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Alternate reality game and cultural heritage: The "Aequilibrium" project

Alternate reality game and cultural heritage: The "Aequilibrium" project

Domenico Morreale, Department of sociological and psycho-pedagogical studies, Guglielmo Marconi University: d.morreale@unimarconi.it

Giulia Bertone, Interuniversity Department of Regional and Urban Studies and Planning (DIST): giulia.bertone@polito.it

Peer-reviewed by: Christopher Eaket, University of Georgia; Jason Hawreliak, Brock University.

Lead Editor: Kent Aardse, University of Waterloo.


Abstract / Résumé

"Aequilibrium" is a transmedia and location-based experience which engages players in an adventure that blurs the boundaries between digital and physical spaces, imaginary and real people from the local community. The project is the first Italian Alternate Reality Game (ARG) dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci and is aimed at promoting the territory of Lomellina adopting innovative communication strategies to engage players in a game which is designed to amuse and encourage tourism. The transmedia and the locative experience were designed by a team of researchers from the Politecnico di Torino and Guglielmo Marconi University. Starting from the analysis of the Aequilibrium project, this essay focuses on how alternate reality games can promote participation in cultural experiences which offer cultural activators fostering collaboration and creative grassroots production within communities of players.

«Aequilibrium» est une expérience transmédias basée sur l'emplacement qui entraîne les joueurs dans une aventure qui brouille la distinction entre les espaces numériques et physiques ainsi que les personnes imaginaires et réelles de la communauté locale. Le projet est le premier jeu de réalité alternative italien dédié à Léonard de Vinci et dont le but est de promouvoir le territoire de Lomellina, en adoptant des stratégies de communication qui font participer les joueurs à un jeu conçu pour les amuser et encourager le tourisme. L'expérience transmédias et locative a été conçue par une équipe de chercheurs de l'université Politecnico di Torino et Guglielmo Marconi. À partir d'une analyse du projet Aequilibrium, cet essai met l'accent sur la façon dont les jeux de réalité alternative peuvent promouvoir la participation à des expériences culturelles qui offrent des activateurs culturels, favorisant la collaboration et la production créative populaire au sein des communautés de joueurs.

KEYWORDS / MOTS-CLÉS

Alternate reality game, transmedia storytelling, cultural heritage, locative media



Introduction

The Alternate Reality Game (ARG) "Aequilibrium" is a transmedia, location based communication project which creates an immersive experience to promote the cultural resources and institutions of the Lomellina area (Lombardy, Italy) and the cultural brand of Leonardo Da Vinci, whose presence in Lomellina is a key issue for the touristic valorisation of the area. [1] The project is part of the "We art technology—Youth and cross-media" initiative, which aims at promoting digital creativity, involving young people in creative activities and games supported by digital media. "Youth and cross-media" is promoted and supported by the Italian Ministry of Youth and the National Association of Italian Municipalities, involving the City of Vigevano, the City of Mortara (PV), the City of Formigine (MO), AST—Consortium for Territorial Development and the association for free software LUG Ducale (Vigevano-PV). The project aims at experimenting innovative solutions to engage young people through games, videos, websites, social media and location-based mobile devices. The following synopsis offers a storyline which is introductory for the explanation of the strategies and the techniques used within the Aequilibrium project:

At the end of 1400, while studying natural disasters, Leonardo Da Vinci discovers the existence of Xianshi, a secret society that owns the power to create worldwide natural disasters. Leonardo during his stay at the Sforzesca, a villa near Vigevano, in Lomellina, founded the Ordo Aequilibri, an order of guardians who had the task of protecting him in his studies and aiding him in the battle against Xianshi. Leonardo designed a hydraulic machine, activated by a variable number of Chalices of Aequilibrium, which contain a quantity of water known only by their Cornerstones Keepers. The Ordo Aequilibri has played a key role in the defeat of Nazism, thanks to France libre and Giovanni Sacchi, the penultimate Italian guardian. After the war Giovanni founded the Aurora Orchestra, an underground cover which allows him to weave his relationships secretly. He was captured by Xianshi who put him in the asylum of Collegno near Turin, trying to extort the secrets of the Order. Giovanni hid valuable information (audio recordings with the history of the Ordo Aequilibri) and ran. A collaborator of Giovanni Sacchi found his recordings and thanks to his nephew, Alessandro Novaro, a young student, created a website dedicated to Orchestra Aurora, with the aim to publish Giovanni Sacchi's recordings, in a protected area accessible only to Guardian's assistants. Giovanni Sacchi was imprisoned by Thierry Latreille, one of the world leaders of the Organization. His son, Leo Latreille, created a research centre called Xianshi to study natural disasters. On September 14, Xianshi planned a worldwide attack. On the same day, the Last Guardian, Matteo Bernini, a watchmaker who is trying to create a Novus Ordo Aequilibri, gathered all his assistants in Lomellina to play a geocaching experience and save the world.

Figure 1: Aequilibrium: Facebook page and logo.

Aequilibrium: Facebook page
                                and logo.

Aequilibrium: Between digital and physical spaces. The Geocaching experience.

On September 14th, Aequilibrium ends with a geocaching experience in Lomellina. Geocaching is a technological practice typical of the world of Location Based Mobile Games (LBMGs), a high-tech reinterpretation of the classic treasure hunt, in which participants use mobile GPS-enabled devices to find or hide small containers—the caches—in physical spaces. The GPS coordinates of the caches are recorded online in digital environments (the most famous is www.geocaching.com) in which players also share their experience of discovery. Started almost by accident in 2000, geocaching is now a common practice all over the world, involving more than 6 million people and generating a real subculture of fans. Locative Media Studies are investigating geocaching since it became increasingly common due to the spread of mobile and location-aware technologies. Many scholars emphasizes that geocaching is an experience that takes place in different spaces of interaction, both physical (the local area where the cache is hidden), and digital (the website on which the GPS coordinates are recorded and on which players can leave their reviews, or the mobile GPS-enabled device with mapping features that locates the position of the player and the cache). This practice is based on a sort of collaboration between atoms and bits, virtual and material spaces and requires participants to know how to effectively manage different interfaces. With the spread of mobile interfaces, navigating simultaneously different spaces has become a common practice. Like other LBMGs, geocaching is a typical mobile practice at the time of Net Localities (Gordon and de Souza e Silva 2011), in which the production of the space becomes an embodied experience connected with technology (Farman 2012). Further, these games are considered by scholars de Souza e Silva and Sutko 2009) real creative practices, in which participants can transform and recreate the meaning of places by acting on them with digital technologies. Studies in this fields often refers to the situationist practices of place interventions, like the derive, or to the Walter Benjamin's Flaneur. Or to Michel de Certeau's reflections on the everyday practices of places. For example, de Souza e Silva and Sutko (2009, 4) point out how LBMGs are "innovative ways of attaching digital information to places and reconfiguring urban places." Often through the charming power of exploration, these practices allow people to create an alternative level of place experience, stimulating their ability to create and experiment new and alternative meanings related to local sites.

Gordon (2009) investigates the geocaching as a useful practice for the production of local knowledge, that kind of local common culture necessary to aggregate communities around shared values ​​and meanings, "transforming that physical space into a collectively understood platform for interaction" (Gordon 2009, 31).

Aspects of social and community engagement generated by geocaching also emerge in the experiences of geocachers, which, in some interviews reported by geocachig-italia.com underline the value of geocaching as a social activity ad a shared experience. For example, these are the words of a young geocacher: "I really enjoy to meet other geocachers. In my experience, most of them are just beautiful people, so it's fun to meet them. I also like to talk with other geocachers about their favorite finds, so I can collect ideas for new hiding places or advices on new caches to find..." Geocaching is further defined from an other players as "... a social network in which to learn, share and discuss..." (Geocaching-italia 2013)

Finally, the appeal of this type of game—that lies in the possibility of experience the collaboration between the physical and digital, and in "the player's ability to control the relationship between global access and local interaction" (Gordon 2009, 33 ), has led many institutions to adopt it as a tool to engage people around specific causes. More often, it is used as a way to promote little or unknown places, to enhance tourism or outdoor recreation, or for community building activities. Examples of this from different insitutions operating in the fields of natural environment, tourism, geological, heritage, culture and history conservation include Conservation Halton Foundation, Lancaster County Conservancy, Earthcaching, Ohio Historical Society), Yorkshire Dales National Park, The Fredericton Geocaching Tour (the first bilingual geocaching tour in Atlantic Canada which includes 30 special caches divided into 3 themes: nature, culture and heritage), Latvia Touristic Portal, and Czech Republic Touristic Portal.

Starting from these considerations, we decided to experiment geocaching to connect the fictional dimension, the online transmedia digital world, with the physical world. Geocaching in Aequilibrium is based on the search of the Aequilibrium Cornerstones. They are special places in which small glass tubes are hidden (the Aequilibrium Chalices) containing a defined amount of water that the members of the Order have hidden all over the world for the maintenance of the cosmic balance. Of all the Cornerstones in the world, just those in Lomellina are now still working. All the others have been sabotaged by the sect Xianshi. Now the latter are also in danger, because the sect has managed to drain all the water of the Chalices in Lomellina, which are on the verge of quitting working. The aim of the participants is to find the Cornerstones, by solving puzzles related to the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, reach them guided by GPS devices, and restore the right amount of water. To do so, they will be forced to interact with the Cornerstones Keepers which are the only ones to know the right amount of water in each Chalices. Once they fill the Chalices and solve all the puzzles, participants will be able to find the GPS coordinates to reach the Last Guardian, who is hidden in an unknown location.

In addition to Leonardo, geocaching in Aequilibrium recovers two other strategic key points for the identity of the area: the water and the rice. These elements are embodied in significant points of interest in the landscape, characterized by the presence of rice paddies and an intricate maze of canals, irrigation ditches, torrents, which create a typical environment of great natural and cultural value. As rice cultivation has historically characterized all aspects of local material culture and identity, lots of initiatives for the conservation and enhancement of the tangible and intangible heritage linked to it have been carried out by local stakeholders (projects for the valorization of local historical farmhouses, or several rural museums). The theme of water is of course connected also with the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, whose presence in the territory at the time of Ludovico il Moro is historically documented and is embodied in some symbolic places, real traces of the Genius in the area.

With the involvement of local stakeholders we have therefore identified the most significant places that could return most of the experience of these issues—Leonardo, the water and the rice—and there, in the area between Vigevano and Mortara, the caches were placed. In particular, the choice fell on significant places near rice mills and farmhouse, rice fields, canals, ditches, rivers; watermills, hydroelectric power plants, touristic and dining businesses related to the rice (typical restaurant, farm holidays, retailers of typical products linked to the processing of rice); places tracing the presence of Leonardo (Castello Sforzesco, the Stables, Piazza Ducale, the Mill of Mora Bassa, the Villa Sforza with the Colombarone). Each Cornerstone is discovered thanks to the Cornerstone Keeper, the person who holds the Cornerstone, who takes care of its maintenance and who gives participants the information needed to restore the correct amount of water. The Cornerstones Keepers are envisioned to enable further interaction with places and its inhabitants and strengthen local awareness. They are shopkeepers, farmers, restaurateurs, members of associations, elderly millers and rice weeders…, people whose lives are in some way related to the theme of water and rice and living near the Cornerstones. The Keepers are therefore elements that are on the edge of what Huizinga (1938) defines the "magic circle," that metaphorical and, according to Salen and Zimmerman (2004, 2), "fuzzy and permeable" boundary that separate what is game from what is not: they stay on the border that separates the space of the game from the everyday life. They are liminal characters, which help to embed the geocaching into the real physical space, into the "here and now." A geocaching based only on fictional elements would have had the risk of alienating the participants from the context, completely transfigurating the physical space into the narrative space, overshadowing the physical local elements which the ARG, on the contrary, aims at promoting. The interaction with the Keepers thus aims at making players more aware of their embodiment (Farman 2012) in the history of places, which are characterized by values ​​and elements that they are called to discover. With them Aequilibrium introduces a strong element of unpredictability, bringing the real life inside the magic circle. Following the thinking of different scholars who have debated the concept of "magic circle," Montola (2009) argues that the main feature of pervasive games is the "porosity" of the circle. Pervasive games, like others contemporary game practices including ARGs, expand the spatial, temporal, and social boundaries of the game. In the case of LBMGs this porosity stay at the core, since the space of everyday real life constitutes the circle. The space of ordinary life is not neutral, doesn't disappear in the ecstasy of an immersive game experience, but it is a key factor. Players can have different degrees of awareness of that space. According to de Lange (2009) the nature of LBMGs is actually the possibility of playing with the boundaries of the circle, constantly moving and repositioning boundaries, generating engagement without using fictional immersion, but through the experience of a non-stop fluctuation between the digital and the physical, the virtual and the real, the ordinary and the extraordinary:

The playful experience consists in finding out what can be done with this locative play. It is a mixture of exploring both the boundaries of the "game" itself, as well as exploring our everyday world and (online) social relations anew through this locative platform. The play element in locative media lies not so much inside the "game space" itself but in the continuous movements between the digital world and the physical world. Part of the joy is the uncertainty of what is actually belongs to either world. This locative platform creates confusion: in which space am I moving? Am I adding digital representations to the physical world? Or am I adding physical experiences of places to my online social network? This locative platform affords the mobility to continuously step through the porous membrane of the magic circle (de Lange 2009, 61).

The transmedia design of Aequilibrium's alternate reality

The design strategy which in our hypothesis combines the potential for user engagement and the creation of immersive storytelling suited to the communication of cultural heritage and cultural resources of local areas, is the transmedia strategy. Among the four families of transmedia products identified by Gary Hayes (Davidson 2010) such as pushed, extras, bridges and experiences, we chose the last one since the goal of our project is to strongly motivate users to move from online interaction to physical exploration of the territory and integrate into the storytelling fictional elements and elements of everyday reality. In transmedia experiences the content is distributed across many platforms in a non-linear way, authors create an environment that participants "live" from the inside, following their paths and personalizing the experience. It's a co-creative, collaborative play with the audience across many devices. Aequilibrium was developed as a transmedia experience, a narrative that unfolds through different media, both online and offline, in which each medium adds an independent contribution to the story. Transmedia is the framework for the creation of a universe that includes historical and geographical elements mixed with fictional characters and situations that encourage users to actively explore contents, in a game that takes place partly online and partly in the territory. Aequilibrium is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which, according to Watson (2010), is a

form of interactive transmedia storytelling that [takes] the substance of everyday life and [weaves] it into narratives that layer additional meaning, depth, and interaction upon the real world. In an ARG, players discover the game through an encounter with one or more access points embedded in real world contexts. These access points, known in the parlance of ARGs as "rabbit holes," lead players into a dynamic matrix of story components distributed across various kinds of digital and physical media.

Thus, the decision to use ARG as a strategy of engagement capable of since it looks like a Block quotation stimulating audience to a better understanding of local areas and cultural heritage, comes from the characteristic of the transmedia storytelling of immersing the audience in an fictional universe and getting the audience to play dynamic games explorable in which several elements function as "cultural activators" (Jenkins 2006). Cultural activators are objects that invite users to actively decode them, offering clues and suggesting for actions and rewards, which help to increase the knowledge of the fictional universe thus completing the story.

Lev Manovich's concept of deep remixability (Manovich 2013) can be used to describe the alternate reality game communication design, which is a strategy with multiple storytelling environments remixing not just the narrative elements but also the narrative techniques and languages. Manovich warns that while traditional remixes combine contents within the same or different media (such as music remix combining songs from different artists or motion graphics mixing together contents from digital media) contemporary online digital remixes combine not only contents but also techniques, working methods and ways of expressing and communicating contents. For instance, within the same software environments, the languages of cinema, computer animation and visual effects form a new "metalanguage," which is a library of techniques previously used for creating and modifying moving images. Transmedia spreads contents on different platforms while different storytelling techniques are remixed in a metanarrative which exploits media specific formats (e.g. the viral/spreadable features of online videos, the deepening of printed essays, etc.). The remix of storytelling techniques is a key aspect in alternate reality game design, since the ubiquitous fruition and cloud media environments are the foundations for the creation of immersive stories. Thus, through transmedia storytelling, players actively explore the fictional universe through multiple (and coordinated) entry points, each one exploiting specific languages, communication and expressive techniques to build a believable and engaging alternate reality.

In the following paragraphs, the development process and the techniques adopted for the communication design of Aequilibrium are explained.

The project workflow included the design of the Platform layout, the Platform action chart and the Project roll-out, tools and methodologies that in a transmedia project help to manage the relationships among the platforms, the contents and user actions in a diachronic dimension (Giovagnoli 2013). The role of the platforms of a transmedia system is described through the Platform layout. The following data table is the Platform layout which is a representative distribution of the contents across the platforms. The Platform layout does not contain chronological indications but it represents all the relationships between the various media and the authorship of the works created by the authors (at the top) and by the users (at the bottom). The story of Aequilibrium is spread over seventeen platforms, each one presenting a new storyteller. Websites, Facebook profiles and pages, blog and emails refer to fictional characters who tell a part of the whole story from their point of view.

Figure 2: Aequilibrium: Platform layout.

Aequilibrium: Platform
                                layout.

A ubiquitous experience is one that we can have whenever and wherever we want. As wireless networks spread and smartphones get more media features, we're able to have media content always available. This allows for transmedia experiences to be a part of our daily lives as we like. The story can be supported by multiple media, accessible by users anytime, anywhere (by mobile phones, tablet, laptop…). A communication strategy adopted by many transmedia project is the creation of fake websites, social media profiles and blogs offering a subjective point of view on the story. Each of these subjective views adopt the language, the communication approach, the look and feel of the fictional character that is supposed to have created the product. So, for instance, in a transmedia project set in the world of multinational companies, the authors may choose to create the company website, the blogs owned by some of the employees, the site of a newspaper investigating on the company, without declaring openly that these are fictional contents. This enables a transmedia ubiquitous experience since the player moves seamlessly from real to fictional contents, to find clues and information needed for unveiling the plot. Each platform has to develop an imaginative pidgin (Giovagnoli 2009), a language that mimics the one used by the real referent of the fictional character, easily recognizable by the user. This design strategy has been adopted in Aequilibrium through the creation of a number of subjective point of view blurring fictional and real elements. In addition to the Aequilibrium website, social channels and Tumblr were created, as if they were real sites, such as center Xiànshi and Orchestra Aurora. Xiànshi website deals with Oriental philosophy and the topic of balance between man and nature. This website also has a narrative function to help players discover the terrorist organization that hides behind the Xianshi center. On the other hand Orchestra Aurora website hides the online environment used secretly by Ordo Aequilibri to implement strategies among its members. A number of Facebook profiles were created, such as the profile of Xiànshì center's director to make the storytelling more engaging and plausible and let users interact with fictional characters as if they were real. Several real life experiences took place in two towns. Players had to find clues in real locations while our Aequilibrium staff secretly video recorded their own actions, later posting them online.

Figure 3: Two Aequilibrium's fake websites.

Two Aequilibrium's fake
                                websites.Two Aequilibrium's fake
                                websites.

The Platform action chart is a diagram representative of the distribution of the story and contents across platforms. It contains chronological and diachronic indications that proceed from the first clue and call the player to action until the closing of the communication system. It is divided into platforms and it shows, from left to right, all contents and relationships in the various assets, including solely the works and the narrative spaces provided by the authors and not by the users.

The Aequilibrium's Platform action chart shows how the whole story has been spread over multiple media products to be distributed on different platforms during the various phases of the game. It also shows the different points of entry of the story, namely the doors through which users can access the fictional universe such as the Rabbit hole, the first point of entry (in chronological order) in the fictional universe, that provides clues to the story creating the motivation to actively enter the experience (Davidson 2010).

In "Aequilibrium" the Rabbit hole is a video teaser posted online on June 2013 showing a man in an old room who finds on a desk strange objects from different historic periods, such as a box and a key. A voice over speaks about a conflict against a dangerous terrorist organization that has lasted for more than 500 years. Finally the address of a website appears: it is the bridge to the homepage of the project. Following the link, players are able to find the point of entry: the Facebook page of the Last Guardian of Ordo Aequilibri and a Tumblr made by a French Man, a collaborator of the Guardian.

Figure 4: Aequilibrium: Platform action chart.

Aequilibrium: Platform action
                                chart.

In a transmedia project exists a tentpole, a privileged media product/experience that supports a number of other experiences related to it (Davidson 2010; Jenkins 2006). The tentpole creates the fan base that moves from media to media to explore the whole fictional universe. More casual fans can enjoy the tentpole, while more dedicated fans can dig deeper and find the various related media that guide them more fully into the fictional universe. In the case of Aequilibrium the tentpole is the gameplay on the territory that took place in September 2013 during a one day geocaching experience: participants explored the territory of Lomellina, talked with people (both actors and citizens), found clues and gained rewards. The aim is to let them discover cultural heritage through gameplay and through an engaging storytelling. All the participants get the basic information about the plot of Aequilibrium before the event of September 2013, but participants had also the opportunity to explore deeply the fictional universe through a "warm-up" gameplay (June-August 2013) that let them discover and acquire knowledge about fictional and non-fictional story elements: additional characters, past events about the protagonists, philosophy underlying the fictional conflicts, relationships between Leonardo Da Vinci and the territory of Lomellina, places hosting the gameplay and their traditions. All this topics were presented through puzzles and clues that participants had to solve moving from media to real places (starting from a post on a blog with a riddle asking them to find a particular object through geographic coordinates, etc. Clues are elements that invite the user to search for answers and further information through other media products. They are the bridges that suggest other entry point for the transmedia franchise (the different contents and products composing the transmedia communication project). While the tentpole was promoted through a social media campaign, so to reach the largest audience, and the basic elements of the plot were made available also to those who didn't played the "warm-up" experience, the targets of "fun" and "ARG players" were engaged through a first video posted online, containing clues enabling cultural activation: online quests, in depth analysis of media contents, etc. To summarize, we adopted a two-pronged approach: (a) fan engagement during the "warm-up" and multiple storylines that allowed them to explore in depth the fictional universe and (b) involvement of the largest audience through a multimedia summary of the main plot (at the end the "warm-up" phase) leading directly to the experience of the tentpole (the gameplay on the territory).

The two main forms of participation involved in Aequilibrium's transmedia experience are collective intelligence applied to the solution of puzzles and the production of grassroots contents capable of guiding and modifying storytelling. Collective intelligence is a term coined by Pierre Lévy in the nineties and used by Henry Jenkins to analyze the dynamics of participatory consumption of media contents in converging culture (Jenkins 2006). Since media consumption has become more and more a collective process and online environments encourage discussions about contents, new forms of media production rises, forms that point on increasing the complexity of the contents, which function as activators of a fan base that perform online complex decoding operations based on the exchange of contents and sharing of information. Each participant in a collective intelligence contributes to the solution of a problem sharing his knowledge just in time (Levy 1994). In Aequilibrium, puzzles and clues are meant to be solved collectively through active collaboration of players in the spaces provided for their interactions such as the Last Guardian on Facebook, the blog of Alex Novaro, a young student who manages the Orchestra Aurora website, which is a fan site conceived to publish the audio messages of the penultimate Guardian. In these spaces the players are encouraged to share the results of their research and work together to achieve shared solutions.

For instance, every time a puzzle is solved, players may write summaries explaining the pathway taking to the solution, thus helping new players starting at higher levels in the fictional universe.

Players often achieved results that forced authors to modify some elements of the story. In the Aequilibrium's fictional universe, a whole new storyline, that has to do with the expansion of Ordo Aequilibri in France, was designed according to the interpretation of the video trailer made ​​by a group of players, who identified elements related to the cross of Lorraine and the defeat of Charles the Bold. Participation in the construction of the storyworld is also evident in the production of content by users who have the ability to share texts, photos, images and videos on the Facebook page. Summaries, hypotheses, drawings, pictures of the locations during the live action gameplay, remakes of official contents (i.e. audio filterings of video in search of hidden clues…) are the players' contributions to Aequilibrium's fictional universe.

Conclusions

Aequilibrium—The last guardian of Leonardo is the first Italian Alternate Reality Game (ARG) which experiments transmedia and geocaching in the field of cultural heritage in a game dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci. Aequilibrium gave participants the chance to discover cultural, social and historical values of the territory of Lomellina, creating an alternative reality presented to the users through multiple access points and clues distributed among different media products. This essay presented the Aequilibrium's design process, the narrative techniques and strategies adopted to engage players in a cloud media environment and encourage their participation in the storytelling, thus fostering social fruition and collective intelligence.


Notes

[1] Section 1 "Aequilibrium: between digital and physical spaces. The Geocaching experience" is written by Giulia Bertone. Section 2 "The transmedia design of Aequilibrium's alternate reality" is written by Domenico Morreale.


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