Super Mario Bros. and Yume Nikki: Abstraction, Structure, and Gender
by Vanessa Leong (vlesditor)
*Please note, I wrote this with the intention of it being a preliminary thesis for my MA (Art History). Some of the language is very basic because I was presenting this to an audience with little to no knowledge about video games. Otherwise, I hope this offers a view of (two) video games from a slightly different point of view.
Video Games are for Boys?!
While there are huge debates regarding the social usefulness and functionality of video games, there is no doubt that they constitute an influential force as a type of interactive visual media, even if they are nearly always categorized under the catch-all concept of “low culture.” The widespread popularity of this media among American consumers has inevitably led these video games, and the publishers that produce them, to fall prey to the trends of contemporary gender socialization. This essay will examine two different games, Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985, referred to hereon as Mario), produced for a consumer market, and a more recent game developed as freeware by a single designer, Yume Nikki (Kikiyama, 2005). It will compare the structure and use of abstract concepts and visuals within the two games, and discuss how these elements combine to give insight into the ways they bypass contemporary gender socialization, offering players other worthwhile outlets or concepts.
Starting in the early 1990’s, the video game market began to shift from the idea of “family fun,” embodied in largely gender-neutral puzzle games such as Pong, to “video games are for boys!” Various publishers began to mass-produce games aimed directly at males aged 13-25, leaving a large portion of the gaming community – females – unaddressed. Some notable examples include the violence-riddled Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, and a slew of even more violent first-person shooters starting with Doom. With much difficulty, publishing companies such as Her Interactive started releasing “video games for girls.” These games, such as Barbie Fashion Designer and Cosmo Virtual Makeover presented the male-dominated game market with a variety of titles specifically aimed at female youths. This was to be the beginning of a market for video games based on a distinct gender binary, with violence and action directed at males, and make-up and fashion at females. While games structured around gender-neutrality, or “family fun,” were still being produced, more often than not a published game was aimed at one of these two gendered markets, and mostly toward males.
Honestly, any gender can appreciate *this* level of violence, right?
Mario: The Fantasy World Falls Apart
Many children of the 1990’s grew up either playing video games, or with the knowledge of how they worked. Super Mario Bros., a game released in America in the latter half of the 80’s, was a consumer staple in millions of households bearing a Nintendo, a video-game console, but at that point, the study of video games outside of sporadic consumer-based reviews was practically non-existent. No one really thought about how the visual and mechanical structure of Mario, its unique and abstract elements combined, formed a game that nearly anybody could interact with, more specifically, boys and girls. While not completely abstract and gender-neutral like Tetris, a game in which the player controls the movement of falling blocks in various different shapes, Mario nonetheless combines a structure, numerous abstract concepts, and visuals that resist the “video games are for boys” mentality. In a sea of video games that only seem to perpetuate potentially harmful consumer culture, the structure of Mario and other games like it may help to at least alleviate the burdens of a gender-dichotomy within this type of consumer collective.
Any person familiar with the storyline behind Mario may argue at this point that this game promotes a common gendered trope, that of the hapless (and helpless) female requiring rescue by a hero-type male. It may also be argued that Mario was specifically constructed for and advertised toward the young male crowd. However, the structure and back-story of the game itself is so abstract that the trope and advertisement campaigns are hardly reinforced during game-play. Like most video games, Mario is based off of a story that presents first a problem, and then a goal for the main character or avatar, controlled by a human player, to strive toward. For Mario, this story is barely cohesive, lacking depth and connection to actual game-play. In the game, players are presented with a fantasy-world setting named “The Mushroom Kingdom.” The princess of this kingdom, named “Toadstool,” has been kidnapped by “Koopa-King,” a giant turtle (presumably from another land). Mario, a fat man resembling a plumber, represents the player-avatar, or that which must be controlled by the player via button-pressing on the control pad in coordination with visuals presented on a television screen. Mario’s goal is to rescue Princess Toadstool. Players first learn of the storyline through a brief excerpt in the instruction booklet provided with the game:
"One day the kingdom of the peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin. The only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves is the Princess Toadstool, the daughter of the Mushroom King. Unfortunately, she is presently in the hands of the great Koopa turtle king. Mario, the hero of this story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People's plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People. You are Mario! It's up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!"
This instruction booklet provides somewhat of a bare-bones storyline, which was probably constructed based on the mechanics of the game rather than the opposite. While elements of the back-story seem to resemble something out of a fantasy novel or fairy-tale, giving the main role of the male-hero to the player, actual game-play is anything but, and also serves to further dissolve the gender-binary that the storyline is based on. A large aspect of the problem presented – the princess being kidnapped (or captured, the player is not even sure how she got into Koopa-king’s hands) – is not even represented in game-play; players only experience working toward the goal. In another excerpt from the instruction booklet, players are taught how to play:
"As this game proceeds the screen gradually advances to the right. The Mushroom Kingdom is made up of a number of worlds, and each world is divided into 4 areas. The fourth area of each world ends in a big castle. The Princess, as well as her mushroom retainers, are being held in one of the castles by the turtle tribe. In order to rescue the Princess, Mario has to make it to the castle at the end of each world within the given time. Along the way are mountains, pits, sea, turtle soldiers, and a host of traps and riddles. Whether or not you can make it to the last castle and free the Princess depends on you. You're going to need sharp wits and lightning reflexes to complete this quest!"
These instructions may seem to again provide the basis for an engaging fantasy novel, but are soon followed by the “real” instructions, which explain time limits, button functions, and “extra lives.” The instruction booklet describes what avid game-players now refer to as a “platformer” type game, one in which the field of game-play is not restricted to the size of the screen (the game may scroll from right to left, left to right, and even up and down), and player-controlled avatars often engage in action-type moves such as running and jumping.In Mario, the player is faced with a field of play that when compared to television, or the display of the range of human capability, is rather unique. Rather than giving the player any insight to the hero’s mind, or any sort of action that may reinforce the common ideas behind the man-rescues-woman trope, we are given a chubby, pixilated block-like character that is only able to perform limited actions. These actions consist of running and jumping, which are controlled by the player via button-pressing. Mario is unable to talk, punch, kick, or even sit down (although he can duck, which makes him look like a smashed block). His movements, due to the lack of graphical ability possessed within game consoles at this time, are jerky and unrealistic. While running and jumping may easily be related to human experience, these activities alone do not construct a clear picture of the avatar-character, nor do they invite players to immerse themselves or even “fill in the blanks.” Rather than becoming a masculine hero with an inner dialogue, a picture that may be painted with words in a novel, Mario remains a pixilated block of colors that moves around the screen. His goal is fulfilled by performing the two actions of running and jumping to complete levels, and abstractly quantified by a set of points whose total appears in the upper-left hand corner of the screen, with points being doled out seemingly arbitrarily for various completed actions such as jumping onto an enemy.
Mountains Pits, and Sea... or Blocks, Blocks, and Blocks (and Goombas)
What Mario, or the player, does with these actions to interact with the setting around him may be even more abstract. Mario must use running and jumping to engage with and evade various objects and enemies. While Mario does appear to be held by some law of gravity to a ground, he is able to jump extremely high, or more than double his height. The player may have him jump to avoid an enemy, or jump to place him onto a floating platform. These floating platforms and abstract structures made out of brick-looking squares are prevalent in the game, and provide players of Mario with varied and unique obstacles, which further serve to divorce the setting of the game from any sort of perceived reality. While the instruction manual boasts that Mario will encounter “mountains, pits, and sea,” these various landscapes are relegated to large blocks of mostly-solid colors in the background behind the playable field, and except for the “sea” setting, are unable to be interacted with in any manner resembling a real encounter. The limited color palette of Mario further abstracts the setting. While colors that can be recognizably attributed to landscapes are used (the sky is blue, a mountain is green), only limited shading or tone changes occur within objects. The game, due to 8-bit graphical limitations, is designed to be two dimensional in all aspects.
Encounters and interactions with enemies follow the same trend. If not for the clear list of enemies within the instruction booklet, one would find it difficult to define what constitutes an enemy force in Mario aside from Koopa-king (aka Bowser). Most enemies do not appear to attack Mario, or come after him in any sort of hostile fashion. They include such beings as “goomba,” a tiny brown mushroom that aimlessly wanders around flat surfaces (his intelligence seems limited, as he will end up walking off of a cliff if allowed), and “koopa-troopa,” a turtle that may walk around or float in one area. Mario may “kill” these enemies by jumping on their heads or shooting a fireball at them, but if he touches an enemy in any other manner, such as walking into it, he will lose power or die. The structure of the enemy system makes it difficult to relate Mario’s experiences with real life, or even fantasy-life, as simply touching a turtle rarely results in death, and would make for a boring concept in a novel that contains no other methods of fighting or conflict resolution. Players find that they cannot manipulate Mario to act in a more hero-like fashion, such as brandishing a sword and engaging in a skillful battle. Conversely, it is difficult to avoid all enemies entirely, or “run away.” Moving Mario to the right inevitably produces more enemies, while moving him to the left will ensure that nothing will happen, time will run out, and the level will not be completed. The player is essentially forced to move to the right and have Mario interact with the enemies. However, the violence of killing enemies, typically played-up in “boy” video games, is downplayed in Mario, as there is no blood, and enemies disappear after they are dispatched.
That turtle is too close for comfort.
Mario also introduces aspects of visuals and concepts in the game-play that have little or no base in reality whatsoever. Mario may engage with another interesting aspect of the scenery, floating square bricks or question marks, by jumping directly underneath them and hitting the underside of the brick. These interactions will have one of a few effects: a power or life-giving mushroom or flower will pop out of the top of the brick, rendering the coloring of the brick solid and further impenetrable to being struck again; if Mario is large the brick will break, awarding the player with 50 points; a flashing star will pop out, rendering Mario invincible to enemies (he can still fall off of cliffs and die); or the brick will produce one or more coins that Mario may collect toward another life before turning a solid color. Before the advent of Mario, one would hardly imagine that a princess-saving hero’s role would involve jumping onto floating bricks, let alone striking the undersides of these bricks to collect mushrooms for extra lives. The fact that Mario has the ability to gain extra lives downplays the ideas of preciousness and caution that are attributed to human lives. While the game is considered difficult to manipulate, and it is certainly easy to lose all of one’s lives and have to start over, there is no finality in death. When Mario falls off of a cliff and “loses a life,” he is simply able to start over again from some point in the game completely intact (to the dismay of the player if it happens to be the beginning). Because a player is inevitably invested in the amount of time her or she took to complete a level, some frustration may occur when all of Mario’s lives are lost. However, the lack of anything immersive that would make Mario relatable to the player, such as a personality, distances this frustration from a death of Mario, and attributes it more to “time lost” while not progressing within the game’s levels. The failure in “losing a life” to some may also serve as a necessary contrast to winning, causing a player’s progression through levels to feel more worthwhile and enjoyable.
Mute by Nature?
In addition to having Mario’s action-functions be limited to jumping and running, as well as abstracted in concept, the game’s designers also decided to avoid inserting various clues that would cue the player into the storyline. While Mario himself cannot talk, and was actually unable to due to the limitations in technology, there are other ways the creators of Mario could have inserted some information that played into Mario’s gender role, such as revealing Mario’s feelings or some plot-twists through text, or adding text or visual details about the Princess’s plight. None of these elements are included, and instead players are given numerous sub-levels in which Mario is invited to simply run, jump, swim (a variation on jumping in water levels), and enter pipes from left to right at the whim of the player, avoiding obstacles and eventually reaching the end of the level, which is designated by a flag. At the end of each group of sub-levels, Mario must progress through a castle-type setting (more reminiscent of a dungeon), at the end of which he is reminded of his ultimate goal in saving the princess. However, instead of encountering different monsters, puzzles, or intriguing situations that expand the storyline, the player finds that Mario comes across the same Koopa-boss and a large humanoid mushroom who tells him, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” This happens seven times before the princess is actually rescued and the game draws to a close. This certainly does not invite the type of immersion into a plot that is present in fantasy novels or movies, and if the game-play was written into a book as-is, Mario would be classified as repetitive and boring. The game is often compared to a “psychedelic drug-trip,” but outside of this, the game-play experience isn’t equated with any sort of fantasy or literary theme. The back-story of Mario appears to be a sort of flimsy binding of the visuals that the player encounters during game-play, and not designed to immerse a player within a plot.
I would have killed that Toad if I could have.
Not All Doom and Gloom
The concept that really stands out in Mario are the functions and mechanics of the actual game combined with player involvement, or more specifically, the visual manifestation of timing and the exercise of building one’s hand-to-eye coordination skills. Mario is about testing a player's visual-dexterity skills in a real-time fashion, about knowing how to press the right buttons at the right times. A player is able to set the pace within the game, and more often than not, must learn how to maneuver Mario quickly to beat a level within the allotted time. Because of this, game-play is exciting and interactive, and is reminiscent of a competitive sports environment lacking intense physical involvement. The competition is safe and non-threatening, and offers steady feedback to players. One is even able to compete with another player on two-player mode (the second player plays Mario’s brother Luigi) and have a chance to show-off one’s skills without having to engage the other player directly, as players take turns completing levels. This is perhaps why this game seemed to have a more even fan-base of both males and females, since the game structure itself did not fit into a gendered category of consumer culture, which often equates competition with violence. To avid players, Mario is not about being a hero and completing the goal in rescuing the princess, but rather, being able to jump over a series of three goombas and five koopa-troopas and not lose a life, an aim any boy or girl can aspire to. The sense of accomplishment that comes through successfully “beating” the game may be expressed on the same level as anyone else. Although Mario has since expanded extensively, boasting television shows, merchandise, numerous spin-off games, and a wealth of fan-art, later Mario platformers follow this same structure, though their visuals and mechanics have been cleaned up as game technology improved.
Yume Nikki: Player Controlled
While Mario utilizes abstraction and a rigid structure to divorce a player from the reality of gender socialization, Yume Nikki (which translates to “Dream Diary”) appears to utilize abstraction and a loose, open structure, inviting players to have different and individual, possibly immersive experiences while playing the game. Yume Nikki, a game created not by a corporation for the consumer market, but in 2005 by the lone Japanese designer Kikiyama (using the platform RPG Maker 2003), was not advertised on television or in magazines, but quickly developed a large fan-base on the internet in Japan, China, and America, and eventually the rest of the world. While it has a traditional computer-game structure in playing-style, the fact that this game was the product of an independent designer and distributed as freeware places it closer to a public realm separated from a capitalist consumer culture. It is much like a work of public art in that anyone who wishes to may download and play it, experiencing the design and visuals of the game for free (provided one has access to a computer). In addition, Yume Nikki is not a test of one’s skills involving timing and hand-eye coordination like Mario, but rather, a game in which players can “explore” an expansive world with numerous abstract visuals and make several choices about where to guide the player-avatar, a female named Matsudoki. Unlike Mario, Yume Nikki does not come with an instruction booklet that describes a plot, goals, or enemies. In fact, at the start Yume Nikki appears to possess none of these elements, and while players are given an avatar in the form of a human female to play, no back-story or other information is given about where exactly Matsudoki is, what she can do, or if she has a goal, although players familiar with Japanese culture may recognize as they play the game that Matsudoki may display traits of hikikomori, or social withdrawal. The game invites players to make discoveries as they explore the field of play, and the structure of Yume Nikki leaves many of the game’s aspects up to interpretation by the player. While the player is essentially asked to control a female-avatar (a rarity in games not centered around fashion or other gender stereotypes), most elements of game-play within Yume Nikki resist a gender-binary, but in vastly different ways than Mario does.
The fact that Yume Nikki possesses no definable goal, or even alludes to one, forces the player to think about what he or she is actually accomplishing during game-play. At the start of the game, rather than consulting an instruction booklet, players are presented with introduction-screens outlining a concise set of actions that the player-avatar may take, corresponding to various buttons on the keyboard. Matsudoki may perform more actions than Mario, but they are still limited, as she is only able to walk, “interact,” and “drop an effect” on the field of play, and any other action must be taken in a menu screen that players may access at any point. However, one will find that the field of play allows these actions, especially the “interact” function, to open up a range of possibilities to the player. The introduction screens also outline a few of these possibilities in a “game flow” chart. The player learns that he or she is able to make Matsudoki “get in bed,” “dream,” “wake up,” and that the game presumably starts in what is called “my room.” “Dreaming” is outlined in a separate screen, where players learn that they can “check characters to get new effects,” “activate effects to get new abilities” and “drop effects in the door room.” There is also a screen dedicated to how to save the game. These instructions appear to be rather confusing, as players are given no context to place them in. Once the player is finished reading the introduction screens, they are plopped, as Matsudoki, directly in the middle of what appears to be a studio apartment. The view shows the whole room from a top-down three-dimensional perspective. One can only wonder what will happen at this point if Matsudoki begins interacting with the objects in the room, or goes to sleep and dreams. Already it becomes apparent that Matsudoki has more freedom of movement than Mario, who is confined to the scrolling two-dimensional screen.
Clean your room!
This freedom of movement signifies that this game will possess a more expansive and interactive world. Players may choose to walk around the room at this point, interacting with various objects. They quickly learn that while pressing the “interact” button in front of these objects causes them to change in some manner, there is little to do in this room, and players are unable to move Matsudoki through the front door. They are invited to put Matsudoki to sleep, and discover that when she crawls into bed, the room fades out and back in, but with some noticeable changes. Matsudoki is dreaming. The player may now move through the front door, but what awaits them is unexpected. In Matsudoki’s dream world, the front door leads to an abstract space containing several free-standing doors of varying design. These doors lead to a number of expansive worlds containing some recognizable, but mostly abstract elements. In one world, Matsudoki finds herself walking over what appears to be endless black space dotted with lamp-posts. Upon “interacting” with the lamp-posts, a player will find that he or she is able to turn them off and on. After further exploration, one will discover that one particular lamp-post will actually transport Matsudoki to yet another world, one filled with bizarre floating visuals. It is apparent that as compared to Mario, Yume Nikki’s avatar is given more freedom of movement, more room to explore, and allows players to make varying choices about how they will move her through the various worlds she encounters. While Mario is meant to be moved through a largely two-dimensional space in which the goal is to avoid enemies and overcome obstacles within a specified time limit, it quickly becomes clear that players are encouraged to have Matsudoki take her time in exploring the worlds she encounters, interacting with various objects and beings.
Just too many choices.
Like Mario, Yume Nikki gives players both abstract and recognizable visuals. Unlike Mario, it is not clear how these visuals are meant to be interacted with. Players of Mario learn quickly that their avatar’s main functions, running and jumping, are used to avoid and dispatch enemies and obstacles. Players of Yume Nikki are given the ability to walk and “interact,” which appears to be a pretty open function. Often, interacting with recognizable or abstract objects or beings will bring little to no effect. They serve to simply give a player something to look at and think about, contemplating how they relate to either Matsudoki, or the space she occupies. For instance, players may come across a “zipper wall” which leads to a long staircase while exploring Matsudoki’s dream world. Eventually they will encounter a tall and multicolored gelatinous being who seems to only be interested in gently stroking the railing alongside the staircase. Having Matsudoki interact with this being produces no effect. This is a far cry from what players are given in Mario, in which every object or creature seems to have a clearly defined purpose, even if the purpose is simply to block Mario’s way. A player of Yume Nikki may wonder who or what this gelatinous being may represent, as it is not simply written off as an enemy or obstacle. The visuals presented to the player of Matsudoki most often take the same structure as this gelatinous being, which may be recognizable to the point that a player is able to discern that it is some sort of functioning sentient being, one with a face and appendage (designed to continuously stroke a railing), but past that, have no clue as to what its purpose or origin is. Most of these visuals do not guide players to think about Matsudoki, or themselves, in terms of an easily-definable gender-binary, but rather, invite them to contemplate the existence and meaning of Matsudoki’s dream-world. Because of the wealth of visuals in Yume Nikki, players have the chance to even experience recognition of these visuals on a personal, empathetic level, Matsudoki’s dream-visions possibly becoming a vehicle for self-reflection.
I don't think that knife will do any good here.
The exclusion of any dialogue, in combination with these recognizable and unrecognizable elements also invites the player to project their own individual experience into their contemplation, something that players of Mario are not encouraged to do during game-play. While there are brief moments in Mario in which dialogue is used to inform a player that more levels need to be completed, no dialogue is given in Yume Nikki, giving players no insight as to the thoughts of Matsudoki or any other sentient being. In essence, the player is allowed to become the narrator of the game. This allows game-play of Yume Nikki to revolve around a player’s thoughts and feelings about the game’s visuals and structure, rather than focusing on real-time competition, completing a defined goal, or the building and testing of one’s manual skills. The exclusion of anything that could be perceived as an “enemy” serves the same purpose. Matsudoki is unable to be harmed by anything, and while there are moments when a player may engage Matsudoki in violence (using a knife to stab sentient beings), nothing is gained from these interactions. While the reality of the necessary violence players must have Mario perform is downplayed, in Yume Nikki violence may be present, but is not encouraged with reward or aligned with a gender. If a player interprets Matsudoki as performing an activity that relates to a specific gender, it is likely that he or she is doing so through a projection of his or her own values.
Another point of difference between Mario and Yume Nikki lies in the inclusion of “effects” that Matsudoki may pick up from interacting with objects or beings, and the exclusion of enemies, as nothing in the game may harm Matsudoki in any way. While some of the effects that Matsudoki acquires over the course of game-play have utilitarian functions, most exist for the same purpose as the abstract visuals found in exploration, to provoke thought about why they exist. Since Yume Nikki has no clear structure or goal for the player to achieve, the collecting of these effects quickly become something for a player to strive toward while exploring the dream-worlds. Some mark small changes, such as the effect which simply turns Matsudoki’s hair from brown to blonde. Others make a larger impact, such as the knife effect, which equips Matsudoki with a large blade that is able to dispatch any sentient creature she may stumble across in the dream-worlds, or the bicycle effect, which doubles Matsudoki’s movement speed. Others are used to initiate small events, triggering the player to witness bizarre scenes of flashing colored lights, or causing some sentient being to move around in a different manner. None of the objects are able to be used with one another, and may be picked up in any sequence as a result of exploration and interaction. A player will learn that collecting effects does not lead to any knowledge of Matsudoki possessing a goal, and like the visuals encountered during exploration, invite players to experience individual thoughts and feelings when contemplating the actual effect of an effect. None of the effects paint a clear picture of Matsudoki’s character, and although players know she is a female, most of the effects are able to be conceptually paired with either gender, such as the fat, frog, and midget effects. Just as the manipulation of Mario’s abilities may be construed as something acceptable for both males and females to perform, the ambiguity of any effects that Matsudoki may come to possess make it difficult to place her firmly in a location within a socially-constructed gender-binary. An extremely dedicated player of Yume Nikki may even discover that collecting all of the effects the game has to offer (and dropping them within the door-room) leads to the ending of the game. The ending is marked by an extremely disturbing event, one that neither resolves Matsudoki’s existence, nor displays the completion of any goal (remember, there was none to begin with). A player that has reached this point in the game is invited to engage in even more contemplation.
In essence, Yume Nikki is not about “beating” or finishing a game, but rather, engaging with a world that is not so easily definable. Unlike Mario, players are not given a fantasy type “Mushroom Kingdom” to complete a pre-defined goal within, a space in which the meaning of the game is contained, but rather, an expansive dream-world belonging to an elusive (and possibly reclusive) character, Matsudoki. Players are encouraged to explore this expansive world, experiencing visuals, sounds, and events that offer a combination of both abstract and recognizable elements, but give the player nothing concrete to latch onto. In the process of exploration, players come across objects, beings, and scenery that remind them that they are playing within Matsudoki’s dream-world. However, even if these elements represent various pieces in the puzzle that is Matsudoki’s mind, it is difficult to pin them together. Players and fans of Yume Nikki have developed many theories as to what the elements within Matsudoki’s dream represent, but none of them point in any one direction.Yume Nikki is a game in which players are invited to engage in thought about what they see and experience while playing. They are also able to project their individual experiences and feelings onto the elements of Matsudoki’s dream-world without being largely constrained by the stereotypes and social constructions of the gender dichotomy which exists in contemporary culture. In contrast, Mario abstracts and distances any sort of gendered recognizable visual elements from players, and focuses on the functions of game-play itself. While there could be a debate as to the structure of which game, if any, is more useful to society, it is clear that neither fall into the trap of reinforcing a gender binary through contemporary socialization methods.
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