All Kolechians Must Be Searched: Political Action in Papers, Please

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Papers, Please and discussion of transphobic behaviour.

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While most media can only opine on morality and present their text as ambivalent to audience opinions, the interactive nature of video games means that they can ask their audience moral questions and respond to their answers within the text. However, even games that incessantly quiz us on our ethics must make statements of their own about what helpful and productive behaviour entails. They make moral pronouncements through the questions they ask us and the consequences for the answers we give. If a game asks us whether we want to use violent or diplomatic methods to solve a problem and has both approaches be just as effective, it's making a statement that, for practical purposes, the two are interchangeable. If a game asks whether we want to trade freedom for safety, we take that trade, and it ultimately results in more damage done, it's taking a stance against trying to swap freedom for security.

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Remember, games can pose moral questions even when they don't have a moral choice system. They may ask us which of their characters deserves help the most or which deserves to live and die, even if there are no "Good" and "Evil" meters scoring us on those decisions. Video games also end up taking moral stands even when the player has little sway in the plot. A linear war game where you shoot your way through a terrorist army to save the day is making statements about the practicality of brute force military might in exacting political change, and a game where we can't alter the ending through our actions takes the position that some events are inevitable. Through showing how our behaviour can result in positive or negative outcomes, games implicitly explain how good and bad things happen in the world. From the perspective of most games, good or bad gets done because that's what the protagonist decides to do. They say that ethical and unethical events occur because there are individuals in the world who possess an extraordinary amount of power and exercise that power either in a morally constructive or destructive way.

In a variation of this setup, some games have good and bad factions that we may ally ourselves with and suggest that whether moral or immoral things happen is down to who the powerful individual or individuals choose to side with and the values those groups represent. While these may seem like contrivances created to justify gameplay systems or heroic narratives, these ethical positions map cleanly onto the mainstream discussions surrounding politics in the west. When election season rolls around, politicians, pundits, and even some teachers tell us that all we need to do to live in a fair, just society is to to make sure that the person with the power, be that a president, prime minister, MP, whatever, is someone with the right values who'll make the right choices for us. Electoral campaigns similarly emphasise the importance of putting the right faction in control of the government through promoting a specific political party. In both video games and electoral politics, there is also an assumption that people can affect the world in whatever way they choose to. We can pick the red dialogue option or the blue one, any candidate can work with the people or against them. If you accept that premise then you intrinsically reach another conclusion: If someone is performing ethical actions then it's because they're a good person and if what they're doing is unethical then it's because they're a bad person. Whether they're ripping families apart or getting life-saving medicine to the dying, it's a personal decision that reflects only on who they are. Papers, Please shows us the flaw in this reasoning and presents us with situations in which this mode of thinking is borderline useless.

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Papers, Please is a 2013 "dystopian document thriller" developed by Lucas Pope. In it, we work as a passport inspector for the fictional authoritarian nation of Arstotzka. The gameplay loop involves the people visiting or settling in Arstotzka presenting us their passports and accompanying documents and us checking them against a set of rules that changes from one in-game day to another. If the subject's documentation complies by all the rules, we must accept them into the country; otherwise, we must reject them. However, some people transiting through the checkpoint may also reveal apparent personal hardships to us, hoping that we'll bend the rules for them. Maybe they've queued for hours for their assessment or their spouse is on the other side of the border. The first two times in a day that we stamp "approved" when we have should have stamped "denied", or "denied" when it should have been "approved", we receive a stern warning. After that, any further rule infractions result in our pay being docked, with the financial penalty increasing as our mistakes pile up.

At the end of the day, we earn a pay packet based on how many people we processed, how many punishments we incurred, and sometimes bonuses or sneaky bribes. We need to maintain a constant cash flow because, if we run dry, we may have to go without food and heat, causing our family to fall ill. At worst, sick family members will die, or we'll come up short on our rent and will lose our job and our home. The protagonist losing their home, having all four family members die, or having the authorities discover that they've been running illegal activities at the border all qualify as loss states.

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A video game is a potentially informative platform on which to learn about authoritarian societies because both games and such societies tend to involve operating under stringent and extensive rulesets. Your position as a worker for the Arstotzkan Ministry of Admission also gives you a rare vantage point from which you can witness the human cost of the country's despotism. From within Arstotzka, you might never see the countless hungry refugees, citizens, and immigrants that the state gladly turns its back on; a common component of oppression is the erasure of the oppressed by the oppressor. However, from the outside, what's going on behind the iron curtain of the Arstotzkan outskirts is likely a mystery. Sitting on the country's outline with one foot inside and outside of the tyrannical state, we can see both the apathetic mechanism of state policy and the human stories of the people ravaged by it.

The aesthetics of the game work to express this contrast between life inside and outside of Arstotzka, as well as the unreconcilable division that the nation's border policy creates. The checkpoint we work at is built into a wall separating the districts of East and West Grestin, drawing parallels to The Berlin Wall, the divide between East and West Germany. The checkpoint is where we spend 99% of our time, and neither the western nor the eastern side is cheerful. They're both drawn in dismal grey and fall under the solemn watch of armed guards, but there is an immediately apparent difference between the two. The left West Grestin side is overcrowded, full of a long line of people huddling together in the cold, while the right East Grestin side is open and spacious. It's suggestive of Arstotzka having slightly more freedom and breathing room than the outside world, even if life there is still harsh. Your booth existing on the wall separating the two halves symbolises your position as the liaison between these worlds, making you part of that excluding force.

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The graphic and audio design are also reflective of a fetish for bureaucracy that has penetrated every layer of life in Arstotzka. Our labour time is spent staring at M.o.A. documents and listening to the chirps of the scanner, the thunk of the stamp, and the blare of the loudspeaker. During ending scenes, the text unfurls to the cacophonous bashing of a typewriter, suggesting our fate is being recorded for government records. All of this is to underscore the inhumanity of the country's protocols of admission. When we're following the rules, we're marooning members of families on either side of the border, barring entry for journalists, turning people away for being trans, accepting a sex trafficker into the country, detaining someone who claims they're just trying to smuggle medicine in, and so on. Even when you process a person without doing any direct wrong, you're helping maintain a status quo that seals people into poverty or puts them to death if they're as much as thinking about disloyalty. In a number of the endings, Arstotzka is happy to subject you to that penalty too.

The country doesn't even have an internally consistent morality or ruleset; the Ministry of Admission is playing catch-up to their mistakes on a daily basis. When you first take the job as passport inspector, they don't have systems to check for contraband or to allow diplomats or refugees entry. They have to introduce all these facilities slowly, over a period of days, and by the time they put them in place, you know that it's likely you've already let through countless people with weapons strapped to them or ejected all sorts of asylum seekers. Here, Arstotzka fails to enact ethical safeguards at the border because they've not yet succeeded at their technological and methodological implementation, but they're capable of other types of failure as well. During one incident, a terror attack from the neighbouring Kolechia prompts Arstotzka to begin searching all Kolechians coming into the country, which triggers an outcry, and they immediately reverse their policy. On another day, thieves breach an M.o.A. document-printing facility, and nab the plates from it, releasing whole new species of forged passports and other documents into the wild.

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What's more, the government's solution of continually adding new rules to account for the system's blind spots is like trying to keep a ship from sinking by bandaging the leaks. More documents and standards may theoretically allow you to account for more types of immigrants and travellers, but when you have more measures by which you must judge the people who pass through the checkpoint, you're more prone to making mistakes and must take more time to process each person. The chameleon skin of the checkpoint's protocols also makes it clear just how arbitrary your job is. There are no popular ethical frameworks which don't include some consistency as a feature. We may discover more about morality over time, but if punching someone in the face is wrong on Monday, then without any change of context, it should be wrong on Tuesday. Therefore, any accurate legal implementation of such morality should not see any serious revisions, especially not in a short space of time, but the protocols Arstotzka has you abide by are in constant flux. Even if you were just out for your own self-interest, nailing your colours to the state's mast seems like a terrible idea when they're abysmal at reliably working out what they need to do to attain their goals.

In fact, if you want to go all the way in analysing how arbitrary and unfair this system is, and we do, consider that you don't know whether any of the documents that fall under your gaze are accurate or not. We know that there are plenty of phoney passports, entry permits, ID cards, and so on out there, and we also know the M.o.A. is prone to blunders and implicitly admits flaws in their system. So it's plausible that some of the documents that we dub valid are very convincing fakes and that some of those that we'd mark invalid are incorrect only because the country that produced them bungled the printing process. In the situations in which we have to check documents against the Arstotzkan internal records, it's also possible that the country's databases are incorrect. This is how little enforcing the law in this nation has to do with morality or reality, and while Arstotzka may be fictional, this is where countries that fall in that trifecta of secretive, failing, and authoritarian typically end up. But when the punishment for stepping out of line is so crippling, it doesn't matter what's true or what's ethical; it just matters what will get you in trouble.

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As Papers, Please is about a country which has a blind bureaucracy in place of an ethical code, it makes sense that we can achieve a thorough understanding of it by being a bureaucrat. But if we want to act morally within that position then we have to duck under that red tape, and the game has a scheme for letting us do so while still keeping the ruleset intact. All games have rules, but they don't necessarily enforce all rules equally. We can categorise any rule in a game as a "strict rule" or a "loose rule". Strict rules are those which are impossible to break without hitting a fail state. For example, most games with a health value have it so that if that value reaches 0, they'll reset us to an earlier checkpoint, and games never intentionally let us phase through the level boundaries. Loose rules, on the other hand, you can break, and when you do, it doesn't incur a fail state but does trigger a penalty. Running into the spikes in Sonic makes us drop our rings, turning off Animal Crossing without saving gets us a lecture from Resetti next time we turn it on, etc.

In Papers, Please, the strict rules are that we can't give the state an obvious reason to imprison or fire us. They will fire us for the crime of our whole family dying, by the way. The loose rules are anything currently in play in the in-game rulebook, with the penalty for breaking them being financial penalisation, at least after our first couple of deviations each day. For this reason, we have some leeway with which to break the protocols of the Ministry of Admission, and it is vital that the game lets us do this. If it were to implement the border protocol as a set of strict rules then it would end up taking the same position as the shady authoritarians who lord their power over you, suggesting that discriminating against people crossing the border and perpetrating injustice is non-negotiable, it's just what you have to do to get by. Papers, Please rightfully says no; there are at least some circumstances in which you can push back against even an iron-fisted government's wishes, and by the moral logic that we discussed at the top of this essay, you might ask why we wouldn't always do that.

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You can roleplay the jackboot in Papers, Please; make the deliberately deleterious decision every time. However, if you want to be the hero, then by the logic of that individualist ethics, and most video games with moral choices, all you need to do is consistently pick the "good guy" decision. In this game, that often means believing in people over documents: Taking in the desperate pleas of the human in front of you as opposed to falling back on the M.o.A's heartless people filter. The problem is, you cannot always act on that belief. What you consider ethical is going to depend on who you think deserves entry into Arstotzka. You might think that prohibition of anyone's passage over the East Grestin border is indefensible and that there should be free movement of all people across it. Alternatively, you may not believe that you should give everyone a place in Arstotzka. Maybe you think that certain outsiders could be a threat to the citizenry or that people should earn their place. You want to select immigrants and visitors on a case-by-case basis, although probably not by the same measuring sticks that Arstotzka currently uses.

Either way, you have little power to act on those precepts because the penalties for your moral decisions clashing against the state's are too high for you to accept or reject people based on your ethical standards consistently. You literally cannot afford what it would cost to defy your employers again and again. If you made it your choice who passes over the border, you'd also quickly get your ability to make such judgements revoked by your bosses, and even if that weren't true, you don't have the information at your disposal that you'd require to run a case-by-case system. As discussed earlier, there's no guarantee that any of the papers that pass in front of you accurately report the details they claim to, and even if they did, they give you a very limited window into who these potential entrants are.

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What we would need to make informed moral decisions about who should be let in and who shouldn't be is their health, their family history, whether they're part of a marginalised demographic, how much money they have, what their history of violence is if any, whether they're fleeing persecution. What we get is the flat and mostly irrelevant details of their names, their appearance, their date of birth, what gender their state assigned them, etc. Unavoidably, we do learn what states ruled over them, but information about whether and how those states are abusive comes in drabs when you're living in Arstotzka. Additionally, whether someone has gotten their papers in order or not doesn't have anything to do with how much they need work, citizenship, or visitation rights in your nation. After discovering that you can't act ethically through the M.o.A, you might want to take a principled stand by abandoning it: labelling it broken beyond repair and refusing to participate. But that option almost always kills your family and won't assure justice prevails. In the endings where your superiors drag you away from the job, your departure is a minor nuisance to the officials who go on to place another border officer in your old shoes. Take, for example, ending 9 of 20.

A recurring irritant for Arstotzka is a rebel group by the name of The Order of the EZIC Star. You can raise the barrier for their agents and put down your foot when their political enemies try to cross, but the most selfless sacrifice you can make for them comes on Day 23 at the checkpoint. On that day, EZIC asks you to assassinate a man in red as he carries criminalising information on The Order that could compromise them. The EZIC representative tells you that you will receive the death penalty for murdering the man, but promises to take care of your family after you die. In the most crushing of the game's endings, you shoot the man hoping it will help EZIC bring the revolution, the government puts you on death row, and EZIC slips a letter under your cell door. They tell you that the inspector who has replaced you won't co-operate with them, for reasons that are obvious to us, having felt the motivation that inspectors are given to play it by the book. This forces EZIC to cease operations in Arstotzka meaning that not only is there not going to be a revolution; you're going to die for nothing. This ending confirms that if you do attempt to get forcibly removed from your position, not only are they going to trade you out for someone else, your replacement is likely to be more obedient, only making the M.o.A. more effectively oppressive.

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The idea that doing what's morally right is just about making the most ethical decision assumes that you have the ability to realise that decision in the first place and the idea that the right person for the job is someone with the best values presumes a system through which they can enact their values. Neither are the case for any of us who have relatively little power within a political system, which is most of us. Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that a large swath of video games look at worlds from a position of influence: most popular video games are empowerment fantasy games. We have exceptional control over the unfolding of conflicts and politics in these games because they are about finding liberation through having a high degree of agency; one that you'll find as a theme park director or an elite soldier. However, by placing you in that seat of power, these games fail to prescribe a path to ethical politics for the common person or anyone trapped in a byzantine web of rules.

Authoritarian societies are smart enough to build their systems of labour, law, and money to resist individualistic do-gooders to the maximum extent possible. They're well aware that someone might want to make the ethical decision to disobey or overthrow the state, so they catch those troublemakers in traps which discourage and block efforts to do exactly that. If your freedom or economic livelihood is contingent on acting as the state pleases, you can't easily disobey them and probably won't want to. While plenty of other media that stroke their beard on the topic of morality say that bad things are done by bad people and good things by good people, Papers, Please says there are political structures in which your actions have little to do with what you believe to be right. If someone else can gain control over you, they can decide your behaviour for you, and so your actions are not a reflection of your personal morality. It's the same oppressive circumstances which give us a need for revolutionary tools that keep those tools from us.

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This is not just useful information to have in contemporary politics but also reminds us of something we must keep in mind when looking back on authoritarian societies. There were people in them who were happy to tread all over the common or vulnerable citizens the second they were handed the license to do so, and there are people who watched evil take power and did nothing, but it's also not as simple as everyone in an authoritarian country subscribing to that authoritarian ideology. The Cold War wasn't a dispute between the west and countries where everyone believed in Lenin or Mao's theories. Many of the people in those countries were victims of those dictators themselves but still perpetuated their politics because they were prisoners of their political systems. The reason that dictators have to implement oppressive systems, to begin with, is because they're well aware that many citizens under them won't share their aims. And while we often want to divide people along a line of "oppressed" and "oppressor", and indeed in many situations, it is appropriate to do so, Papers, Please finds a shockingly common historical scenario in which we are both simultaneously. This is possible because, within the game, we are part of a tiered hierarchy.

Authoritarian elites like the ones at the head of Arstotzka know they cannot subjugate the masses by hand. As we discover in our position as a passport inspector, even running a tiny corner of their system takes a lot of work. So, they delegate responsibility to citizens below them and through the hierarchy provide a reason for those citizens to take that responsibility seriously: every rung of the ladder oppresses the one below. To the people whose passports you reject, you're the oppressor, but from your perspective, the managers who whip you into line are the tyrants. Above those officials, there are likely more servants of the state checking that they're doing their duty, and a chain of command will wind all the way back to the top of the government. Every link in that chain, whether they believe they're doing something ethical or not, always has the pressure of persecution from above and the threat of plummeting down to the societal category below.

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The refugees, estranged family members, and generally desperate humans who wander through the border are not just subjects for us to enact the government's will on, they're reminders of the position we could be in if we don't stick to the script. It's worth noting that popular politics and player empowerment games with moral choices often have no answer as to how someone might successfully flip that script. When we only honour the empowered player's decisions and not the decisions of characters beyond the player, we suggest that the ethical decisions of powerful individuals are absolute. And when we have a political discourse that only focuses on the achievements or failures of those in power, we suggest that the general populace hold no political sway. Neither of these impressions is correct, and many people with only marginal power can act against the powerful if they work collectively.

In Papers, Please, you can break the loose rules to carry a few more oppressed people over the border, but there will always be more people to help than opportunities to lend a hand to them. However, if you can break the rules in a way that aids the people who'd destroy the whole system of rules, you might be able to help everyone. There is a way to work with The Order to overthrow the Arstotzkan state; you just can't do it too loudly. You must allow their agents passage while barring their enemies, not reveal your involvement with EZIC to your bosses, and stay your hand when the man in the red appears. Do all this, and on Day 31, rebels make a dramatic entrance, neutralise the border guards, and blow up the wall, allowing the people who you'd have otherwise processed as an inspector to come flooding through. This is basically what you have to do if your game contains a stand-in for the Berlin Wall: at some point, someone has to tear it down. A screen of text then tells us that the government has been overthrown, ushering in a new state. Besides it being uplifting to see a positive future for Arstotzka after coming to believe that there was no chance of my character escaping from their meticulously documented hell, it was also illustrative of Papers, Please's position on the border's function in an authoritarian state. The government slipping from power after the collapse of the border system reflects a view that it was the MoA's ability to choose who could exist in Arsstotzka that perpetuated the authoritarian rule. That in being able to turn away reporters and minorities and only keep those who they deemed loyal or at least harmless to the state, their dictatorship stood firm. The checkpoints don't just keep people out; they keep out the sources of personal liberty too.

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Before we get too carried away, we should note that there are political schools of thought that would make credible objections to Papers, Please's depiction of how an authoritarian state gets toppled. I'm not going to evaluate them in all their complexity here, but it's worth keeping in mind that there are people who would say that keeping your head down and failing to take an explicit stand against authoritarianism perpetuates the ideology rather than combats it. You could make the argument that you can't just wait for someone outside to liberate you; that you have to do it yourself. There are also plenty of commentators who'd say that working from inside the system is never going to dissolve it and that Papers, Please cuts some corners to make a government official colluding with rebel forces look a lot more possible than it was in real authoritarian countries. There are other commentators still who'd say that Papers, Please is still not collectivist enough in its depiction of revolution. I believe many of these criticisms to be relevant, but whether you take them to be valid or not, we can come away from Papers, Please with the belief that if working within a system only provides you with unethical options (e.g. Discriminate against people at the border crossing or let your family starve to death) then you need a different system.

Despite being a stunningly politically-charged game, a considerable portion of Papers, Please's audience is not the people who are typically looking for social commentary in their games, and the title doesn't usually attract that common and dismissive criticism that "political" games do, that it's trying to "force" a worldview upon us. I'd wager this is because a large portion of the gaming community views games only as political when they're acting in proximity to modern social justice issues, whether that's by explicitly communicating a feminist message or just having a black main character. By contrast, no small portion of the Papers, Please fandom seems happy to roleplay the Arstotzkan officials, safe in the belief that the game doesn't instruct on modern day politics. The Russian and Eastern-European dictatorships of the 20th-century are often so distant from us in time and place that we treat them as though they're fiction. The citizens and soldiers of these countries are so frequently depicted as overblown movie villains, whether in western propaganda or works of entertainment, that they often appear just like any other recurring "bad guy" faction from novels or film. Bloodthirsty communists are consigned to the same box of cheap go-to enemies for action media as zombies and killer robots, and when given such framing appear just as phoney. We also have a generation of people alive now who didn't live through the Cold War, and so, for them, their main reference point for the events of it are media on them, factual or otherwise. I'm one of those people.

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But if we're to honour the historically oppressed and not repeat history, then we have to remain aware that the poverty, state violence, and discrimination depicted in Papers, Please are not part of some mythical fantasy world but are what millions of people who lived under dictators endured. It's also worth noting that the treatment of people at the East Grestin border can't be viewed as entirely distinct from the practices at the borders of many modern countries, even if the game doesn't directly draw that link. To forward one comparison, at the Arstotzkan border, there are essential conceptions of male and female appearances. In the case that a person's appearance isn't adequately masculine or feminine enough for the officials, the rules compel you to take a photograph of that person's naked body and then allow or deny them based on whether their bodies match cisnormative concepts of gender. I.e. The rules say you must reject people whose gender on their passport is "female" but who have a penis and you must do the same for people whose passport says "male" but have a clitoris.

It's invasive and transphobic to the extent that we might say that this could only happen somewhere like the Soviet Union but many modern-day airports have long used backscatter scanners to allow officials to take nude photographs of complete strangers and Arstotzka's policy on trans people is not that different from the United States'. There, the TSA decide whether a person is male or female based purely on sight and have their scanner compare that person's body to that of a cisgender man or woman. If the scanner detects a mismatch, it raises an alarm. In 2015, The National Center for Transgender Equality found that "Forty-three percent of those who went through airport security in the past year experienced at least one problem related to their gender identity or expression" and trans people have been sharing countless horror stories about their treatment at the hands of border control officers online. The United States has also recently been in hot water for, as Arstotzka does, using overzealous and inhumane forms of arrest and detention at the border.

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Similar mistreatment of refugees has been recorded in the UK in Australia with humanitarian violations such as that of the Yarl's Wood, Tripoli, Nauru (note: link contains graphic description of suicide), and mainland Australia detention centres. And just as we saw in early game Arstotzka, a lot of countries don't care to have a robust refugee program that accounts for the number of people on the planet displaced from their home. We're also all familiar with the "random searches" at airports which depend on racial profiling, a lot like Arstotzka's shortlived personal invasion of Kolechians. It should be said that the people who perpetuate those neglectful and oppressive policies in the modern world aren't usually forced into it that same way that the Arstotzkans are. In Papers, Please you're conducting forced labour, but if you're someone who writes or implements modern border policy, you've probably taken that job by choice. However, the point is that issues with border policing and immigration protocol are not about good or bad individual actors as much as they are about the toxicity of the whole system.

More broadly, we often talk about how our societies encourage good behaviour by punishing criminals with jail or fines, but there's not as much education on how the systems that surround us could incentivise negative actions, for example, by creating a culture of profiling or making people financially dependent on unethical organisations. Papers, Please is all about those incentives and in a sea of declarations that morality is about the actions of powerful individuals, Papers, Please is a game looking at what it's to be a citizen with only nominal power. It says that doing what's ethical isn't always about choosing the right option within a system because some systems don't have a "right option", and some problems are systemic, necessitating a transformation of the system. By the same token, whether a person is "good" or "bad" doesn't matter nearly as much as what morality the system they're working under pressures them to implement. Thanks for reading.

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