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In Defense of Tedium: When Fun Isn't Good Enough
by Devin Wilson on 12/22/11 06:22:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Let me quickly preface this blog by saying that, in the following text, when I use the word “game”, I’m using it to describe any sort of digital, interactive thing that at least resembles a game.

I participated in my first Ludum Dare this past weekend, and managed to pump out a game within the first seven hours of the competition (and another one in the final few). Obviously, it’s not a complex game, as LD48 entries tend not to be. It’s called Expecting a Call, and I’m pretty pleased with it, especially in the context of the competition’s theme: Alone.

I’d say reception has generally been positive, but I would also place the consensus opinion around a sentiment like, “Very clever application of the theme, but it needs work to be more fun!” The problem is that my clever application of the theme is totally dependent on how much fun it isn’t.

The core conceit of the game is that sixteen different people living in a high-rise are anxiously expecting phone calls, and you click on their apartment when their phone rings to have them answer. It was meant to illustrate the arguably lonely nature of technological communication, and it’s further contrasted against the fact that these people have (at least) fifteen other people living in close proximity to them.

So, even though I’m closing the door on a lot of interpretation and I wish more games invited people to walk away with their own opinion on what it’s about, it really shouldn’t be surprising that, when I set out to make a game about the unsatisfactoriness of telephone communication, I made an unsatisfying game. Could I have made Expecting a Call more mechanically dense? Sure. I could have implemented any number of conventional gameplay systems. However, every feature carries meaning, whether you like it or not. What does it mean if I end players’ games after missing a certain amount of calls? I considered such a lose condition, but I wasn’t sure how it would contribute to how the whole of the game could be interpreted. If my game valuates missed phone calls as bad, then what’s the point of criticizing the telephone as a communication medium? These are the relationships between rules and fiction that most game developers don’t bother to ask themselves, and it may be the most significant hurdle that games face as a serious medium.

For an industry/community that sees immersion as something to aspire to, people seem to think I’ve made a design mistake when I make a game like Expecting a Call, which actually creates a very strong connection between the player experience and the fiction of the game. Many people have said of the game, “It was fun at first, but then I realized how empty of an experience it was.” I don’t know that I could ask for a better reaction to it, honestly. One of my primary interests as a game designer is to create models that are realistic to such an extent that people realize the unsatisfactory/unhealthy/unethical nature of certain real-world phenomena, so fun isn’t always a priority. Valuation and interactivity are.

If people play a game that is designed to reward shooting brown people in the head, I won’t argue that it necessarily encourages people to feel positive about violence towards specific ethnicities (though I think it may to some extent), but it certainly doesn’t discourage such feelings. On the other hand, if I make a game about violence and it’s not fun, people will come out of the experience feeling like violence is less fun than they did before they played my game. It’s just a theory I have, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable.

I feel like we have a great chance to have our medium mature past power fantasies, which means not treating winning or having fun as ends in themselves. When someone tells me one of my games isn’t a ton of fun (which is typically a fair assessment, admittedly), I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the more critical people in that set to those who would criticize a movie for not having a happy ending.

I don’t think it’s impossible to make a viscerally satisfying game that also has a sad and/or meaningful ending (see: Braid, Limbo), but the fact remains that there aren’t enough Ingmar Bergman types making games. Our auteurs tend not to achieve much more than someone like Kevin Smith (though there are certainly a handful of exceptions). Sure, their games may have a modicum of emotionality, but they don’t invite the same kind of scrutiny or involvement that a classic Bergman film would. At best, we’re surprised by something on the level of a Chasing Amy or Clerks (if those two are Smith’s peaks), but we really tend to be inundated with games more comparable to Mallrats. The protagonist gets what he wanted from the beginning, and that’s the end of it.

Comparing games to movies is dangerous not only because it invites developers to continue making overly cinematic software, but also because a fun movie has an inherently better chance of being engaging than a typical game that sees fun as an end in itself (while also having narrative ambitions).

If, say, Indiana Jones is in a bind and says, “I’ve got an idea”, there is going to be some narrative tension because you want to see how exactly he’s going to get out of whatever scrape he’s in, and there’s a real chance that things won’t go to plan. Compare this to a typical story-driven game, in which there’s no tension, as you know which sequence of actions will resolve a conflict before these actions are even executed. Everything is telegraphed by the goals the game gives you. Also, when a protagonist/player is assigned an objective, we can read this as not just as possible, but inevitable if the player doesn’t give up on the game. We don’t wonder if things will go wrong, because subverting player expectations is not at all common.

We shouldn’t scoff at the effort to make games that are more expressive than they are mechanically delightful. Predictable responses to player input are what make a game feel fair and I think there’s definitely room for that kind of game, but it also makes pretenses of drama incredibly hollow compared to other media.

One solution seems to be to stop treating the player and the protagonist as separate. Playing through a story should involve play in the theatrical sense. To inhabit a character that has bad things happen to him or her, sometimes it should be appropriate to make unfun things happen to the user as a person playing the game. We see this approach here and there, but it’s not nearly prevalent enough for my tastes.

Maybe this means making shorter games, or maybe unfun sections need to be mitigated by quick reversals of fortune (expressed to the player as fun). I’ve taken the former approach so far. I’m sure that a lot of people won’t like my games, but at least I’m not wasting hours upon hours of their time just so they get a complete impression of the thing I made.

As such, while this piece is titled “In Defense of Tedium”, we should be sure not to mistake tedium for laboriousness. There are a lot of games that feel like work because of uninspired level design and storytelling. I would characterize tedium as something different, something that may highlight the reality of a particular activity. 

As pretentious as you could call all of this sentiment and my portfolio in general, at least I don’t throw dozens of levels at people and expect them to play through them just because they’re there. That’s not a good enough reason to play something anymore, if it ever was. There are too many people making too many technically competent games for independent game developers not to try to make unusual, personal pieces of software. If you’re not beholden to profits like a studio owned by a publisher would be, then what’s holding you back?

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Game Designer


Martin Juranek
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If you make game that is about sooting browns in the head and make it not fun, people will mark it as bad game and don't change their feeling about sooting browns in the head. If it is not about it, but it is there and unfun, but its more about [strike]exploiting[strike] helping them and that is fun, people will play the game and only then they can be convinced that they can do more fun things that shooting.

Gerald Belman
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This reminds me of those abstract artists who randomy spill paint on some canvas and call it a masterpiece. There is a difference between depth - and crap masquerading as depth.

What do you think of this painting?

I think it is crap.

Devin Wilson
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I don't think it's crap.

Vinicius Capiotti
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I think saying a particular discourse is crap is dismissive and ignorant.

Meta-artistic discourse in painting is just as natural of a consequence of evolution and freedom as it is in videogames. We should see it as part of a movement for understanding the media, not as any kind of race for merit (which in art should be irrelevant).

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Malevich is genius.

You are lacking context.

Joe Cooper
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Trust is an important part of appreciating any piece of art. Oftentimes it fails to engage not due to any intrinsic fault but because the person viewing doesn't trust that there's anything really there. I had a look at Twilight (the book - Stephen King said it was bad and I wanted to see) and got this feeling; lots of fluff words that I don't trust have anything to say. One of my favorite writers is Virginia Woolf and if I put that in front of most people, they'll feel the same way.

So you don't trust the black square.

Was it made for you?

Gerald Belman
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Many people I have read on these forums are either afraid to have their own opinions or are blindly following the artistic narrative set up by the creator.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - Crap is in the eye of the beholder. But what I don't like to see is people who think something is awesome just because they cannot think for themselves.

Have strong opinions - call something crap if you think it is crap - be impolite - call it like you see it. And if people disgree with you - ask them why. Find out their motivations. See if they have an agenda. Maybe they will change your mind.

As a general rule - any art that I can recreate in less than 5 minutes on my etch a sketch is promptly filed in my crap repository(some people call it a toilet but I think crap repository sounds more professional)

Let's not get into the question of why Malevich is a genius( since I think you need to be a genius to convice people a black square is worth a ton of money) - why is this painting genius? - enlighten me.

Vinicius Capiotti
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I won't try to argue intellectual merit because i think that is irrelevant, but i think you're not perceiving art as an environment for your subjectivity, and i think that is the point.

You can say the black square is technically bad, or that it didn't take any effort to make. But everything you perceive about it is part of the artistic discourse, and saying the artistic discourse is crap just doesn't make any sense as it comes together completely subjective.

Not really going into "politeness" matters, but i think the act of judging something as good or bad doesn't always help the discussion.

PS.: "Recreate art" sounds kinda awkward to me. Maybe you meant "recreate painting".

Gerald Belman
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So for you art is neither good or bad? Is anything good or bad for you then? If you can't have an opinion about art - what can you have an opinion about? Can you have an opinion about politics or morality? Are you saying you've never seen a movie and thought "Hey, this is crap - give me my money back" - I cite Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I'm not going to argue English grammar and/or usage with someone named Vinicius Capiotti. What are you Italian?

Vinicius Capiotti
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What i'm saying is that "artistic value" is not intrinsic to any piece of art. Makes no sense to adress it because it is so subjective there is no way to compare it and therefore measure it.

You can, however, adress technical quality, monetary value, taste, or even the existence of artistic motivation: those are complex but logical and, at least in some rate, objective, the same as politics and morality.

And even if you say "art" for you is the grouping of all the above factors, you are still ignoring context when you say you could recreate it. I don't think i have to be born in an anglophone country to make that statement. I'm Brazilian, by the way, with Italian descent.

Joe Cooper
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Speaking of "crap masquerading as depth"; your posts! Throwing in a word with a Q doesn't change the fact that you're jumping from "I don't know what I'm looking at" to "someone -else- must be stupid".

This is called "arrogance" and some people are bound to find it insulting because it is an insult and lo and behold, people don't like that very much.

What a twist!!!

The etch-a-sketch comment doesn't stand to scrutiny. There's a difference between cracking a sharp joke at the moment in front of the right people and mindlessly reciting a line from Monty Python to your dog, even if you'd have no trouble doing so by merely flapping your jaw.

It's no great revelation that things taken out of context don't have their magic. Take this line:

"it is generally agreed that wit deserted beautiful lips about the time that Walpole died"

Does that mean anything at all? Who in the blue hell is Walpole?

Well, he's sometimes regarded at the first British Prime Minister and this line worked just fine when it was published there in 1922.

Does it fail now? Certainly. But if I were to say that my being in the wrong context is grounds to insult the author, well then I'd be pretending my ignorance is wit and I'd be no better than a drooling Moon hoax believer asking rhetorically why the sky is black.

Declaring something crap and insulting someone's intellectual honesty is fighting words even if that person isn't present. So don't act shocked when people get upset.

Kids these days.

Vinicius Capiotti
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Oh, come on Enrique, why look for all this information about context and artistic motivation? Why make an effort to try to understand objectively or subjectively a work of art? It is useless to the discussion!

It doesn't matter how uninformed your opinion is, as long as you believe really hard on it!

Gerald Belman
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Come on guys. Just name one piece of art that you think is crap. Crap is a pretty subjective word - just use it in a sentence. I thought ____________ was a crappy movie/painting/game/book/poem.

"You can, however, adress technical quality, monetary value, taste, or even the existence of artistic motivation: those are complex but logical and, at least in some rate, objective, the same as politics and morality." - Yea all of that - that is just a really descriptive and verbose way of calling something crap. You think politics and morality are objective. lol.

"I don't think i have to be born in an anglophone country to make that statement. I'm Brazilian, by the way, with Italian descent." - No you don't - but it would certainly help.

"pretending my ignorance is wit" - accepting your own ignorance is the path to wit.

"So don't act shocked when people get upset." - I'm not shocked and I wasn't trying to act shocked. Upsetting people - that was kind of something I expected. I am however, continually perplexed how people like you can have a problem with me thinking the black square is crap.

Vinicius Capiotti
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Your opinion doesn't bother me or anybody else, what bothers me is you're trolling the shit out of people who actually care about this topic.

Let's understand your logic. You "pretend" you are dumb and uninformed, so people get upset and respond to you with relevant arguments. But you ignore their arguments and therefore do not participate in the discussion in any meaningful way. May sound poetic or something for you, but for me it is just disrespectful and childish.

Gerald Belman
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Well I appreciated Enrique Montiel's response. He explained the black square from an art history perpective and why he thought I am wrong or uninformed about it. I don't really understand how that gives it artistic value but it is appreciated.

Vinicius: I am still waiting for you to name a piece of art that you think is crap. C'mon there's got to be one.

Just because I keep wasting my time responding doesn't mean I am trolling. I really do want to understand why someone would look at the black square and say "wow, that is an amazing work of art."

People have been arguing about the value of certain pieces of abstract art for a long time.

Joe Cooper
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"accepting your own ignorance is the path to wit."

Paths are to be walked; you're not supposed to just stop there and declare your ignorance golden.

Gerald Belman
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Well, Joe, I think you specifically could gain alot by accepting your own ignorance on the subject. You have yet to explain to me why the black square is worth alot of money. Maybe if you accepted your ignorance on the subject - you would start reading articles and books about abstract art and you might realize that I am right and the genre of "abstract" art really is just used as a cover for a lack of effort and talent. Not all abstract art is used that way of course - but the word "abstract" has been abused quite a bit in this manner.

Jesse Tucker
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I'm not sure that I would say the game needs to be more fun, although it does need to be more engaging. The problem with it is that the progression in the game doesn't actually reflect your goals of getting the player to reflect on the core concept of the game. It starts off as a pensive administration of happiness, but develops into a crazy clickfest where your conscious mind doesn't have the opportunity to contemplate what's going on.

People expect the theme of the game to increase as you play the game, but as it is right now, the progression distracts from your original purpose.

Devin Wilson
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Thanks for the feedback! Definitely worth considering, but I don't think I agree with you. I appreciate it, though.

David Paskiet
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I'm going to have to agree with this. It felt to me like a digital whack-a-mole. I never thought about whether or not the moles felt alone.

To add to that, as the game progresses the frequency of phone calls increase. To me this makes me think that these people are definitely not lonely. The game could maintain the same level of fun, or not fun for that matter, but do a better job of focusing on the theme. For example, if all of the apartments started lit, and the tenants turned out the lights after receiving a phone call or two, except for one apartment that never gets a call. Then at the conclusion we feel for the one apartment that truly is alone.

Devin Wilson
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Not to sound like a broken record, but I disagree. I never want to discourage thoughtful feedback, though, so thank you.

Mechanically, sure, it's whack-a-mole. I just don't think it's irrelevant that these people are always alone in their apartment. I think the visual-fictional aspects of the game communicate what I wanted to, but what I _will_ concede is that maybe the whack-a-mole aspect of it becomes distracting. However, as I've said, I think once players have a chance to reflect on what an empty experience it's been for them, the same feeling can be metaphorically extended to the game world (however minimal it is).

Roger Tober
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Game play was too simple. Granted, it's a Ludum Dare contest, but still, there needed to be more. For instance conversation choices when two people engage. Maybe they could have been icon choices. Maybe you want to show it's pointless, but something further needed to be done. And like someone else said, games don't need to be fun, but they do need to be engaging. It's an interesting start to a game.

Roger Tober
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I guess to add to what I said, after thinking about it more. "Alone" is people wanting to engage with each other, but not being able to, and that's not what it felt like or the impression it left me.

Devin Wilson
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Having the user play through conversations would be completely counter to what I wanted this to be. Thanks for playing and responding, though.

Roger Tober
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Thanks for replying also. I only used it for a suggestion, not as something to do. What I was trying to say was that the message and game play can be separate. You can have a message that something is pointless without having pointless game play, and there will be a lot more wows when you do that. It's self defeating to come up with pointless game play to give a pointless message because people will remember the game play, not the message.

Ara Shirinian
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Sometimes, people use the word fun when they really mean something else, particularly in the absence of an ability to precisely interpret feelings and experiences.

I think, there is value in a "not fun" game, however you want to define the word, but such ambition brings with it great challenge. If your intent for example is to create a certain sense of discomfort in the player about the nature of phone calls in real life, you must ensure that the player does not get any discomfort at all from the mechanics of interfacing from the game. Otherwise, they will attribute their discomfort to how the game itself plays, instead of your intended source, and your message will be lost.

On the other hand, many people have rather strong expectations about what a game can be about. Look at how frequently critical reviews evaluate games not at face value, but in terms of what the reviewer thinks or wishes the game should have been. If the player is not prepared to consider the game as it stands, you will never be able to communicate your message to them.

Darren Tomlyn
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(As usual this is all based on my blog:
s_NEW.php (mind the space)).

Quote: "Let me quickly preface this blog by saying that, in the following text, when I use the word “game”, I’m using it to describe any sort of digital, interactive thing that at least resembles a game."

And this is a problem.

Unfortunately, at this time, it is a very real, fundamental problem, that can even have some fairly bad consequences for people. (Mainly involving/because of gambling).

As should be recognised - this is all about language, and the words we use to label, consider, recognise and understand (usually human) behaviour - especially APPLICATIONS of such behaviour (things that happen).

The root of the problem, is confusion between a number of different such applications of behaviour that are represented by different words in the language, and therefore what they represent, not just in isolation, but especially in relation to each other - game, art, puzzle and competition.

The program you've created here, however, is only consistent with involving competition, (the act of competing), as far as such words are concerned. Because of this - being 'fun' (or involving work or play, and therefore being a tool or toy - though I doubt anyone can say that this program is productive?), doesn't really matter, anyway - it only ever matters in the first place, if that is what you wish to create. (Games can be played for work, and do not have to be fun at all).

Since your program merely involves competing by interacting with a story being told, but without anything to be competed for - it's not a game, nor is it A competition. Since the story does not already exist until it is 'played' (interacted with), neither is it a puzzle. Since the behaviour of the player is so simple and repetitive, as people have already said, I considered the activity itself extremely boring - I didn't really pay much attention to the subject matter or the setting - only that what I did (not what the program did, either to me, or on my behalf) didn't really matter, so what was the point in 'playing' (with) it?

'In defence of tedium':

Tedium can ONLY ever be defended IF it has a pay-off - either because I'm competing FOR something - either to figure something out or to be told whether or not I've won something etc.. And if it involves a tedious written story, then it's merely a boring game - though, yes, if some people still find it 'fun' when intended, then it's obviously not tedious 'enough' ;) But that, of course, is always subjective.

But that's not what this piece of software involves, anyway...

Joe Cooper
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I think you might actually not be thinking deeply enough, or in the wrong direction.

The problem that's been described of your game is not about resonance or that it isn't a "male power fantasy", but that it isn't robust; it doesn't remain engaging. The fact that such commenters thought it seemed fun at first is in direct contradiction to the notion that there's a resonance problem.

A robust game is one that remains engaging for a while. Robust games tend to feature actions & decisions that must be considered as part of a bigger picture. And, just as an observer of art must trust that there is something to understand, a player of a game must trust that the game can indeed be played.

In this case, we have nothing more than a brain-dead reaction loop that is soon overwhelmed. There isn't much to work with and it becomes clear that the game is faster than the player, period.

Don't take this as insulting; it's very hard to make a robust game even when you take a wholly off-the-shelf design (and still have to design levels and balance figures). Don't blame your critics. Try again.

I'll share a quick story that I think is a good example of what I mean.

Earlier this year I made a strategy game for study purposes. There were a bunch of units and two armies on a terrain (hex grid, more defense for forests and such). When I'd sit down to play it, what'd happen is the two armies would essentially fling themselves at each other. There was little you could do intellectually to affect the outcome.

At some point, though, I added healing; if you leave a unit in place, it heals. Then I rewrote the AI to assess the quality of positions, measure them against its "fear" (reciprocal of HP, basically) and have an instinct to flee to safe spots to repair, and so forth.

This made the game shine. Now you'd have to hit a unit multiple times in one turn or else it'd survive, flee and repair and because of this, the game became about maneuvering to create ideal situations and counter-maneuvering to hinder the AI.

The game became engaging intellectually and I played it for hours and hours.

In hindsight, what happened was with the healing, there was now a somewhat unnatural "ideal state" that you had to perform many small, well-considered actions to achieve and that could be thwarted by a smart opponent. If I turn off the healing, one game-state is almost as good as any.

So back to your game for a moment. How could it be more engaging? That calls may appear in groups can heighten engagement because if several calls appear at once, one path of your mouse can take you over more calls than another path. This is some light engagement. But only very light, so it will get boring fast and has nothing whatsoever to do with auteurs and male power fantasies. (Though I confess I do have a soft spot for such ideals.)

Miroslav Martinovic
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Added the article to My Gamemaking Religion collection, thank you. You expressed in a very good way what i was thinking about for some time now. I'm currently working on a game that uses this philosophy as a starting point, where you are thrown into an unknown world with unknown rules, completely alien control scheme, and to progress, you have to find out everything by yourself. And i mean literally yourself, there are no hints, no tutorials, no text whatsoever in the whole game. I'm making it because when i was young, i LOVED stumbling in the games, not knowing what to do, what the game even permits, just roaming through screens and menus, and finding out by myself. I deliberately avoided tutorials in strategy games like Star Wars: Rebellion, and similar just for this. So I want to create that kind of experience, a piece where this is the main gameplay content. But the question is - will anyone want to play it, when there's so many games which are just simply fun, not requiring the player to think about mechanics and feelings on this... more mature, i would say, level?

One thing is making a game with this in mind. Completely other thing is presenting the game to audience that has its expectations trained by all other games in a way that "game has to provide the fun experience in the first place, everything else is just additional" is what they think. These "Ingmar Bergman" kinds of games won't be played too much unless audience accepts games to be "experience providing medium", not just a "fun providing medium". But audience won't start to accept this unless they play such a game. It's kind of a closed circle that is difficult to break, isn't it?

Devin Wilson
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I hadn't read this thread since the 25th and there had been a number of thoughtful comments since, so I just wanted to recognize that and thank everybody for their feedback.