Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Handwriting and the Way We Think

September 22, 2009

A recent report demonstrates that cursive handwriting is on the decline. More people are composing on computers and more teachers are only accepting typed papers; I personally haven’t written in cursive for about ten years and do a fine job with print. While I am inclined to simply wave nostalgically goodbye to excellent penmanship, there are significant changes that occur when we switch from a writing to a typing culture.

First off, as Marshall McLuhan illustrated in the Gutenberg Galaxy, our thought processes altered dramatically when we shifted from an oral culture to a written culture. The simple act of writing things down changed the ways we thought by using a book as an extension of memory, a change that became more dramatic the more literate people became and the more widespread the book. The result was the book, as an extension of the memory, altered our ability to remember by having us rely on knowledge stored in books, privileging the ability to write over the ability to speak, and composition styles through handwriting and editing rather than mental construction. While Walter Benjamin lamented the loss of oral culture in “The Storyteller”, McLuhan saw the change as something to not just embrace but to be aware of its effects.

Similarly, the shift from handwriting to typewriting alters the way we think. We delete our mistakes, leaving no trace behind and cut and paste whole pages of text with ease. We have spellcheckers that not only make it easier for us to correctly spell words, but are easier to misuse and actually hurt spelling. We have new vocabulary resulting from typos and Internet shorthand. We stare at a monitor and replace the tactility of the pen with the mechanical punch of the keys; writer’s cramp is a disease replaced by eye strain. Some of us may actually compose faster (typing above 70 words a minute is a skill for success?). But the primary change is that because computers allow us to compose nonlinearly and arrange information with nonlinearity, we are beginning to think more and more nonlinear.

This translates into a new set of skills for not only creating information but also in consuming information and becoming information-literate. When Vannevar Bush, in “The Way We Think”, proposed the memex, a device that would later inspire the computer, he realized it was important that we not simply record information but that we make it easier for people to access it. What typewriting has done is made us rely more on the memex network at our fingertips, the Internet, without really understanding how to use it, how to locate reliable sources, how to evaluate sources, and how to access all sides of an issue. Which isn’t to say that “Google is Making Us Stupid” as the Atlantic wondered, but rather it is altering the ways in which we must think, including shortening our attention spans.

If all that sounds heady, there is a more practical reason why we should be interested in the shift to typewriting, and that is the longevity of the information we are creating. While we have Benjamin Franklin’s journal from his trip to France over two hundred years ago, we have an incredibly hard time accessing digital documents generated only twenty years ago due to media decay, changes in format, and obsolescence of older technology. Websites appear and disappear daily, information is altered with Orwellian unnerve, and search engines pull up different hits each day. While it may be easy for us to access this information, its ephemeral nature and lack of concrete tactility are weaknesses that must be overcome if we are to successfully shift to a typewritten culture and expect what we create to be as sound as Benjamin Franklin’s journal.

More on 3D TV?

September 12, 2009

Sony recently debuted a few games running in full 3D using glasses and a special HDTV at the Consumer Electronics Show. As I’ve stated below, I’m not convinced these are going to stick (especially with the 2011 and 2012 arrival dates). The effects of Toy Story and Avatar in 3D are going to be quite interesting, so I’ll wait and see what kind of impact these have on films of the next three years. But I doubt it will become a dominant medium simply because it requires people to put on glasses.

On the other hand, the head tracking on the Wii might show its head in Project Natal using head recognition software in the video camera. Of course, this same technology could integrated with a webcam or even Sony’s EyeToy to create a head tracking experience for single-user games and computers – and what is more single-user than a laptop?

Contra Rebirth

September 12, 2009

Contra Rebirth came out on Monday for WiiWare, and it is fantastic. Contra is a classic run ‘n gun shooter that I’ve talked about in my work before and also created a machinima about. Contra Rebirth takes the old formula and brings it back with quite a bit of humor and insanity to boot, which is very interesting considering how the Metal Slug series borrowed Contra-style action and infused it with humor. In a sense, Contra is now borrowing from a series that was inspired by it! The series has essentially shed the seriousness that was present in Shattered Soldiers and Contra 4 and went back to its core: these games are just fun to play and don’t have to take themselves seriously.

Just to give a sense of the humor, the game is packed from cutscenes with ridiculous dialogue and situations to zany bosses and over-the-top action sequences. It includes a herd of giant robotic camels; Contra’s other hero, Lance Bean, dressed in drag; a Cho Aniki-esque giant statue boss; a stampede of wild aliens – even the Galactic President looks like Che Guevara! And the game had me with the exploding logo for the title screen.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no challenge: the Contra games have always been known for their difficulty, and Rebirth is no different. The game is heavily pattern-based, but this means playing through several times in order to clear it. But even though you will die many times, the game gives infinite continues and has continue points, making it similar to Metal Slug – Konami has done their homework. The game gives a nod to its difficulty by reminding us of the many Contras lost during the course of the game. And in the end, Bill Rizer also goes back into stasis to ‘rest in peace’.

I feel the audio and visual aesthetics also require a nod. The audio replicates the early chiptunes of Konami’s arcades and the MSX while the graphics borrow the pallette used in Contra 3. All of this points back to nostalgia while simultaneously pushing Contra forward through the release of humor.

Contra Rebirth is short, sweet, and the infinite credits gives it instantaneous pick up and play; the humor plus the ease of play adds to its replay value. In many ways, it was a Contra game I was looking for, even if I do wish it had an extra level or two. It’s not going to win any art contests or make us think about ourselves. But that’s not what its point is, and its design is a polishing of an old, classic style. It’s something to sit back and play with a smile that helps forget everything, at least for awhile.

What Janet Murray and PopSci Forgot to Mention

September 8, 2009

Recently I’ve been digging into Janet Murray’s classic Hamlet on the Holodeck. The book is quite interesting even though it is now over a decade old. Obviously Murray would have a lot more to say about World of Warcraft and Second Life, but what she has to say about MUDs still stands true for this modern software. The most interesting bit of criticism that I think gets lost in these ideal representations of the future, such as those imagined by PopSci’s Future Of on the Discovery Channel, mainly the problems of cost, scale, and integration.

Essentially, tech like the Virtusphere may look really cool (and it’s kind of embarrassing they can’t debut it for something more interesting than an FPS game), but it’s not going to come to the home any time soon. For one thing, there’s the problem of space: the Virtusphere simply takes up too much space in the home and can only be used by a single user (even the Holodeck appears to have been civic and likely booked for group or individual use rather than something you’d find in every crewman’s quarters).

We’ve been talking about virtual reality for more than two decades now. Computers have improved immensely in this time frame, but the cost of doing VR is still too high for it to become ubiquitous. Much of the technologies Murray mentions (Imax, video rollercoasters, virtual reality, 3D movies) have had very limited impact and are usually limited to theme parks or specially built theaters. I find it interesting that 3D film in particular, which was around for such ‘classics’ as Jaws 3D (1983) and the Virtual Boy (1996) is finding a new resurgence through the likes of James Cameron’s Avatar and Wii Head Tracking. The fact that 3D film has been on-again-off-again for over 20 years doesn’t make me expect it will be around to stay, but the ‘halfway tech’ of 3D glasses has potential through its low-cost, add-on nature.

I find technology like the Switchables from MIT to be MUCH more interesting. This technology is small, it’s portable, and it’s (hopefully) cheap. The devices have small LCD screens, are connected to each other through infrared, have accelerometers to detect movement, and sense the presence of other devices to interact with them (the only thing that seems to be missing is a small webcam). It’s the type of technology the folks at Wired identify as “good enough tech” or that Gumpei Yokoi identified as “lateral thinking of withered technology” (of which the Game Boy and the Wii are epitomes). In PopSci, they demonstrated a music dj program and word games on the Switchables, giving plenty of opportunity for games, creation, and learning. I suspect the hardware would really get off the ground if this technology could be built for extremely cheap and was treated as open-source hardware like the arduino (there is no way even the brilliant folks at MIT could be as creative as hundreds of hardware hackers). It is technology like this that has the potential for the greatest impact because of its low cost and portability as well as its ability to turn users into creators.

As much as we might want to have technology that reproduces the holy grail of new media, the holodeck, I think it is beneficial for us to step back and ask ourselves who we are making the technology for. Do we want a holodeck that has to be booked for group use or do we want something small, portable, and available in everyone’s living room? These are two scales of technology, with the former relying primarily on spectacle and group experience, and the latter more individual but also potentially ubiquitous. Both scales have potential and importance to society (humans love group spectacle), but I tend to side with the technology that is most accessible.

Virtual Boy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

August 12, 2009

When most gamers hear about the Virtual Boy, they immediately deride it, saying what an awful piece of hardware it is and how it was the worst design Nintendo ever made (even worse than going with cartridges on the N64). However, none of these people have actually picked up and played a Virtual Boy (or at least one that actually works). As a result, the opinions of the general gaming populace are based on hearsay rather than first-hand experience. Taking a second look at the Virtual Boy seems particularly relevant in this day and age when we have a resurgence in 3D video in film and computers (what is this, the 1970s with Jaws 3D?).

I’ve got a VB and I like it a lot. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect piece of hardware, but it does mean that the VB gets a much worse rap than it actually deserves. The VB’s failures can be summed up as ergonomics issues and user interface issues. Its successes come from use of 3D displays to create new gameplay.

First off, many people will cite the statement that the Virtual Boy will cause you to go blind. While it is true that the VB will cause eye strain if used for extended periods (depending on the individual, usually after 30 minutes of constant use or less), the VB will only cause eye damage to children 7 years and younger who have developing eyes. Eye strain becomes easier if the hardware is malfunctioning (out of focus, misaligned mirrors, etc).

Much of the eyestrain is caused from focusing on red monochrome images in a darkened space. The eye isn’t used to this, so while it looks cool, you can’t stare at it for extended periods without rest. Had the unit been designed to allow more light in, this would probably be less of an issue. But it is the biggest problem with the system.

The second is ergonomics. Simply put, to stare into the VB isn’t so much a strain on your eyes as it is on your neck. The VB tripod is so small it was clearly designed for young people and short people – NOT 6′ tall adults. The tripod’s height is also not adjustable (it’s poorly made plastic). As a result, if you don’t have a tall stack of books, an adjustable table or chair, then you’ll get a neck cramp. (How I’ve been using it is propping the tripod on my chest and leaning back. This isn’t as much a strain, but it’s far better than anything else. Trouble is, you can’t laugh or the system will go out of balance! Couple this with the fact that the system is top-heavy and doesn’t immediately indicate how it should be mounted… This is strike two, and it’s one that could have been easily fixed with a better tripod or a head mount.

The third major issue is the UI for adjusting the system. Even though Nintendo tells you to adjust it every single time you power it on, it gives no directions in the BIOS as to how one should actually go about doing this. After the warnings screen, there are four blocks with ‘VB’ on them in each corner of the screen. In the center is a big square with ‘Virtual Boy’ written on it. To adjust the screen, you have to turn a knob and use the slider on the top of the system, and it’s not easy to tell that the four squares are in focus as it should be. This is something that could have been fixed with instructions within the system itself.

A minor issue is the design of the dust covers for the cartridges. While the system supposedly has self-cleaning cartridges (a definite plus), the dust covers are exactly the same width as the cartridge slot, meaning it is easy to stick a cartridge in with the dust cover attached. If this happens, the cover will get stuck in the system and you’ll need a screwdriver to prod it out. Interesting enough, there is a slot on top of the system for holding the dust covers…

I will also say that the volume knob is unreasonably loud. It goes from soft to something that must be over 80 decibels (enough to damage your ears). The game controller cable also seems a bit shorter than it needs to be.

Finally, we have the problem of hardware failure with the LED ribbon cables, as mentioned in the previous post.

Those issues aside, why is the Virtual Boy actually worth playing and talking about? The big thing the Virtual Boy does is it projects two separate images, one at each eye. This allows it to produce an actual 3D image, kind of like what you’d see in a Magic Eye or stereoscope (or 3D glasses). As a result, screenshots DO NOT do the actual image justice – it would be like looking at a 3D image without the 3D glasses. Conversely, it’s the difference between a regular television and a television with head tracking.

So the images are simply really cool to look at, in a retro-future kind of way. They actually pop out of the screen and move around rather than just 2D images on a flat plane. The novelty makes the games a bit more fun to play, and I assume this will be the case when head tracking TVs are released.

Some of the games take advantage of this, treating the 3D images not as a gimmick but as part of play. In Virtual Boy Wario Land and Mario Clash, this involves walking into the background of the screen as well as enemies and obstacles moving between the background, sprite layer, and foreground.

Again, these screens simply do not do the system justice.

It’s interesting to note that the backgrounds in Wario Land were used in Super Paper Mario – despite the fact that none of the developers ever worked on Wario Land, they must have been familiar with it:

Virtual Boy Wario Land

Virtual Boy Wario Land

(Oddly enough, nobody has screens of the background levels in Super Paper Mario!). It’s nice to see that the Virtual Boy is still put to some good use at Nintendo.

The gameplay isn’t exactly something that’s impossible on regular hardware – the real advantage comes from the 3D displays, which look really cool. The hardware is certainly superior to the GameBoy and Gameboy Color, but below that of the Gameboy Advance.

Given the technology used to make the Virtual Boy, it is probably possible to design something better using today’s technology that doesn’t have the eye issues and ergonomics that plague the original. The system is certainly worth picking up and shouldn’t be immediately dismissed as completely without redemption as it usually is. Nintendo’s red-headed stepchild in some ways simply feels like it was too far ahead of its time and a little too quickly shipped to market… If you don’t want to track down the original hardware, there are some emulators out there. Make sure you get some 3D glasses to go with it, though the experience still won’t be the same as the real thing…

There is a lot more great information on the system on Virtual-Boy.org.

Resurrecting a Virtual Boy

August 12, 2009

A few weeks back, I picked up a Virtual Boy. The retailer said it had been ‘tested thoroughly’ but as soon as I get it back, it starts getting glitched graphics in the right display. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but recently it went to the point of unplayability so I decided to get to work on repairing it.

The trouble is, in addition to having poorly designed ergonomics, the VB has some poorly designed hardware inside, mainly the ribbon cables that connect to the LED projectors. These cables are not very tightly connected and so loosen over time (even if it’s kept in storage), resulting in glitched graphics. To tell which LED panel is the culprit, close one eye and then the other. You’ll have to repair whichever one(s) is glitchy.

There is very little information on the web on how to repair a Virtual Boy. Most of it can be found on the forums of Digital Press, but this is mostly hearsay. One website goes into some detail, but they leave out a few key parts.

The main thing to know is that the VB uses 4.5mm security screws. It also has really deep, really narrow holes for some of the screws. You can use a dremel or a file to whittle down a flathead screwdriver or buy a 4.5mm Gamebit and modify it so it will fit in the holes (I had limited success with the flathead technique). Filing down the Gamebit was a bit easier, but it was impossible to cut a notch at the base for a screwdriver. Using regular files and even a hacksaw just didn’t work, so I ended up asking the neighbor for use of his dremel.

What they DON’T tell you is that you should REALLY make sure you file down that Gamebit REALLY WELL. Otherwise, it will get stuck in the hole like what happened to me. If this happens, you have to take a small, narrow file and cut a notch into the side, making sure to get into the notch you drilled in with the dremel. Once you’ve got enough room, you can grab that sucker with a needlenose and pull it out. You’ll damage the case, but that’s less important than getting the thing to work (at least IMO). You can test the bit by dropping it lightly into a hole. If it doesn’t go in easily, file it down again! I also hear you can get powerful magnet screwdrivers. I haven’t tried one myself, but I know you can get really good magnets if you pull apart an old hard drive!

I replaced all the security screws with 4×1/2 Phillips head sheet metal screws from Ace Hardware (about $3.70 for a box of 100). No electronics stores seem to carry similar kinds of screws and the customer service is poor at best. As these have sharp tips, I take the file and flatten them out.

Inside the system you have to check the LED PCB and ribbon assemblies. The glitchy displays should have glue loosened like in these pictures (I found it funny the manufacturer put blue dots on each of the assemblies to indicate which was left and which was right). The glue keeps the connections from the cable with the PCB. This glue fails over time due to poor hardware design and torsion on the ribbon and the ribbon will eventually bend off.

The three methods for fixing this are 1) ‘the oven trick’, 2) solder it together, 3) use tape. Not feeling confident with my soldering abilities, I eventually decided on ‘the oven trick’ which involves preheating the oven to 190-200 degrees and then sticking the PCB assembly in for about 2 minutes, just enough to soften the glue (I hear some people do it with a clothes iron). In theory, you’re supposed to pull the thing out and rub the glue so it sticks to the ribbon. Works better on paper because you’re not taking into account the hot PCB burning your fingers! (I also tried using a clamp, but that didn’t work). Both the ‘oven trick’ and the soldering technique are described in this article.

I eventually gave up and decided to use tape. Packing tape seems to work fine. The tape is applied first on the back of the PCB (the side opposite the glue) and then the ends are wrapped around the front over the glue. You want a really thin strip that covers the area with the glue and the part where the plastic touches the base. If the tape is placed tightly and evenly and without any wrinkles, it can work just as well as regluing it.

You’ll probably want to keep the system disassembled until you can test the cable out – otherwise it’s a real pain to take out the 12 screws after you just put the whole thing back together!

Next, pop in a game and test the alignment of the mirrors by pressing Left, B, Down, A, Up on the right D-Pad. I honestly don’t know how you’d fix it if it was unaligned, but this probably involves reseating the lenses with the system running.

Next post: why the Virtual Boy isn’t that bad (and the areas where it really DOES suck).

T-Shirt Suggests Emergent Play?

July 15, 2009

Capcom introduced a shirt for their new Resident Evil game that they will be handing out at Comic Con in San Diego. This is a really cool conference to go to this year because Hayao Miyazaki will be attending as well! This t-shirt is also one of the more original shirts to be printed in awhile:

Yeah, so I don’t know what’s creepeier – the zombie or this guy’s chest! (Or the possibility the face could come alive and eat you when you put it on!) Anyway, this is the underside of the shirt – lift it up over your head, and you become a zombie! Spooky! It also looks like it kind of pulls your arms up into a ‘zombie walk’ position. It sure is an ingenious t-shirt design!

The emergent play comes in from the roleplay this kind of shirt would suggest. Get a whole bunch of people in a room with zombie shirts and have some people start with the shirts on and others with the shirts off. The people who do not have shirts over their heads are the normal people while the people with shirts on are the victims. Rule is, if you get touched by a zombie (or grabbed by one) you become a zombie and have to pull your shirt over your head! And don’t worry – you can wear another shirt underneath the zombie shirt so you don’t have to bare your chest! In fact, you could design another shirt with the body of a zombie and wear that beneath this one!

Now with a shirt over your head, you can’t see where you’re going, just sense using ears. Zombies are kind of stupid anyway, but they do go crazy when they sense people. The healthy people have to somehow navigate through the room. Their goal is to survive for as long as possible or to achieve some other goal (for instance, find the zombie cure or kill all the zombies with the weapon). The weapon could be a foam bat or squirt gun or something and you’d have to nerf the zombie three times before he goes down (that way, the zombie has a chance to react). You could heal a zombie by pulling the zombie mask down without getting caught (VERY dangerous!). There are lots of opportunities for emergent play, so it would make a great party game! Might be best to have a referee though to make sure people don’t knock over drinks and expensive televisions or otherwise hurt themselves :)

It wouldn’t surprise me if Capcom tries some form of emergent game like this. And while it would be cooler to have actual zombie shirts, you could play the game with home-made zombie shirts – or just regular shirts! The zombies just add flavor to it.

Essay: The Implications of Information Technology for the Future Study of History (Kevin Schurer, 1998)

May 22, 2009

“The Implications of Information Technology for the Future Study of History,” Kevin Schurer (1998)

Schurer’s article provides an overview of the main problems regarding data archival: decay, obsolescence, and the need for context. He also states that many librarians (at least by 1998) had few computer skills. Beyond this, the primary focus of his essay is on how historians will interact with the data and how despite our profusion of information today, little of it may actually survive for future historians. He further extrapolates on how this will affect future history. In the end, he calls for governmental institutions to cooperate in order to preserve ‘machine-readable records’ for the future because individual groups have varying resources and “in order to share expertise and avoid the needless duplication of effort.” Beyond this, the article has limited application due to its focus on old technology and contemporary developments. (more…)

The Coolest Game Art Page Ever

April 20, 2009

We’re covering gender in games in the next class on game studies and so I was looking for the LHOOQ Tomb Raider Photoshop as some commentary material. I found it stuck on this website, Konstperspectiv, which is dedicated to ludic media art of all kinds!* The site has a list of art works along with images, a description of the original game, and a description of the artwork. In addition, there is a MASSIVE collection of links to books and articles on the subject as well as a list of videogame films! The only downside is that the site is in Swedish, so you’ll have to use a Google Translate to read the commentary.

It’s in the same realm of cool as the Digiplay Initiative.

*Ludic media art is a term I have created to describe art works that use games as their source material or inspiration, but are not necessarily games in and of themselves. It is derived from the now-popular Latin word for ‘games,’ ludus.

Six Days in Fallujah

April 12, 2009

1up and other news sites have been reporting about Atomic Games’ new title, Six Days in Fallujah, a game about the Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq War back in 2004. (Actually many news articles say it’s Konami’s game where Konami is simply the publisher.) The game has been stoking a lot of controversy due to its high-budget profile and controversial subject matter, something that games like Kuma\War don’t seem to have gotten (but which America’s Army certainly did). So it’s little surprise given games’ previous track record that detractors would be very quick to push to halt its production (something that Atomic Games is allowed to do under free speech rights and should at least be given opportunity to explore the subject matter in a decent manner).

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The big problem I see already is that there has been so much framing of this game’s ‘accuracy’ and what that means to war and entertainment when in fact all that has been revealed is the concept and a couple of screenshots. Given our current affair with ‘realism’ in games, it’s more prudent to suggest that the game will only be ‘real’ in a sense of equipment and visuals rather than experience and context.

After all, the Battle of Fallujah was by no means the Iraq War – six days in Iraq is less than 1% of this entire quagmire that’s been lasting for more than 5 years now. A more accurate representation of the Iraq War then would have to put more focus on boredom, truck bombs, boredom, domestic raids, boredom, patrols, and a lot more utter boredom, followed by other sudden moments of sheer terror. You can’t stick a few marines in a firefight and call that an ‘accurate representation’ of this kind of war. There is also, of course, a concern for the representation of civilian casualties, a staple to any war. Six Days in Fallujah might represent a single battle, but the battle only served to set the stage for this kind of guerilla war.

So in what ways is this game going to be different than other FPS shooting fests? Atomic Games’ president Peter Tamte states:

“Our goal is to give people that insight, of what it’s like to be a Marine during that event, what it’s like to be a civilian in the city and what it’s like to be an insurgent.”

Wait a sec, what it’s like to be civilians and insurgents? Does this mean we’ll be playing as somebody other than a marine? The prospect is very intriguing, but whether or not these experiences will be simulated is doubtful (certainly from an insurgent’s point of view). How and whether these other narratives and experiences can be communicated is unknown at this point.

Which is both hopeful and disappointing. Given that the game’s developers have fantastic source material such as soldier’s diaries and eyewitness accounts to work with and (apparently) a large budget, the potentials of creating something truly unique certainly exist. Games have a capacity to show what a situation feels like, and what it feels like to be a person within that situation, whereas film and literature can only make us imagine and empathize. To be able to express a situation as it happens now, such as the War in Iraq is a unique opportunity that games have not been able to achieve yet. So Six Days in Fallujah could be incredibly historical.

Other observations will also question what being a serious game actually means. Iraq War veteran Sgt. Casey McGeorge states in an interview with G4:

“The first time in the game they [players] get too close to a car and are blown up…without knowing what is really going on, they might be able to get a small understanding of what we have had to go through on a regular basis.”

Such an experience, while ‘accurate’ in some ways violates the rules of meaningful play – that is, giving players adequate feedback in order to let them make intelligent decisions. Thus, ‘fair’ games don’t give us booby traps without first giving us some kind of warning (i.e. a blinking light, the voice of a helpful character). ‘Fair’ games are like the myth of police officers who keep part of their car visible in that dark corner to give speeders a fair chance. Life is not ‘fair’, and war is expecially so. But games have traditionally been fair – that’s been part of their ‘fun’. A serious game doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘fun’, but it should skirt the line between boredom and frustration to find other means of being intriguing.

Of course, most of this is simply ramblings and speculation about a game that currently exists as only two screenshots. But we can only hope that Atomic Games’s representations of the Iraq War will be as observational as Vit Sissler’s comments on contemporary representations of the Middle East in videogames.


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