led scholars to create new types of documents such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, which for the first time could be bound together. The invention of the printing press, which coincided roughly with the rise of humanism in Europe, also contributed to new forms of scholarship. Once printed books became commonplace, supply and distribution of academic musings became more widespread, and more people than ever were publishing works, debating across cultures, and taking advantage of this rapid book distribution system to present new research. Beyond literature, the world of GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) also improved scholarship. As Europe began to colonize other countries, they brought back (stole) new artifacts, artworks, and intangible culture such as languages and traditional practices. The GLAM industry exploded at this time, and only grew in popularity amongst the postulation of the theory of evolution and the discovery of dinosaurs. Disciplines such as art history, natural history, and more were able to curate and connect artifacts on a larger scale than ever before. These collections often argued for a particular view of history, culture, and more, but were also able to be used as tools by a large number of scholars working collaboratively on research.

To sum up scholarship before the advent of the digital age:

  • Scholarship is studying an object or area of study by asking questions, and then presenting answers to those questions in the form of an argument
  • Both technological and cultural advances changed how we present our scholarly findings
  • Formats for scholarship include not just text but institutions and curation, and the ways in which literature or institutions presented scholarship in turn affected the evolution of scholarly disciplines and what sort of questions we asked

Digital Scholarship

Digital scholarship is being defined here as a form of scholarship that makes use of digital tools and/or digital formats in its research and presentation. Video games, as born-digital documents created with digital tools, are related to this academic area. Digital humanities is, of course, one of the most obvious disciplines focused on digital scholarship. Many digital humanities research projects are presented in digital formats such as 3-D modelling museums and curated collections in the form of websites. Even theses, while they might be in traditional essay format, often have interactive chapter headings and are accessible online. These forms of research presentation also mimic literary forms such as hypertext fiction, social media websites, and e-books. One would never argue that a textbook in the form of an e-book is no longer scholarly, or that a website that uses hypertext to connect different historical documents and extrapolate new data from those connections has no scholarly merit. That is because these formats, even though they not part of 'traditional' scholarship, still have constraints scholars can utilize to guide readers through their findings, arguments, and sources. Video games also have constraints and rules, are also born-digital documents, and can also be used to guide a 'reader' (player) through someone else's arguments. This of course begs the question why video games have not been adapted as a form of scholarship while other born-digital formats have.

Video Games as Scholarship

Definition of Games

One idea that is interesting in Coltrain and Ramsey’s debate is that they say there is no consistent definition of what constitutes a game (Coltrain and Ramsey), but studying game design and development would show otherwise. A common definition of games is, “Games are rule-based systems in which the goal is for one player to win. They involve “opposing players who acknowledge and respond to one another’s actions” (Fullerton 41).” This definition is by Tracy Fullerton, the writer of the Game Design Workshop textbook and a prominent woman in game design. Fullerton is also a professor at the University of Southern California in the Interactive Media & Games Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the Game Innovation Lab (“Tracy Fullerton”). This definition is important to understand because it sets games apart from other forms of play such as puzzles, toys, and stories/experiences (Fullerton 41).

What is it That Makes Games SCHOLARLY?

There are many reasons why games should be considered scholarly, which will be explored in the following sections, and include a comparison of games to existing scholarly works, games use of learning outcomes, games use of emotions, and games use of interactivity.

Comparison of Scholarly Works and Games

In general, when comparing existing scholarly works to games there are four key ideas that both medias have which are used to define scholarly works by Coltrain and Ramsey.

  1. The first idea is that both scholarly works and games can be born-digital documents (Coltrain and Ramsey). As aforementioned the media in which scholarship is created has begun to shift from traditional scholarship to more forms of digital scholarship with the evolution of technology and research. Video games by nature are digital-born documents, so if scholarship can also be digital-born then games should be considered scholarly for the origin.
  2. The second key idea is that both scholarly works and games have interactive elements (Coltrain and Ramsey). This idea will be further explored below, but to provide context scholarly works are interactive according to Coltrain and Ramsey because “Television viewers change channels, readers turn pages, and anyone browsing the web interacts with content just by searching and clicking (Coltrain and Ramsey).” Games are by their nature also interactive and involve some form of input by the user on a mouse, controller, or keyboard to progress. For this instance, games should be considered scholarly because they provide similar interactive elements that are also a part of scholarly works by their nature of needing to progress or change.
  3. The third key idea is that both scholarly works and games are a recreation of information that is trying to express a point. No idea is ever 100% original so both games and scholarly works are based on other ideas and gain inspiration from them. For a scholarly work, this is the research that is done to create the hypothesis and the research to prove the thesis, for games, this inspiration is the research about what the game is trying to convey, mechanics that can teach the idea, and dynamics of how to get people to learn (Coltrain and Ramsey). If both existing scholarly works and games use the same ideas for recreations of information, then games should be considered scholarly on their academic merit.
  4. The final elements that show games and scholarly works are not that different are that they both synthesize information. This element is strongly connected with the previous element because the research that has been gathered has to be summarized. This is shown in Coltrain and Ramsey’s article, “By necessity, games must also simplify the situations they depict and the interactions they facilitate, but so too does good humanities scholarship. Both media must condense time, for example, a historian may reduce an entire decade to a single sentence, while a game may compress the same to a click (Coltrain and Ramsey).” This shows that games should be considered scholarly because scholarly works and games are not that different.

Overall, these are four strong reasons why games should be considered scholarly due to showing games and scholarly works are dependent on the same elements to work. Though there are three more reasons to back up this claim.

Counter Argument

As a side note, some people may argue against these four elements showing that games are scholarly even though scholarly works are similar. The main counterargument for these elements is that games do not explore all of these elements in as much detail as scholarly works do, due to their constraint, which “might threaten the conveyance of a potential interpretation,” as Coltrain and Ramsey put it. There are many elements that make up a game and players can easily bypass certain elements and risk not learning from them thus restricting the reach of the research that was done. While this is a potential issue, games have mechanics in place to fix this. The main mechanic is that games often have high replayability built-in so that players can replay the game and strengthen what they already know and find the research they missed. Often times in games there are choices, achievements, or items that will lead the player to replay a game and follow a different path to see the effects of what they missed during the first playthrough (“Replay Value”). Compared to rereading a scholarly work, that does not reward the reader for further exploration, games make players want to find all the bits of research that went into the game through its use of interactivity.

What has a game taught you about?: Learning Outcomes

One of the first reasons that games should be considered scholarly is that both a scholarly work and a game respond to an issue and are dependent on this idea to provide meaning to their existence. At the beginning of Coltrain and Ramsey’s article, they state “The statement, “I discovered x, was perplexed by it, and was led to y, which in turn led me to z,” would represent an unusual form of scholarly writing, but certainly not a non-scholarly one nor one without precedent (Coltrain and Ramsey).” In this case, this statement is supposed to represent a form of a thesis, but if you look at it from a different perspective this statement is in the exact format of a learning outcome, commonly used in games. For example, a thesis based on this statement format could be I discovered a tool for text analysis, was perplexed by it and was led to analyzing the complete works of Shakespeare, which in turn led me to understand Renaissance plays better. On the other hand, an example of a game’s learning outcome could be I discovered an alien language, was perplexed by it and was led to a Rosetta Stone, which in turn led me to understand this alien world was on the brink of collapse. These two statements both use the same format and are able to convey their personal meaning. The reason why games use a learning outcome instead of a thesis is based on the fact that games are highly interactive. With a thesis, the reader is mainly just told ideas that support the argument, but with a game, it is able to build connections to the subject matter being learned, provide opportunities for feedback, and be customized to individualized learning (“Digital Pedagogy”). These ideas are better suited to be based on a learning outcome because the players are actively learning the outcomes of their actions.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

One example of a game that uses learning outcomes to convey its message is Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (KTNE). KTNE is a half digital, half analogue game that uses cooperation and puzzle-solving to teach communication. In this game one player is the defuser who can see a bomb and needs to disarm it by solving puzzles, the only issue is they do not know how to solve them. The other players are the experts, who have the answers but cannot see the puzzles or the bomb. So, the defuser has to communicate what they see to the experts and the experts must consult the manual and ask questions to the defuser to successfully disarm it (Steel Crate Games). To see this game in action, watch the two videos below, one is the advertisement for the game on Xbox and the other is a real bomb squad playing the game.


Real Bomb Squad Plays Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Throughout playing this game players should learn the values of communication, problem-solving, stress management, and reading conditional sentences, which can be turned into learning outcomes with the experience (“Speaking Strategies”). One example of a learning outcome for KTNE is I discovered a wire puzzle, was perplexed by it and was led to communicating the number of wires and colours to my friends, which in turn led me to successfully disarming the bomb. These same skills could be taught using a scholarly work and a thesis, such as a textbook on public speaking and communication techniques, but with KTNE the players are in the middle of the action, literally. Players are actively learning how to use these learning outcomes the moment they realize and perform them.

Critical Play

Together the idea of learning outcomes with the example of KTNE shows that games should be considered scholarly because games use learning outcomes just as a scholarly work uses a thesis to respond to a point, as well as create critical analysis. One of the reasons why people write scholarly works is to get readers to critically analyze the point they are trying to make using the thesis (Coltrain and Ramsey). In game studies, there is a similar theory called critical play, which is meant to create critical analysis through playing the game instead of reading (Flanagan 6). Critical play is also commonly connected with serious games, which are both concepts created by Mary Flanagan an author in the game design field. Flanagan is also the founding director of the research laboratory and design studio Tiltfactor Lab and the CEO of the board game company Resonym (“Mary Flanagan”). Flanagan defines critical play as a “means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life (Flanagan 6),” which is further explained in the linked video. As an example, KTNE does this by exploring the communication and problem-solving aspects of human life, which are foundational to everyday tasks. Of course, a scholarly work could also be used to question the aspects of human life, but it would be less active and engaging.

Mary Flanagan on Critical Play

Counter Argument

One thing to consider though is that some people may still not consider games scholarly, even though they have an equivalent to a scholarly work’s thesis, because “Matters such as “citation,” “thesis,” “abstract,” and the generic traditions of scholarly rhetoric need to be viewed not as necessary components to enabling something to be deemed scholarly, but rather as the apparatus of a specific genre and its medium (Coltrain and Ramsey).” When talking about games though it is both a new genre and a new medium which some people may require to have more original apparatuses to be considered scholarly instead of just building on existing ones. This is an issue that will take time to develop due to games still being fairly new compared to traditional scholarly works but is in the process of being created through game studies and research. As aforementioned there are already popular theories that can be comparable to the requirements of scholarly works apparatuses, that just need to be shared.

Has a game ever made you feel happy, sad, scared, angry?: Emotions

The second reason that games should be considered scholarly is that both games and scholarly works use emotions to manipulate the player or reader’s thinking to expand upon the existing learning outcomes. Coltrain and Ramsey also mention this in their article, “Games often seek to manage players’ emotions through dramatic techniques like appeals to humour, sympathy, or disgust; yet so too might a historian begin a chapter with a vivid vignette, or a literary critic with a deeply felt personal anecdote (Coltrain and Ramsay).” This quote shows that games and scholarly works are similar in terms of their connections to the player or reader, which is another reason why games should be considered scholarly. This use of emotions is also commonly used in English classes and is known as the ethos (the character of the creator), logos (the logic of the issue), and pathos (the emotions used in the piece) theory (“Aristotle's Rhetorical Situation”). Both games and scholarly works can use this English theory to change the way the readers and players approach and respond, which is a manipulation of their thought process.


An example of a game that is strongly tied to emotions in general and the theory of ethos, logos, and pathos is Devotion. According to its designers “Devotion is a first-person atmospheric horror game depicting the life of a family shadowed by religious belief. Explore a 1980s Taiwan apartment complex lost in time gradually shift into a hellish nightmare. Delve into the vows each member of the family has made, and witness their devotion (RedCandleGames).” Within this game, the player plays as a famous screenwriter and father who ends up joining a cult amidst his stagnated career and the sudden onset of his daughter’s mysterious illness. Joining this cult leads the family into financial issues, the screenwriter’s wife leaving him, and his daughter’s illness worsening until she eventually passes away. Now the screenwriter must relive the trauma of his past over several years and face the wrongs he committed (Frank, RedCandleGames). Below is a video of the trailer of Devotion and a complete playthrough of the game if you would like to learn more, but there is a trigger warning to this game as it deals with mature content such as illness, death, gore/blood, horror and family disputes.

Trailer(Play with subtitles)


Through playing Devotion players should be faced with the emotions of fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, love, and curiosity, and begin to build thoughts around how if the father had listened to his wife about not joining the cult then she would not have left, and his daughter might not have passed away. The father is the main reason why these terrible things happened and now he must live with the consequences. This narrative can be compared to what some consider a scholarly work Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare with similar types of emotions, and the thought that if the parents had put aside their feud their children might not have passed. Together this shows that both games and scholarly works use the aspects of emotions to manipulate the player or reader’s thought process into thinking about certain ideas.

Evocative narrative

A different way that the idea of emotions and thought processes can be thought of is evocative narrative, a theory created by Michael Nitsche. Evocative narrative is elements that are “not to be a part of the predetermined or scripted game story or narrative, but to be an incentive for players to create different narratives or to supplement the already existing narrative with those elements (Markocki 74).” This shows the use of emotions and thought processes in games because players have to bring in their own feelings and beliefs to create the different narratives and ideas aforementioned. This theory can also be applied to scholarly works and shows that games are scholarly because they use the English theory of ethos, logos, and pathos, to manipulate the player into thinking about the learning outcomes. Just as scholarly works use emotions to manipulate the reader's thought processes about a thesis.

Counter Argument

While games are commonly shown to use emotions, some may argue that because not all games have emotions, they are not scholarly as a whole. Games such as Tetris or online Solitaire do not directly deal with players’ emotions, while other games elicit negative emotions such as boredom and frustration, thus do not use emotions to manipulate the thought process. While this is true in some ways even if the emotions are indirect or negative players are still learning something. Coltrain and Ramsey put this as “Even the most obtuse games still manage the player’s experience in some way because those designed to be so boring, frustrating, or opaque that they become “unplayable” still elicit an intended response as a result of the player’s engagement (or lack thereof).” This shows that games should still be considered scholarly even if they do not deal with emotions to invoke thinking because ultimately the player still has certain feelings towards the game and is still learning something from their experience.

What’s more interesting? Reading a paper on depression or playing a game about depression?: Interactivity

The third and final reason why games should be considered scholarly is that both scholarly works and games have some form of interaction, it is just that games are more interactive in a different way. According to Coltrain and Ramsey, “By the nature of their interactivity, for example, games have a superior capacity to handle multiple options and outcomes. This potential for variety could lend itself to analyses that do not force scholars to advance a single theory, but instead would allow players to explore multiple interpretations crafted by the game’s designer (Coltrain and Ramsay).” Though they also state “but then again, nearly all forms of media are interactive in some way. Television viewers change channels, readers turn pages, and anyone browsing the web interacts with the content just by searching and clicking (Coltrain and Ramsay).” This shows that both games and scholarly works are interactive in some way, just differently. The best way to explain this is that with scholarly works the viewer is usually in a third-person perspective, watching over someone’s shoulder or being omnipresent, whereas with a game the player is usually in a first-person perspective, in the shoes of the character and living their life. It is the difference between just being a viewer and being an actor within the medium.

Depression Quest

An example of a game that deals with interactivity and this difference of perspective is Depression Quest, a game created by Zoe Quinn. According to its Steam page, “Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment (The Quinspiracy).” The game is fairly simple in terms of mechanics and dynamics but does deal with some of the realities of depression. Below is a video of a playthrough of Depression Quest, as well as an article that explains a bit more about the creation of the game and the issues Zoe Quinn ran into. As a note, once again this game can be triggering to some people due to its connection and representation of mental health.



One could of course just read a scholarly work about depression and probably get most of the same learning outcomes as playing but playing Depression Quest brings a different feel to the learning. According to Zoe Quinn in the article attached she states that “Externalizing that into a game and asking people to take some time out to see what ‘rules’ other people have to live with, I think, is a powerful use of the medium (Stated by Zoe Quinn in Parkin).” This quote is discussing the interactivity of Depression Quest and the use of putting the player in a first-person perspective of the character. The player is more immersed in the world and directly shows what the character is feeling and thinking throughout the choices being made. It makes it so that people who do not have depression are forced to know the true life of someone who does.

The Magic Circle

This shows that both games and scholarly works are interactive through their mediums, and the games should be considered scholarly due to this similarity, it is just that games are more interactive in a different way. This can further be explained by Johan Huizinga’s theory of the magic circle which is the boundaries of the world in which the interactions take place to set rules and restrictions (Fullerton, 35, 84, 86). For a scholarly work, this would be the pages or the computer screen, while for a video game it is the game world itself.

Counter Argument

With this argument of why games should be considered scholarly the main counterargument is less about the interactivity of games and scholarly works in general and more so about the form of interactivity found in Depression Quest. According to Coltrain and Ramsey, there are “disputes over whether the interactive fiction of text games like Depression Quest, which featured sometimes symbolically disabled multiple-choice answers, or so-called walking simulators like Gone Home and Dear Esther, which eschewed clear goals in favour of environmental storytelling, are proper games continue to saturate game culture and drive online debates (Coltrain and Ramsey).” This issue is commonly intertwined with the concept of are games art and is something many scholars have fought over since the beginning of games studies. Even though Depression Quest has a form of interactivity some state that it is not interactive enough to constitute a game. For this argument, though if you compare Depression Quest to the initial definition of games by Tracy Fullerton: “Games are rule-based systems in which the goal is for one player to win. They involve “opposing players who acknowledge and respond to one another’s actions” (Fullerton 41), Depression Quest does fit. Depression Quest has a set of rules in choosing between multiple-choice options and how those that are crossed out cannot be chosen and has the goal of the player wanting to successfully improve the character’s depression. In this case, though the game is the opposing player and the one responding to the player’s actions. This shows that Depression Quest should be considered a game and that games should be considered scholarly because both scholarly works and games are interactive in their own ways.

Games as Simulation

A different way that games could be considered scholarly is instead of comparing the games to other forms of scholarship, looking at them as a mode of simulation where players can affect their experiences. This idea contains all the same elements aforementioned but also allows players to explore parameters. Coltrain and Ramsey mention this in their article, “Scholars could make use of simulations not only by offering sets of rules or models as components of an argument in which players could evaluate its impact on the simulation’s outcomes but also by arranging more open spaces in which users could experiment in an environment bounded by the scholar’s theory or design(Coltrain and Ramsey.” By viewing games this way, it opens games to be a starting point for discussions about what the players learn through interacting with the game, as well as a vehicle for humanistic theories by modelling them. Games have an interesting ability to show diverse views of experiences, as well as “more complete phenomenological experiences as scholarly arguments (Coltrain and Ramsey).” This shows that games should be considered scholarly even if they are not scholarly in the traditional meaning because they use their ability of experiential learning and simulation to show arguments and experiences in a diverse and complete light that other scholarly works could touch on as well.

How could you make your thesis or research project into a video game?: Scholarly Game Example

To provide an example of this I will walk through the process of creating a scholarly game using a game I (Sam Graham) developed called Humans are Weird (HAW). As a quick overview, HAW is a game where “At a space base located in Sector 32 of deep space, mysteries hide revelations about the people of Terra; you will need to master the art of research, interviewing, and theorizing to figure out what is going on… before something more dire occurs.”

  1. The first step is to choose the general idea that you want your players to learn about (Fullerton). For HAW’s general idea it was inspired by the posts on Pinterest and Tumblr that are commonly titled Humans are Weird, Earth is Space Australia, and Aliens vs. Humans. The main gist of these posts discuss common human concepts from the perspective of an alien and how odd human society can be. Some of these posts include ideas about pregnancy, siblings, sign language, common expressions, and the natural habit of bonding that humans possess with anything. So, for HAW, the general idea is that players should learn about is the complexities of humanity and the human species.
  2. The second step is brainstorming mechanics that could teach about this general idea (Fullerton). As a note, these mechanics are commonly connected with the values of the game. For HAW the main values of the game are exploration and learning. These values lead to two distinct phases of mechanics, the Investigation, and the Theory. In the first phase, the player will have a limited amount of time to explore the base and locate research or evidence that will help in the investigation, as well as interview other crew members on their knowledge. Each time the player investigates or interviews, time will be taken away from what is left, so prioritizing what the player thinks is beneficial will be the best bet. Then in the Theory phase, the player will take the research and evidence they have collected and categorize them in a puzzle, to figure out a theory to report back to the captain
  3. The third step is creating learning outcomes from your general learning concept and the mechanics you have chosen to be a part of the game (Fullerton). For HAW this learning outcome became “After playing Humans are Weird players should be able to list one uniquely human trait concerning biology or sociology and become more aware of how this trait affects themselves, others, and their environment.” This learning outcome is achieved because the players will have to experience humans from a different point of view and see how they could appear to other species. As humans, we feel like we have a good grasp of who we are, but there is always more to explore about ourselves. Without this exploration, there would be no need for psychology, biology, or sociology. By putting the player in the shoes of the alien looking at humans we open the experience to seeing a new side to traits we have never seen before and truly understanding just how weird we are.
  4. The fourth step is prototyping the game and playtesting to make sure the learning outcomes are working with your mechanics (Fullerton). This step is often repeated numerous times until all the quirks are fixed. This could take anywhere from 3 tries to 10 tries. For HAW the game was originally going to be a base-building game where the aliens would have to make a suitable base for the humans, but this idea did not work as intended and was changed for the current mechanics/ gameplay loops. There are two core gameplay loops in HAW that take place at different times; throughout the levels, the gameplay loop is to explore the surroundings and investigate the evidence, while the gameplay loop for each level is to investigate the evidence and solve the puzzle.
  5. The fifth step is to begin adding in other elements of the game to support the learning outcomes (Fullerton). This would include aesthetic stuff such as character designs and backgrounds/world-building, as well as dynamics such as narrative. The current demo of HAW has 14 characters, 12 different rooms, and two different levels that explore different aspects of human life.
  6. The sixth step is eventually making the game and repeating the concept of step four with prototyping and playtesting until everything begins to work together (Fullerton). This is the step that takes the longest and will be the bulk of the creation. Visit [1] to download and play HAW for free if you would like.


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