Sample Chapter: The Emergence of Virtual Worlds

This is a work-in-progress look into the upcoming book “Field Notes from the Metaverse”. Note that the content is still changing. If you have relevant feedback, or additional insights or context to share, please use the comment section below or contact me directly to add your voice to the book. Thank you!

The following chapters are lifted from the section “The Emergence of Virtual Worlds”, which offers a look at the earliest virtual worlds, from MUD (the game), to MUDs (the genre). It also describes how players realized that the experiences they had in these virtual worlds were not virtual at all.

“The Emergence of Virtual Worlds” is the second section in the book, following the introduction of cyberpunk and its different concepts of the metaverse. Below are the first three chapters in the section, outlining the development of the very first computer-based virtual worlds.

Talking about this early history is tricky because there is simultaneously too much and too little information about these different MUDs. A lot of things happened almost simultaneously, with everything cross-influencing each other. And while the Internet obviously existed, there weren’t many places documenting or writing about virtual worlds. Much of the original information is stowed away in newsgroups. And while there are some great resources out there, they unfortunately sometimes contradict each other. So, if you catch an error or think something is missing, I would appreciate it if you get in touch. Thank you!

Other chapters in this section explain the impact these early virtual worlds had on players, for example a look into typical player archetypes and their motivations, as well as early cases of abuse of power, and even sexual assault. There is a deep-dive on “A Rape in Cyberspace” and “My Tiny Life,” as well as LambdaMOO in general. The section then dives deeper into concepts like “immersion” and “presence” to describe why players feel personally impacted by virtual worlds. It ends with describing how virtual world designers reacted to these insights.

The Emergence of Virtual Worlds

As the cyberpunk genre dreamt up visions of people coming together in virtual worlds, students at universities were already busy developing them.

The earliest virtual worlds combined the aesthetics of computer text adventure games with the research and development that led to the Internet. Running on university mainframe computers, these early virtual worlds allowed hundreds of students to come together and enter increasingly immersive digital dimensions. And as home computing and Internet access became affordable, millions more followed.

Work on the first iterations of the Internet started during the Cold War era in the 1960s, when the United States government was concerned about the resilience of its communication infrastructure in the event of a nuclear attack.

At the time, “Modems“ were used to convert digital data by a computer into analog signals, sending them over a telephone line to another computer, which converted the signals back into digital data. The networking of multiple computers required central systems that accepted and routed calls to all participants. It also relied on a working telephone network to make that connection. Both these aspects were vulnerable to disruption. The “Advanced Research Projects Agency Network” (ARPANET) was conceived as a decentralized network that could survive partial destruction or outages, ensuring communication in the face of potential disasters.

Universities were an integral part of the development and growth of ARPANET. Many already operated local computer networks with hundreds of connected computers across their campuses. An early goal of ARPANET was to create a large area network between universities across the United States to foster collaboration and information exchange. The participating universities established computer laboratories, where researchers and students worked together on developing the required architecture, hardware, and software. The first message over ARPANET was sent in October 1969, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California.

In the 1980s, the resulting Internet protocol suite became the standard for interconnecting computer networks, providing a common language for computers to communicate. Instead of calling the respective computer system directly, the home computer instead called an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like CompuServe, Prodigy, or America Online (AOL), which would connect it to the Internet.

At this point, the World Wide Web did not exist yet. The Internet was a collection of separate services for different purposes: remote controlling and maintaining other computers (1969), electronic mail (1971), file transfer (1971), and later distributed discussion systems & electronic forums (1979). Many ISPs offered their own implementations for these services, for example email clients, file exchanges, message boards, or real-time chats. Life online was a utilitarian affair between a niche group of people.

Some ISPs also offered networked games. Initially these were simple games like Tic Tac Toe or Chess, developed by hobbyists and students in their spare time. However, the games rapidly became increasingly elaborate.

ADVENT,” also known as “Colossal Cave Adventure,” is one of the earliest computer text adventure games. It was created in 1975 by Will Crowther as a side project while working on ARPANET. Being a caving enthusiast, Crowther wanted to create a game world that captured his experiences in the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. Players assumed the role of an adventurer who explores the cave system and solves puzzles to find treasure and uncover the secrets of the cave.

The game was entirely text-based. Players interacted with the game world by typing commands such as “GO NORTH” or “TAKE TORCH.” The game responded with written descriptions in a prose style. Players needed to use their imagination to visualize their surroundings, similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” game books popular at the time.

DUNGEN,” also known as “Dungeon Game” or “dnd,” expanded on this concept. Created by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood at the Southern Illinois University in 1975, DUNGEN was set in a fantasy world loosely based on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game. Players explored a vast dungeon filled with monsters, traps, and treasures. The game featured a simple combat system, with players rolling virtual dice to determine the outcome of battles.

One of the key features of DUNGEN was its procedurally generated environments. Each time the game was played, the layout and contents of the dungeon were randomly generated, creating a unique experience each time.

Both games inspired “Zork,” which quickly became one of the most popular and influential games of its era. Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling started to work on Zork at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Before finishing the game, they formed a startup called Infocom to publish the game in 1979.

Despite their text-based interfaces and crude game mechanics, ADVENT, DUNGEN and Zork were groundbreaking. They were new worlds, created and facilitated by a computer, coming to life in the minds of the players. And as many of their creators were working on ARPANET, the games quickly started to spread all over the world and were soon found in every connected university lab and research center.

Multi-User Dungeon (1978)

Multi-User Dungeon,” better known as “MUD1,” “Essex MUD” or simply “MUD,”was developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in 1978 as an experiment to see if and how a shared virtual world could be created and maintained.

Roy Trubshaw enrolled as a student of computer science at the University of Essex in 1977. He was also a member of the university computing club, where members got together to develop and play computer games.

Trubshaw was a particular fan of text adventures. While he did not enjoy the fantasy aspect, he was intrigued by the fact that they represented virtual worlds that players could visit. He wondered if it was possible to create a virtual world where real people could meet and interact with each other.

During his second year, Trubshaw started developing what was originally planned as a collaborative virtual space rather than a game. The initial version was a simple test program to establish basic principles of networking. As soon as this worked, he started on the next iteration, a text-based virtual world where multiple users could connect and collaborate.

Sharing his experiments within the computer club, Trubshaw had been collecting feedback from fellow computer science students. Most of these ideas came from undergraduates Richard Bartle and Nigel Roberts. As more ideas and features were added, the current architecture turned out to be too limiting, at which point Trubshaw started working on a third version.

Bartle was a fan of a fan of Dungeons & Dragons and had been making his own computer games in school since the mid-1970s. He pitched to Tubshaw that users should be able to play together in a similar way to D&D, going on fantasy quests, fighting monsters, and discovering treasures. Eventually Trubshaw invited Bartle to formally join the project.

Together, they added more capabilities and flexibility, until they uploaded the first version of MUD to the university’s mainframe computer in autumn 1978. According to Trubshaw, the name, “Multi-User Dungeon” refers directly to DUNGEN – a game like DUNGEN but designed to be played online by multiple people.

In MUD, players explored “the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground.” Everything is represented as a narrative description:

“The Elizabethan Tearoom: This cosy, Tudor room is where all British Legends adventures start. Its exposed oak beams and soft, velvet-covered furnishings provide it with the ideal atmosphere in which to relax before venturing out into that strange, timeless realm.”

/ The starting text of MUD / British Legends

Players interacted with the environment by typing commands like “GO DIRECTION” or “TAKE OBJECT.”

The game also featured puzzles based on manipulating objects and finding hidden items or clues. For example, players required a key to unlock a door, or needed to figure out how to cross a chasm to reach a new location. The game also let players fight various creatures by typing in commands to attack or defend.

The goal of MUD was to “become a wizard or witch” by killing monsters, finding treasure, gaining powerful items and experience points in the process. However, the game did not feature a specific end state and players could continue playing, even after achieving wizard or witch status.

For Trubshaw and Bartle, MUD was as much a technical experiment as it was a political statement. Both coming from a poor, working-class background, they wanted to create a world where people could go and interact without bias or prejudice, regardless of their background.

In 1983, Bartle wrote an article for the December issue of Practical Computing, explaining the technology and game mechanics of MUD. He closes the article by stating his vision for the future of virtual worlds:

“What I would like to see – and it’s a long, long way off – is some local or national network with good graphics, sound effects and a well designed set of worlds of varying degrees of difficulty. In this true meritocracy, you will forever be encountering new situations, new difficulties, new solutions, and above all new people. Everyone starts off on an equal footing in this artificial world.”

/ Richard Bartle, “A Voice from the Dungeon”

Running on the mainframe computer at Essex University, MUD was initially limited to 36 simultaneous players. These could either use the university computer terminals or a dial-up connection from their home PCs. The MUD server program would manage the virtual world, wait for text commands by a player, and respond accordingly.

MUD quickly became a popular pastime for students and faculty alike. Members of the university’s computer club were allowed to use the mainframe during non-working hours to run their own projects or anything else non-academic, and many chose to play MUD.

Instead of coming together to write posts on a message board, students explored dungeons, fought monsters, and had adventures together. To them, it didn’t feel like they were connecting to a server to do things, they were transported to experience a different world.

As word of MUD spread within the academic community, it began to attract a wider audience. In 1980 MUD became accessible via ARPANET, making it the first Internet multiplayer online role-playing game ever. This was supported by the Essex university’s computer services team, who were also avid players.

In 1987, several Internet Service Providers started hosting MUD instances. In the UK, it was picked up by Compunet, while CompuServe hosted it in the US (under the name “British Legends”).

The original MUD is still accessible today, making it the oldest virtual world in existence.

MUD was developed in parallel to the cyberpunk genre. Even though it was a statement against classism, it did not share the strong overtones of distrust towards technology and capitalism. Instead, it was a child of the home computer and Internet revolution, driven by the belief that a digital world could empower individuals and communities.

MUD started out as a cyberspace-like concept – a utilitarian virtual world, aimed to encourage collaboration and communication. It later transitioned into a metaverse-like concept – an expressive collaborative fantasy world. That said, it was written six years before Neuromancer and fourteen years before Snow Crash.

But the true legacy of MUD is not the fact that it was the first virtual world. Trubshaw and Bartle decided to split the final architecture in two: The game engine provided the core functionality, while a standardized programing language called MUDDL (MUD Definition Language) was used to describe the game world and mechanics.

This allowed others to take the game engine and create their own virtual worlds on top of it. According to Bartle, this happened immediately. Some of new worlds were based on popular single-player games at the time, while others were based on more esoteric themes like the Fraggle Rock Muppet show, and in one instance the local computer science department.

Very quickly, Multi-User Dungeons became an entire genre.

Multi-User Dungeons (1980+)

Thanks to the popularity and extensible nature of the original MUD, the term “Multi-User Dungeons” (MUDs) turned into an umbrella term for all virtual worlds at the time, even if they weren’t developed on top of the original MUD codebase. Rarer used terms included “Multi-User ADVENTs” (MUAs) or simply “Multi-User Games” (MUGs).

As the concepts and capabilities of virtual worlds were extended, this also widened their context, purpose, and form of experience. Virtual worlds became actual worlds, growing beyond games.

Rogue” was a popular fantasy action game released in 1980, in which players had to fight their way through a dungeon full of monsters. The game featured procedurally generated levels, turn-based gameplay, and permanent death. This meant that characters were deleted when dying in the game, with players losing all their virtual possessions and progress. Upon death, players would restart with a new, random character.

Kelton Flinn and John Taylor had met at the University of Virginia in 1979 and decided to work on a game together. During development, they played Rogue and fell in love with the gameplay. Inspired, they adapted their game to include similar mechanics, as well as allowing six players to enter a dungeon together. Flinn and Taylor published “Dungeons of Kesmai” on the universities’ mainframe in 1980, becoming the first “rogue-like” MUD. It rapidly gained a following, to the point where students started skipping classes and the game was using up all the processing power of the university’s computer systems.

Meanwhile, Taylor and Flinn had already started rewriting and vastly extending the game to commercially relaunch it in 1985 as “Island of Kesmai” on CompuServe. Still leaning heavily into action and combat, it also featured a huge world to explore, including deserts, forests, towns, and underground caves.

More importantly, the CompuServe version could handle up to 100 simultaneous players. The service charged each player $6 per hour at 300 baud (low speed) and $12 per hour at 1200 baud (high speed), making Island of Kesmai the first commercially created MUD.

The game introduced many innovations to the MUD genre, for example a dedicated quest system. Adventure games at the time simply provided dungeons and monsters and implicitly assumed that players would band together to explore them. Island of Kesmai introduced explicitly stated challenges and offered various rewards for completing them. This type of questing system became a core aspect of future MUDs and RPGs until today.

In 1988, many players of Island of Kesmai approached the maximum character level. As a result, the game introduced an expansion with new environments, monsters, and items that only experienced players at max level could travel to. These types of world and content expansions would become a common approach in later Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs.

At that time, home computers had appeared in living rooms. Introduced in January 1982, the Commodore 64 (C64) featured impressive graphics and sound capabilities, way beyond other systems and consoles of the time. It was also cheaper than the competition, making it a popular choice for consumers and developers. It went on to become the best-selling computer model of all time.

Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar at Lucasfilm Games (later known as LucasArts) were wondering if virtual worlds could also run on home computers. The duo realized that the C64 was able to represent the virtual world as two-dimensional graphics instead of the more common text-based interfaces at the time. It was also able to add sound effects and a musical score to further immerse the users.

The result was “Habitat”, released in 1985. The dedicated client would run on the C64, showing the graphical interface, environments, and characters, while exchanging control commands with the Habitat world server. The server didn’t need to be aware of the graphics and sounds, only taking care of managing the virtual world. By taking the rendering load from the server, Habitat was able to theoretically host thousands of players in a single shared virtual world. This separated architecture quickly became the standard for graphical MUDs going forward.

Upon entering Habitat, players first created a virtual character to represent them within the virtual world. Chip Morningstar chose the term “avatar” for these representations, derived from Hindi mythology, where it refers to a deity or spiritual being taking physical form on Earth. While the concept of an avatar was previously used in several works of fiction, including Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” and John Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider,” the usage in the context of virtual worlds is attributed to Habitat.

Players navigated their avatars through individual screens by pointing a cursor at objects and using simple commands like “GO,” “GET,” “PUT” or “DO.” Habitat also featured a text-based chat, as well as an elaborate emoting and gesturing system.

The game was released as a beta test in 1986 on Quantum Link, the precursor to America Online (AOL). However, the ISP could not provide the bandwidth to deal with the popularity of the game, so the full Habitat never reached its true potential. Two years later, Lucasfilm Games released a sized-down version called “Club Caribe.”

In 1987 Alan Cox and Richard Acott were studying at Aberystwyth University. Both had played the original MUD and created a local version called “AberMUD,” named after the university. The game ran on an old university mainframe and gained a small local following.

When moving, Cox converted the code to the C programming language, so it could run on the Unix system at Southampton University. This was a breakthrough as Unix had become the de facto standard for mainframes and workstations at the time. The new source code was simple to understand, install and modify.

AberMUD was quickly picked up by the computer sciences community and ran on thousands of machines at universities all over the world. Due to the open nature, AberMUD was ported, extended, and changed well beyond the original scope.

TinyMUD” was one such game. James Aspnes had played a MUD-like game called “Monster,” where each player had to run a separate copy of the game on their individual machine. Aspnes wanted to create an open-source version that could run on a server, with players accessing it without the need for their own copy. He released TinyMUD in late 1989, designed to be a small, lightweight version of Monster, that was easy to install and use.

That said, TinyMUD was not like Monster at all – it was in fact barely a game. Instead, it allowed players to build and create their own rooms, objects, and puzzles within the world. This led to players spending most of their time creating, sharing, and talking about their creations, making it the first “Sandbox”-type virtual world.

A sandbox is a virtual world where the players are given a great deal of creative freedom to shape the environment and gameplay. Such worlds have only a minimal set of rules and objectives. Without any predetermined goal or ending, it leaves players free to explore and experiment, or alternatively create their own goals.

Whereas games like the original MUD had a couple of hundreds of rooms, each carefully created by Trubshaw and Bartle, TinyMUD instances had many thousands, some over ten thousand rooms, created by the players themselves.

At the same time, single-player sandbox games emerged. They were based on the idea to give players the active role and tools of a game creator, instead of being a passive game consumer. A popular example of the time was “SimCity” (1989) by Will Wright.

The Void“ opened in 1989 as a primarily social virtual world that focused on adult-only, sexually orientated stories and conversations. Developed by Clive Lindus, it called itself a “light-hearted and naughty MUD with more than a tad of whimsy.”

Everything in The Void focused on user communication and aiding user role-playing (sexual or otherwise). Like TinyMUD, there were no monsters, no combat, no game to speak of. Instead, The Void featured intricate systems for players to describe actions and situations, for example the ability to integrate sensations like smells into their chat conversation, as well to convey as a large range of emotions. The goal was to allow avatar-to-avatar communication in new, imaginative ways to foster deeper player-to-player relationships.

With the overt sexual themes, The Void inadvertently offered a safe space for players to explore and act out any gender and sexual identity. Many players described The Void as a playful, yet therapeutic space. However, many also admitted feeling psychological stress and anxiety, as they could not reconcile their virtual personality into their real one. This led to a community-driven effort to encourage mentally distressed players to call suicide prevention hotlines.

The Void appeared in Indra Sinha’s book “The Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War, and Betrayal on the Electronic Frontier,” in which the name of the virtual world was changed to “The Vortex.” The novel explores being addicted to virtual life, as the protagonist starts preferring his virtual self and relationships to his real identity and family.

DikuMUD” was developed by a team of computer science students at the University of Copenhagen (Datalogisk Institut Københavns Universitet, DIKU). It was based on AberMUD, but with significant improvements and modifications. Instead of the originally flexible architecture that would encourage player-generated content or socializing, the team designed DikuMUD to have static, hard-coded worlds with scripted experiences. It was released as open source in 1990.

Despite the limitations, the DikuMUD codebase was immediately picked up due to its generous license and being extremely easy to set up. What TinyMUD did for virtual world developers, DikuMUD achieved for virtual world designers: The focus on static worlds made it easy to create purposefully crafted experiences with elaborate storytelling, spawning many “Theme Park”-type virtual worlds.

In contrast to sandbox experiences, theme park-style virtual worlds feature a more structured and controlled environment. The gameplay is centered around specific objectives and goals as the players are guided through a series of pre-determined moments, like attractions in a theme park. Such virtual worlds often have a central narrative or story that ties everything together, with each player perceiving themselves as the central protagonist.

MUDs also evolved based on new Internet technologies. The Internet Relay Chat (IRC) protocol was released in 1988 to enable real-time text-based communication over the Internet. It allowed users to connect to a network of servers and join chat rooms to engage in group or private conversations with other users.

Initially, James Aspnes conceived “TinyMUD” as an IRC chat client. The idea was to provide a chat server for communication, while operating a parallel game server that provided entertainment, both connected through a shared database. After releasing TinyMUD in 1989, Aspnes had to close it down after seven months due to the data and process size outgrowing the server capacity.

Stephen White at the University of Waterloo picked up the TinyMUD codebase to create “TinyMUCK” in winter of 1990. White improved the data handling to avoid the same fate as TinyMUD, while also expanding on the content creation and communication capabilities, giving TinyMUCK a reputation for socializing and roleplay.

The term MUCK was a pun on MUD and initially didn’t stand for anything. However, the community started referring to it as an acronym for “Multi-User Chat Kingdom.”

Later that year, White released the game again, albeit with a completely different technical architecture. “MOO” now stood for “MUD, Object-Oriented.” But before White could fully finish it, the code was picked up by Pavel Curtis, who did substantial modifications. Curtis published his version in October 1990, calling it “LambdaMOO.” This fourth iteration of TinyMUD became hugely popular. The iterative modifications and extensions made LambdaMOO the best-in-class MUD for social interaction and user-generated content.

While purely social virtual worlds existed before, LambdaMOO became the first true “Town Square”-type virtual world, where inhabitants would gather and talk about anything. It was effectively a text-based social network and subsequently became a major influence in creating social governance structures in virtual worlds.

In general, MUDs were wildly successful and of the most popular pastimes on the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s. A study of traffic on the NSFnet Internet backbone in 1993 estimated that over 10% of the entire Internet traffic was caused by MUDs.

With MUD and its successors being text-based experiences, they can easily be dismissed as some ancient and obsolete form of computing. However, they are for all intents and purposes virtual worlds. Users reported that they felt like entering other places instead of interacting with a server or online platform.

In achieving this perception shift from “using” to “entering,” MUDs represent a low-resolution, high immersion window into the metaverse.

The text-based, narrative form also offered depth that is hard to replicate with graphical virtual worlds today – sensory experiences like smell, taste and touch can be described through the primary interface without breaking immersion. The same is true for meta-communication like gestures, facial expressions, body language, and emotions.

In a way, MUDs use the mind and imagination of the users as the “immersive technology” to create the metaverse, making it a “computer supported” metaverse, not a “computer created” one.

Field Notes: An Independent Metaverse

Multi-User Dungeons proved that virtual worlds could exist. While “The Internet, but three-dimensional” had failed as a concept, highly immersive experiences to play, collaborate, and socialize in virtual environments were an instant success.

Stephenson imagined his Metaverse as something separate from reality, something that supersedes current structures and governance. This was very much in line with the Zeitgeist at the time. The hope was that the Internet and virtual worlds would turn into something separate, something different, somehow better than reality.

In 1996, John Perry Barlow articulated this in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”:

“Governments of the Industrial World, .. I come from Cyberspace, .. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, .. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.”

/ John Perry Barlow, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”

There was a sense that the “Cyberspace-Internet” was a whole new realm that evolved independently of existing, real-world governance structures, mechanisms, and institutions.

Instead, incidents like A Rape in Cyberspace destroyed all hope for the Internet and the metaverse to be something separate from reality. They might be virtual, but the experiences, emotions and consequences of the users turned out to be real. People entering virtual worlds might seek escapism, but they also bring along their real identities, real relationships, real emotions, and real values.

As Raph Koster stated in an interview in 2022:

“In a lot of ways virtual worlds are just machines replicating and underlining the necessity for real-world concepts and structures like constitutions, laws, governments, police forces and so on.”

/ Raph Koster, “Building the Metaverse Podcast”

The lesson learned was: If real people are interacting with each other, there is a need for real governance. It doesn’t matter how many degrees the interaction is abstracted or mediated through a virtual realm. This is also true for any possible incarnation of a metaverse.

There is also the practicality of “being from Cyberspace.” The opening statement of Barlow’s argument “I come from Cyberspace” only makes sense if you are living within the Internet, as an actual place.

However, in practice nobody was ever “in” or “from” the Internet. Instead, the representation of the world and everything in it, including the inhabitants and their possessions, were sitting in physical space. At the end of the day, a virtual world is just database entries on a server. And this simple fact defines everything around it: The server is owned by a person or entity residing in reality, bound to the respective laws, regulations, structures and mechanisms.

Just as real people in virtual worlds required real governance, the infrastructure running the virtual worlds was already governed by reality.

More importantly “Cyberspace” was never a thing. At best, it was a loose connection of concepts, ideas, and platforms, each of which evolved in a different direction. Edward Castronova recapitulated this development in a blog post in 2014:

“For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we’ve seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin. As these applications grew in popularity, the need for a core intellectual group about virtual worlds themselves waned. The community dried up and the conversation dwindled.”

/ Edward Castronova, “Making it official: RIP Terra Nova”

Castronova’s observation was certainly too negative, as individual virtual worlds thrived and did indeed turn into “a substantial thing unto themselves.” But they did not bring a cohesive form or an overall gestalt of the metaverse to the Internet. Instead, it broke, fragmented, and became more human.

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