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Machine Gods: Religion in Games
by Mark Filipowich on 07/18/13 11:56:00 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.

 

The banner stretched over the entrance to Bioshock’s Rapture, “No Gods or Kings, only Man,” makes for a good descriptor of most modern games. Games are spaces where any “Gods” that show up are just a name, a boss fight, or a battery for the player’s magic. Protagonists aren’t accountable to any “King” either, nor are they really subject to the rules of any kingdom. There is only “Man” and his unlimited influence in the world. In the real world, religion and politics permeate every layer of society. Every human interaction is touched by spirituality or by a social power structure. More importantly, religious and social institutions are responsible for shaping morality. While the approach of games to politics is sometimes shallow (Mark Filipowich, “Existing Above the Law in Video Games”, PopMatters, 4 September 2012) or sometimes deep (Sean Sands, “A Narrative of Crusader Kings, Gamers With Jobs, 27 June 2013.), they still most often remain trepidatious when approaching religion.
  
Jordan Rivas doesn’t mince words in his article “The depiction of religion in games is awful for non-religious and religious alike” (Nightmare Mode, 19 November 2012). Rivas argues that most religion in games is reduced to watered down, insubstantial kitsch to maximize profit and minimize thoughtful but potentially offensive content. Games based in the real world keep mentions of God or religion to a minimum or abstracted enough that their representations can only be vaguely associated with real world religious organizations or beliefs. In fearing spiritual content, games ignore what is for many people a major factor in developing a sense of right and wrong. By neglecting these institutions, games fail even to critique religion or spirituality—that would require interacting with the subject matter.

This omission isn’t just a missed opportunity to speak to how people relate to the divine (or how they reconcile a lack thereof), it makes it harder to relate to a game world. Religion and faith attempt to address the anxieties that exist in the human ability to plan and the knowledge of death. The conflict between planning for and fearing the future is central to the human condition and for eons faith has both succeeded and failed in addressing it. When games fear these ideas, they deprive players of potentially meaningful experiences. When players die, resurrection is no more than a button tap away, any gods that exist have no power over the player.

Video game characters don’t ever worry about their immortal souls, and they never seek or struggle against their religious heritage. Apathy is a default condition, and it isn’t even an active choice. Games are more than capable of inventing interesting worlds. In fact, their structure often necessitates it (Nick Dinicola,“To Build a World or Tell a Story?”, PopMatters, 21 May 2012). Religion occasionally gets some lip service when games attempt to flesh out a world, but the deeper issues that guide people to their faith—the quest for meaning in the universe—are rarely explored in games, nor do games explore the ways that religious figures and institutions are able to harness their influence for good or for evil. Game worlds operate in systems of miracles, but churches, heroes, and gods within them are treated in a purely utilitarian manner.

Even in games in which religious figures are supposed to be significant to certain characters and worlds, these figures are robbed of their spirituality. Gods in God of War are just bags of meat waiting to be skewered. The Maker’s existence in Dragon Age is self-evident. His avatar in Thedas, Andraste, is indisputably real. Her remains can (in fact, they must) be located by the player’s party, and they have observably holy effects. These kinds of Gods aren’t any different than people in the universe. They don’t exist outside of it, and they’re subjects to its rules. There’s no mention of faith. Deities aren’t even really deities because they have a material existence and a direct influence on the world. The focus on these kinds of fantasy gods is on how they directly impact different people’s living conditions. Games don’t have anything to say about the purpose of existence or where humans fit in the universe. The existential questions and answers posed by religion and belief rarely make their way into games. Gods and churches are just obstacles or assets.

It’s a problem that’s inherent in power fantasies. Most games create a space where the player has ultimate influence on the world without being accountable to anyone else in it. While I don’t mean to call for the abolition of power fantasies, it becomes a problem when almost the entire medium is based on a fantasy that the isolated, agnostic, spiritually indifferent hero is the ultimate moral authority. If nothing else, religion has a very real impact on people’s lives on both personal and sociological levels. It’s pretty unrealistic for games to avoid addressing those influences so adamantly.

 

Originally posted on PopMatters.


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Comments


Martin Juranek
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In game, gods either have measurable effect* (end then they are just another game mechanic/characters), or like in real world they does not have it, so they are just fluff. They can play important place in story, even IF they don't exist. But there is no spirituality** in it that player does not bring with him (it can be amplified, diminished or destroyed, but not created).

* games are much simpler systems than universe and can be much easier examined.
** we KNOW it is created by its author team and it contains only things they (or players/modders) put in.

Christian Nutt
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This does leave me wondering what you think of the religious narrative of Final Fantasy Tactics, since you included a screenshot but didn't discuss it directly.

Mark Filipowich
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FFT is a complicated case (actually I'm in the middle of writing about FFT and religion, we'll see if it ever sees the light of day) because even though *spoilers* the end boss is basically the devil that history remembers as Christ--which is a pretty reductionist approach--Faith a significant impact on the game. I mean that literally: it's a stat that the player manages to make characters stronger or weaker in this way or that. However, even in the plot God is a pretty important figure. Before rivals face off they argue who is better serving God, what God wants for people on Earth and who is representing or abusing His vision. It really tries even though it falls into some of the trappings I talked about.

A lot has been written about religion in games, and I think a lot of players would like to see a deeper representation of it than hell's three-headed guard dog looking super badass. Religion is something that seems to only ever get glossed over in games. Even in so-called "God games," players never have to confront what religion and God means to them or what it could mean to other people. Probably because doing that is really uncomfortable. I just think that a little discomfort here and there can be good (one might say "for the soul").

Christian Nutt
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The thing about Japan is that I think Christianity (and its analogues, since usually RPGs, including FFT, go for some sort of pseudo-Roman Catholic situation, which I think contributes, given the long history of the Roman Catholic Church) is treated much like we'd treat Greek myth in games.

I tend to agree with you that having you ACTUALLY go kill Ajora is a bit too on the nose, but the whole mythos is cohesive, and it does help deliver the message the game is trying to make: religion is a tool for political and social manipulation. Just there's all these weird demons mixed up in it in a very direct way, unlike in the real world.

Kenneth Blaney
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This seems to go hand in hand with the moral choice system of games. That is, it is either purely mechanical (all of the best skills are reserved for pure good or pure bad players) or they are purely background with no real impact on the game play. That said, I think there is one series in direct contradiction to this in that the god of the world impacts gameplay, but isn't overtly mechanical and exists outside of the rules of the world: The AI Narrator in Left 4 Dead. This character works as an inworld god for the players chiefly because it does not force the player to believe it is anything supernatural.

J Spartan
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I thought Civilization IV integrated a 'religious' system quite nicely into the designs of a 4x tbs game. It added some flavour and 'truth' about mankind's journey through history. It didn't preach, but it had an effect on the game and the players choices.

Michael Joseph
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Many games are trying to BE the equivalent of a religious experience.

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Michael Joseph
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No, nothing specific. I was generally thinking about games that are consciously designed to manipulate dopamine release in players.

And certainly if as a designer this is the primary goal then there's no place for other considerations like philosophy, religion, politics, morality, etc. Higher levels of conscious thinking and low level church of fun-centric design I think are mutually exclusive.

People have to be at least somewhat more awake to appreciate games that have something to say and lots of games prefer to keep players in a dream or plane of consciousness they can control.

Nathan McKenzie
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Religion, taken seriously, is a third rail topic for entertainment corporations. It's not like Hollywood does well with the topic either, most of the time, for big budget stuff.

Also, I would put Ultima IV front and center about any conversation about games and religion because of the extent to which it's willing to engage with the idea of moral behavior and virtue in a player-driven context (rather than just being shunted off to the narrative). It's not the same thing as taking people's existing religion traditions seriously, but it's worth taking seriously. That Ultima IV didn't inspire the creation of even richer such games seems a tragedy to me. Instead we get all that "good choice vs. naughty choice" dreck that games do from time to time.

Martin Pichlmair
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My first thought exactly: How would you write about religion in games without starting off with Ultima IV.

Daniel Cook
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Talking about existing religions in games is like talking about soccer at a basketball match. Both are human designed rulesets the describe an internally valid value structure.

We can certainly use existing religious practices and history as flavor or thematic color. To say the status buff is 'Holy Water' gives the buff a certain cultural resonance. But it is still a mechanical status buff. Thus it remains difficult to import a religion's rules without changing the explicit systemic nature of the digital game. It is a bit like trying to run one codebase on top of another.

Though to be fair, it sounds like you may not be interested in games as systems but instead as yet another form of text to riff off. Criticism, not creation. For example, you might be delighted to find a narrative game that has well authored cutscenes full of religious discussion.

Mark Filipowich
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I also think I would be delighted by a well authored game full of religious discussion. But I also think there's a way to approach religion as a system of rules. Civilization has been mentioned in this discussion so far: if I remember right, research in religion improves population satisfaction. Religion in Civ is quite literally an opiate of the masses. I mentioned faith in FFT as a resource that makes characters more powerful while making them more vulnerable, I think that's an interesting approach as well. The deeper this discussion seems to go the more it seems like older games approached religion more willingly.

I wonder about faith as a resource that makes characters more merciful or cruel, more accepting of death or more frightened of evil behaviour. If a character's "ambition" matched their "faith" and became incapable of pity and empathy. Or if a character who lacked faith and watched a comrade die was unable to return to their role. What if a player had to make their character pray to keep them effective, or find some alternative to faith to keep them motivated.

I think there's room for exploration on a mechanical level as much as on a narrative one.

Luis Guimaraes
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Using religion for it's psychological effects sounds pretty interesting.

Christian Nutt
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Though see his above comment about Final Fantasy Tactics. In the game, the more "faith" your character has, the more effective magic is -- both casting and receiving. It's a stat. Pretty unusual. Blends the idea of religion with an actual mechanic, in other words.

Paul Furio
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Dan makes some excellent points. If religion is a gameplay mechanic, then yes, it's mechanical. Even if it informs the possibility of a player's actions (or those of an NPC), it's still a mechanic. "I can't kill that person, it's against my religion. Unless that person is a different religion, then Jihad!"

The question I have about the article is, what type of religious influence are we looking for in a game experience? Should the game be a surrogate for a deity, where too many "evil" deeds cause it to wipe your hard drive, and plenty of "good" ones will hack your bank account and add a few zeroes? Or should the equivalent happen within the context of the game?

A problem with this is that the realm of the supernatural is explicitly outside the natural, and thus defies it's rules, so as to create randomness in an ordered system, a game being a concrete implementation of one. The key common characteristic of all games is that of figuring out the "system", and how to work it to ultimate advantage; it most games, to "win." But what is "winning" in the context of religion, and what is random supernatural activity in the context of a game?

To the latter point, doesn't this defy the orderly rule-based behavior of a game? "Once in a while, when I hit the pray act, I get loaves from heaven. But not all the time. Sometimes if I do good deeds there are more, but sometimes, even if I'm evil, I get some. Maybe I'm being pitied." Great, now this is a slot machine mechanic at best, and an introspection into the mind of an unknowable deity at worst (which, arguably is no different than real life). Is this satisfying as a player?

To the former point, should games be a meditation on how to be successful at one's religion? "If I play life like I played the game, I get into heaven! Now to go find more sheep to trade for wood, or goats to trade for wives!" How is this different than just reading a holy book, besides the educational impact of agency? How is this a game, and not (arguably) propaganda?

As for the point of faith informing behavior in a game setting, I would argue that one purpose of a game is to allow, in a harmless setting, the kind of behavior that one would neither conduct nor tolerate in real life. I would never mow down countless humans with a machine gun, as the idea (and the known impact) disgusts me, but I can do that without fear of repercussions (legal or spiritual) in a video game. If faith impacts fantasy and/or gameplay, do we not enter into the "thoughtcrime" realm that escapism is supposed to allow an outlet from?

Finally, people without faith can also be moral, and ethical. No religion or God defines my morality, yet I find it incredibly difficult to engage in realistic (or even unrealistic) acts that would portray physical or emotional harm to NPCs that display agency. From Floyd in "Planetfall", to Yorda in "Ico", to the pixelated border crossers in "Papers, Please", I can make ethical decisions, and feel distraught when harm is done, without a thought to afterlife or supernatural judgement. I act these ways because I project empathy on agents whom I intellectually know are not real, but are anthropomorphized enough fool me anyway. If anything, from my POV, religion in these games might only serve to make my behavior less ethical (for those religions which demonstrate intolerance), which while educational, would not make for an enjoyable, nor emotionally satisfying experience.

Aaron Brande
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To be frank, you article comes off as a bit biased, as if the subject matter, religion, isn't a myriad of fabricated stories to explain things unknown to primitive man anyway. Your article gives me the impression that you are not muslim, buddhist, or any religion other than some variety of christian, and the opinions therein skewed towards that specific belief set. Do we need our games to not allow us to think for ourselves, but rather tell us what to think according to Mohammed, Siddhartha, or whatever religous figure you likely weren't considering? Best to not mix fantasies to be honest, and that's why it's uncommon. There ARE religious games. they are usually unlicensed, in the event of consoles, or otherwise severely sub-par. The public isn't really interested in them. Anyone is free to make games in whatever vein they prefer, just don't expect anyone except yourself and specific "group" to be interested in them. That's ok for some people, but many devs prefer the wider audience i think.

Adam Bishop
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"Do we need our games to not allow us to think for ourselves, but rather tell us what to think"

A good work of art tells you what *it* thinks and trusts that you're smart enough to figure out what you think about that. I don't want art that coddles me by telling me to just believe whatever I already believe, I want art that challenges me by presenting powerful arguments in favour of views I might not have considered.

I also strongly disagree with the idea that a game that had strong religious themes would necessarily be a niche product targeted at people who already shared its beliefs. Dostoevsky's novels are filled with Christian philosophy but I still enjoy them tremendously even though I'm agnostic.

Peter Tanuwidjaja
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A bit unrelated to the topic, but it strikes me as odd that some people are infuriated by the baptism scene from Bioshock Infinite and at the same time they are okay with the amount of violence Bioshock Infinite has to offer.

Am I missing something here?

Luis Guimaraes
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Well, video games are not real life, nor are intended to replace any of it. That's why people seem offended for games poking their religious beliefs. And some stuff are ought to be done in the REAL world, and the very idea of simulating them is offensive.

Personally I find the idea of "wiping a tear of a child's face" in a game far more offensive than shooting at some moving obstacle made polygons to permanently take it out of my way. Maybe that's because there's REAL children suffering in the REAL world and if you want to wipe tears go ease their REAL suffering instead of making BS simulations and pretending to be good about it while they keep suffering REAL pain.

And I just got out of my good mood... That stuff drives me nuts.

The baptism scene from Infinite sounds like an extreme case for people to nitpick though, didn't know somebody able to be "infuriated" by that scene even played video-games at all.

Maria Jayne
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Most people who are religious, don't want your interpretation of their belief. The people who are not, don't want you trying to impose that religion on them. I think it is quite a challenge to write religion into a video game without upsetting religious folk or appearing patronizing to none believers.

If you manage it, it's a bit like baking a beetroot cake, you can do it, but you don't have a better cake at the end. All you've achieved is a way of disguising the beetroot in your cake, because nobody really wants it anyway.

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Dantron Lesotho
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I think you're ignoring a huge group of games that tackle religion quite often: JRPG's. Xenogears, the Tales series, Persona, every Final Fantasy in some capacity, the Star Ocean series, and the list goes on. Edit: Also Assassin's Creed. Typically the narrative becomes a character's faith being done away with when they discover that the god is either completely fake (made up by humans) or not what everyone thought it was (alien from the 4th dimension, etc) and in my opinion that's the way it should be. We are definitely using video games to explore what religion means to people, and since you can speed up the timeline with which people exist in their lifetimes, it's sort of a condensed version. I'm not entirely sure what you are trying to get out of game makers unless you just want to see game characters treat religion like most people do in every day life: mildly and forgettably unless some significant event happens in their lives.

Jonathan Lin
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If we're talking religion in JRPG's, then Okami certainly bears mentioning I think.

Gord Cooper
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A good go-to in terms of a series that uses religion as a thematic backdrop to more trope settings (end of the world scenario) is the Shin Megami Tensei series of games. Not only does the game series include angels, demons and creatures of myth structure from most major world religions/settings, but it generally does include the 'named' angels and demons as pro/anatagonists in the world.

Additionally, they aren't afraid to use fictional religion (ie - HP Lovecrafts' mythos structure) as a valid 'religion' as well, using figures like Nyarlathotep as lynchpin characters right next to Asmodeus, the Biblical 4 Horsemen, et al.

Granted, the game isn't asking you hard questions, but it is using religion and religious myth canons as something few do - a rich story background, filled with interesting characters and monsters to use earnestly and honestly in your work. They don't disrespect the individual canon of each religion - they give each their due, and allow them full facetime, while still observing the singular things that make them special through their skills, abilities, personal motivations, etc...

Matthew Calderaz
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"It’s pretty unrealistic for games to avoid addressing those influences so adamantly."

Yes, it is unrealistic; and I agree that many games could create a more believable world with characters compelled by religious convictions. If that's the motivation for more discussion of religion in games, I'm all for it. (I thought one of the great parts of 'The Witcher's' story, for example, was it's realistic portrayal of racial tension between the human/non-humans)

Aside from making a narrative more believable, however, I adamantly disagree with the notion that games should be a primary vehicle for in-depth discussion of serious subject matter; If I want a serious discussion of a serious topic I don't believe a game will ever compare to a book, essay or dialog with another human. I just don't think games are well-suited to the task.

Jakub Majewski
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I think in many ways, games are very well-suited to the task - provided that they take the task seriously (which they do not have to - come on, how many films or books are actually in-depth discussions of serious subject matter? Most of what we watch or read is trivial, and we should not demand more than that from game developers).

Open-world RPGs in particular are excellent tools for the exploration of various viewpoints - give the player an opportunity to make a statement by taking action. The limitation is that this is very hard stuff, as it requires the developers to put a lot of effort into shaping the consequences of actions.

Jakub Majewski
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I think the reason that games cannot really offer anything significant in religious content is simply because most developers are utterly ignorant of religion. My experience as a Catholic who happens to be a game developer has been that most people in the office (this in a historically Catholic country, incidentally) are anti-religious, but simply know nothing about what they're criticising. It becomes impossible to even have a decent discussion, because time and again you're pummeled by pure nonsense, and the best you can do is explain time and again that really - if you don't look like a camel, you don't smell like a camel, and you don't sound like a camel, then in fact you are not a camel. And the response is - well, sure, but everyone knows you're a camel anyway....

I would really love to see games that tackle religion in a deep way. Yes, I'd even be very glad to see atheist games that criticise religion in a deep way. But this will not happen, because most game developers are too ignorant of religion, and at best can only repeat silly arguments that may have made sense for someone, but got distorted into nonsense through Chinese whispers-style repetition over the internet. Most importantly, atheist game developers look down on the Bible, and refuse to touch it - and any academic will tell you that you simply cannot coherently and deeply criticise something if you're ignorant of the source material.

Just so it doesn't seem like I'm being unfairly harsh on the atheists - the exact same thing is the case for most "religious" game developers, too. We live in an age of religious nonchalance - time and again, I meet people who start off by saying they're Catholic, and then spouting nonsensical criticism of Catholicism that demonstrates an utter lack of basic understanding of what they're talking about. You'd think that it would be possible to persuade someone who self-identifies as a Catholic to find out more about the logic behind the doctrines he's criticising - but no, because people simply don't believe enough to really care. It's the same with the atheists I described above - their ignorance is the willful ignorance of someone who simply does not want to be bothered with a particular subject.


All that having been said, I was blown away - a few years after the fact - when I realised how much Morrowind tries to channel religious themes. If you think about it, the entire setting is a fantasified recreation of Palestine, and the player being a sort of Christ figure (sort of, because instead of being sacrificed, he defeats the devil in combat - well, it is a game, after all...), the long-foretold saviour. The game doesn't actually try to adapt the Bible into its story, it just kinda borrows images and concepts to create resonance - but it does this to such a high level of intensity, that the result is incredibly impressive.

The only trouble with this rosy image is that at the end of the day, Morrowind's gods are still nothing more than vending machines for magical blessings. It's the same with Oblivion and Skyrim. In Skyrim, there was a nice theme in the background with the suppression of the cult of Talos. The Nords insist that Talos is a god, while the Thalmor force them to stop worshipping him, arguing that Talos is just a man and could never be a god. This could potentially be a very interesting and complex theme - but it's hamstrung by the game mechanics. Who cares what the Thalmor say, when I can just approach an altar of Talos, pray there, and obtain a very tangible "Blessing of Talos"? It's hard to really debate whether someone is a god or not, when you can pray to him and get a blessing that tangibly and quantifiably improves your abilities.

Aaron Houts
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I would love to see more of provocative concepts like religion in games.

We had two fictional religions in The Sims Medieval (two different interpretations of how The Watcher (the player) expected Sims to behave). Players could bring one or both of them into their kingdom and doing so would affect the Sims who lived there as well as give the player access to new content. For example, if you played as a priest from either religion, you could convert other characters to your religion.

Religion also factored into various quests. One in particular dealt with a impending disaster and could be approached from either religion's perspective in order to help comfort the populace (some of whom were questioning their faith).

Overall, it was mostly lighthearted stuff, but I thought we did a good job of presenting it in an open-ended way which players could interpret and use as they desired.

Tawna Evans
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Stuff that comes to mind regarding including religion in games:

* serious games that educates the player on the historical development of religions.
* religions as social groups that the player could choose to ally with, oppose, or do neither. Like, there could be a group representing Christian, another representing Muslim, another for Hindus, and the player could find support / opposition during the quest depending on action taken.
* religion as a dramatic effect that inspires the player to question his or her own beliefs in the same way a person would if reading a book or watching a movie.


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