Overwatch Fan's Letter To Jeff Kaplan About Black Women Gets Heartfelt Response

Screenshot: Overwatch, Blizzard

In March 2017, an Overwatch fan wrote to Jeff Kaplan about the lack of black female characters in the game. To her surprise, he wrote back a few months later, saying he hoped that one day diversity would be the norm and promising that there were multiple black characters in the works.

“The most important thing to me is that those in positions to influence and reflect society start portraying very normal things as being normal,” Kaplan wrote.

“Right now, it makes ripple effects when we feature characters of different backgrounds. It’s a big deal when we reveal a hero is a lesbian. But I long for the day when it’s not a big deal. It needs to not be newsworthy. We need to help normal be normal.

“P.S., we have multiple Black characters in development,” he added. “One of them is coming soon.” That character would end up being Doomfist.

Vivian Phillips is a 23-year-old black woman going to college in Atlanta. Some of her earliest memories are of playing games with her father, specifically Baldur’s Gate and Fallout 2. “He would customise the character to look like me,” Phillips told Kotaku over the phone in November.

“He’d let me choose the dialogue choices or really important narrative choices and we got to some really interesting places. It was a really great bonding experience.” Her love of games grew as she got older, though she only happened upon Overwatch by chance.

She wasn’t a huge fan of Blizzard’s other games, so when Overwatch was announced, at first she wasn’t that enthused. Then she saw a screenshot of Symmetra.

“You could tell she was this regal, dark-skinned Indian woman. There was no racial ambiguity,” Phillips said. “I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I should check out Overwatch, see what’s going on.’”

Screenshot: Overwatch, Blizzard

Dark-skinned women of any race are a rarity in games. As a mixed race black and Indian woman, seeing Symmetra was similarly inspiring to me, and led to me taking a chance on Overwatch, which is not the kind of game I usually play. Sometimes when you see a brown woman in a video game, you want to show the developers that brown-skinned women are out here, we see what they’re doing, and we appreciate it.

“When I saw Symmetra, when I saw Pharah, I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe there is a change happening in the gaming industry,’” Phillips said. “As a black female gamer, I have not seen many black women in leading roles. They were usually a just a sidekick or an NPC.” Seeing other characters of other ethnicities gave her hope that this might be a game where she saw a black female character in a leading role.

When Blizzard started teasing their 27th hero, Phillips went to the Blizzard forums to share her hope that it might be a black woman. Not just an Indian woman, like Symmetra, or an Egyptian Arab woman, like Pharah, but a black female character who would represent her. Previous Overwatch characters might have had her skintone, but they didn’t feel like they came from her cultural background.

Fans have talked about the lack of a black female character in Overwatch for a while, though it reached a head when Ashe was announced last year. “I was like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if it was a black woman?’” Phillips said.

“I got very vitriolic, hateful comments, like, ‘Black people always bring up race! What does the race of a person have to do with it?’”

Here’s what the race of a person has to do with it: even within our own culture, black women feel overlooked and forgotten. We’re so used to being ignored, that when any piece of media makes gestures towards diversity, we hope and hope that black women will be included in that.

Too often, the shows and movies we watch or the games we play come up short. Black men are thought to stand in for the entirety of the black experience, but that’s just not true. In video games, I’ve noticed that usually there’s room for a white woman and a black man, but almost never a black woman.

Blackness is defined through a series of cultural markers, among them dark skin, broad noses, and kinky hair, as well as a shared cultural history of freedom from bondage. Broadly, you could define blackness as the diaspora of people displaced from Africa through the slave trade, though that doesn’t account for everyone. Blackness is more about how you are seen than how you are.

To be seen as black allows people to treat you in a certain way. No matter who I marry and have kids with, of whatever ethnicity, my children are going to inherit the markers that will deem them to the world at large as black. I would be disappointed if I had a daughter who could only see narratives about blackness through the eyes of black men, just as I have had to do for my entire life. And I would be disappointed if black women continued to be overlooked in a game with a cast as diverse as Overwatch’s.

It’s in that spirit that Phillips eventually ended up writing to Jeff Kaplan about her desire to see a playable black female character in Overwatch. “One of my favourite authors Junot Diaz said: “You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror? If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves,’” she wrote.

“Socially, I’ve felt like a monster, Mr. Kaplan. I can only name three Black females that’ve been leads in a video game: Clementine from [The Walking Dead], Nilin from Remember Me, and Rochelle from Left 4 Dead. But worst was my acceptance of it.”

In her letter, Vivian compared Kaplan to the Wizard of Oz, making announcement from inside his Emerald City, and decorated her envelope hoping to catch his attention. (Photo: Vivian Phillips)

“My acceptance that even if the game has a custom character creator, a white male model will be used in the commercials to sell me the game. My acceptance that a Black character regardless of gender will most likely be the sidekick of the franchise,” she continued. “My acceptance that video game developers will often make me choose my race or my gender when talking about a ‘diversifying’ character, and never thinking about combining the two.”

Two months later, Phillips got a package. The return address was from Irvine, California. When she opened it, she found some cute stickers of the Overwatch hero Orisa, some Blizzard logos, and a letter addressed to her personally.

It was from Jeff Kaplan.

Kaplan wrote:

When reached by Kotaku, a Blizzard spokesperson would not comment on the authenticity of this specific letter, citing privacy concerns, but confirmed that “from time to time Jeff Kaplan does personally respond to members of the Overwatch community who reach out to him.”

Although Phillips is still waiting for a playable black female character in Overwatch, she said that Kaplan’s letter gave her the motivation to go into game development, to try to push for more change from the inside. She’s currently working on her first game, a post-apocalyptic visual novel. It has characters from a diverse array of backgrounds, and the first character you meet is a black woman.

Phillips said that while she knows that Blizzard can’t promise anything, and Kaplan told her as much in his response to her, she isn’t satisfied with the status quo.

“I refuse to keep waiting,” she said. “I keep that letter with me. Not only does it make me happy, it gives me motivation—to graduate, to find internships, to keep working on my game.”


Comments

    refreshing to see someone calling for diversity while not yelling racism at the same time.

    couple things stand out to me.
    I don't see how it is hateful to say ‘Black people always bring up race! What does the race of a person have to do with it?’” your part of this discussion online you know that people just do not understand your obsession with needing a char that looks like you. It is not hateful to not understand where your coming from. I don't get it i have no trouble identifying with chars that are different race/sex/orientation.

    the other thing was Vivian mentioned a game with customisable chars that she can make look like her but laments the advertising will use a white male char. well if you need a black female to make yourself identify with a game and the majority of gamers are white males wouldn't it make sense for advertisement to be targeted at the majority. i don't see the need to do it but if im going to accept that Vivian and so many other people need to see themselves in these characters then im the odd one out here, so if Vivian is the norm then advertising with white males makes perfect sense right.

      It's hateful because it's a tool used to silence them. The constant slew of "Black people are always angry! They're always calling out racism! They're always emotional!" (fuck me, I would be too if my race were still suffering the ramifications today of SLAVERY, jesus christ) ultimately leads to sweeping assumptions that BLACK = IRRELEVANT, because it's all just a bunch of "angry complainers". Which is shit.

        There are definitely people saying things like that to be hateful, but most of it is ignorance witch at its core isn't hateful, but it does contribute to the BLACK = IRRELEVANT statement.

        “Right now, it makes ripple effects when we feature characters of different backgrounds. It’s a big deal when we reveal a hero is a lesbian. But I long for the day when it’s not a big deal. It needs to not be newsworthy. We need to help normal be normal.
        I think this kind of sums up some people's thinking in a way they want to believe that the day he "longs" for is here when it's not...Yet.

          Fair, but much like the big, bad R-word (gasp!) if you call someone ignorant, they pitch an ironically ignorant hissy fit because they interpret it as being unintelligent instead of simply not knowing about something. And it's fucking RAMPANT in geek culture because the mantra of "intellect = superiority" is something that's clung to by a LOT of people, especially if they were bullied for their interests. In some cases they build their whole identities around it and any perceived threat to that construction is met with automatic, extreme hostility. So what if you don't know something? It doesn't lessen your worth as a human being. People act like it does and they panic, then nothing that actually helps the problem gets done.

        you've really drunk the coolaide huh, if there is one thing we can all be sure of it's that there is no way to silence a black women amirite =)

        "Black people are always angry! They're always calling out racism! They're always emotional!" when did i say any of this where is it in the article? o right nowhere good job, same goes for black = irrelevant and "angry complainers" didn't say it didn't read it.

        as for still suffering the effects of slavery im guessing your referring to America and you know bugger all about it like almost everyone who ever brings it up, i cant be bothered to educate you on American slavery right now it has absolutely nothing to do with the topic either, unless you think slavery is responsible for the lack of diversity in video games.... did it all start with the KKK who funded pong?

        you should actually read what people write buddy not just immediately pitch a rage fit and make it up in your own head while angrily typing a response that way you wont sound like a race baiting lunatic.

          Sorry, I was under the impression you weren't a troll. Toodles!

            yeh right im the troll good one

              I kinda feel stupid for writing a massive reply to your first post where I felt like genuinely engaging when this is the reply chain you gave to someone else. This was... idk, man. A bit much. You're basically shutting down entirely because someone read a context that you didn't intend. Authorial intent isn't the be all and end all.

          lol a total lunatic comes in and responds to me with a bunch of made up racist comments which i never said and also didn't exist in the article i point this out and i get downvoted.

          So you all support minorities just not perceived minority opinions, to be clear all i said was this shit aint hateful and i don't understand where she is coming from. the stuff quoted in the article is not hateful (the shit @butchfish linked is certainly hateful) i didn't post some bigot apologist rant. Some people posted great responses pointing out how and why Vivian might feel the way she does something this article itself made about as clear as mud. But now im getting downvoted for mocking this guy..... makes sense.

          so done with you people your the other side of the coin, if there are people out there trying to silence black women by saying crap like "black people are always so angry" i don't see how its any different than how @butchfish responded to me and how the rest of you dogpile the downvote button, both groups are trying to silence someone.

          Last edited 09/01/19 5:06 pm

            You said you couldn't see how it was hateful. You got an explanation, you flipped out and threw a tanty. Did you expect upvotes for that?

          Mate no, you went from decent opposition to face plant within two comments.

          I am casty, with my dad's mum being aboriginal and everyone else being some shade of white from all over the place. I am actually really pale and so I didn't know (or honestly care either) until I went through her bellongings after her passing. I learnt a lot about her (including why her and my father are so fucked up), but it didn't make me identify as aboriginal.

          What it did do however was make me think about how my cousins who have more traditionally indiginous features might feel when they see almost all advertisements for Australian products be targetted at white people.

          I am not saying I want to see advertisements be varied based on demographic percentages, but it would probably be nice if for people if they were atleast factored in somewhat.

          Just an odd irrelevant sode thought; if you ever want to feel uncomfortable go to fiji and look at all the business posters and signs that clearly target white people in a country where we make up such a low percentage of the population, but also make up most of the economy through tourism.

      Your right to a degree, but you said it your self that you have no problem identifying with characters of different sex/race/orientation, maybe because there are enough role models in greater society that it fills that hole/void for you already subconsciously?

      I am the same have no problem identifieing with characters from any walk of life, but that could be because of all the role models that I had that fit my own personal sex/race/orientation

      If the majority of white male gamers thought the same then there shouldn't be any issue with trying to advertise to the minority audience that lack those role models by having a black female for the advertising material.

        firstly thanks for responding without insinuating im a racist.

        So maybe it's an issue of like being inoculated to the alienation because there is so many characters that fit the same general mold as me, i hadn't thought of it that way.

        i don't see any issue with advertising with a black female and im not aware of any controversy where a black female was used to advertise something and caused a backlash.

      It's easy to not understand when you've always been the default. It may not seem significant to someone like you or me because we're always catered to, but most media categorises humans as "white male" by default and everyone else gets a specialised name. The white male is almost always shown first, almost always gets the most screen time, almost always gets the most developed character. There are exceptions, but the fact that they're notable exceptions kinda proves the rule. I had very little understanding of this until I lived somewhere where I wasn't the default. All of a sudden being a white man meant people stared at me in the street, strangers quizzed me on the train, people treated me not like I was
      a guy, but like a whiteguy. It forced me to re-examine a lot of the comments about diversity that I had dismissed. Being left out and expected to just be fine with being seen as Other was shitty. Which leads into the other thing:

      It's not that everyone needs a character that looks like them in order to connect, it's that they've been (indirectly) told that they need to learn to identify with people unlike them, but the people lucky enough to get that representation are rarely asked to do the same. They've already learned how to identify with white male characters. They do it in like 70+% of all the media they consume. Which leaves about 30% for everyone else combined (this is Western media, obviously. India has a lot of Indian people. China has a lot of Chinese people. But even they have weird representations by gender and skin tone). It's probably time for us to learn to identify more easily with non-white, non-male characters. If for no other reason than because it gives more room to have interesting and novel experiences.

      I think a big part of the problem is this idea that most gamers are white males and that it's natural to be that way. There's a cause and effect situation going on here. Not only are the demographics changing (most gamers aren't white males anymore), but the demographics only skewed that way originally because of complex social and economic factors. Those factors don't apply the same way anymore. Gaming isn't a niche occupied by young sci-fi/fantasy fans from wealthy western countries anymore. It's the largest single entertainment medium on earth and most of the world's population isn't white.

      People are going to keep asking for representation because that's what they want to spend their money on. People like to see characters where they see a bit of themselves. Sure, they can find other things to identify with, but the most obvious one is constantly out of their reach. If you're going to throw all the social stuff out the window and be purely economically pragmatic about it, they are an untapped market demanding to be served.

        Holy shit that turned into a book. My apologies for All The Words.

          Don't be. All those words address a point that doesn't get much attention around here; they're sorely needed.

          i like to read don't sweat it.

          i couldn't give less of a shit who they use in advertising or in the game or what they look like or who they fuck im glade you took the time to explain the "minority" perspective to me but i think it's easier just to stay out of this crap so i don't have to deal with the other people sanctimoniously moralising strawman bullshit at me and blowing smoke up my ass.

          EDIT: not understanding someones perspective doesn't make you racist and your only ignorant if you don't try to understand.

          Last edited 09/01/19 4:07 pm

            Some people don't have the luxury of staying out of it. Because they spend every day of their lives being ignored and treated as if they either don't exist, or exist only in the abstract.

            But good for you on doubling down on the whole "Being ignorant of racism doesn't make me racist. It makes me too good for your bullshit" thing. I mean, you've made it pretty clear several times through this comments section that you don't care to try and understand why this means something to other people and that they're not being babies for caring.

          I do that all the time. a) because I type fast, and b) because I waffle on...

        Hold on... "Being left out and expected to just be fine with being seen as Other was shitty" why would it be shitty? How would a better representation in games or entertainment media change the way people would look at you?

        If I was lets say in Japan, I would never go... "I feel shitty, cause of all these japanese people around me, are looking at me as if Im the minority (which I am at that point)".

        I live in Slovakia, the chances of meeting a black person are slim (0,01%) unless theres some route/place for tourism. And despite the fact that majority of population in my country is white, we still have advertisement with black people in it. Should I get mad for that?

        When did you change the fact that most gamers are white males? Last year all the surveys showed numbers that around 74-78% of gamers are white males (2018), when did that change? It doesnt matter that most of the worlds population is asian (chinese/indian), what matters is who is buying/playing these games and gaming hardware. Gaming consoles are less popular in countries like China, they prefer Pc games that have less story telling titles and are more PvP based.

          I feel like you're ignoring the context of the statement. I had dismissed the arguments for diversity in media that other people wanted because i didn't see it as a problem. That problem had never affected me because I had never been a minority. Being in a place where I was a minority (specifically in Japan, coincidentally) made me re-examine my biases. That helped to inform my current opinion, it's a related tangent, not the thrust of the argument.

          Greater representation in media isn't a magic bullet, but it sure does help people feel less like aliens in their own culture.

          i have no idea where you got that study from, but not only is it way out of whack, it's been way out of whack since before most commenters on this site could buy a beer.

          Here is a graph from Statista, a German based statistics gathering company that is one of the most respected in the world. It is hired by international companies and governments for reliable statistical breakdowns:
          [url]https://www.statista.com/statistics/232383/gender-split-of-us-computer-and-video-gamers/[/url]
          Not only does it show that the male to female gender split is 55% to 45%, it shows that those numbers have been reasonably consistent (changing a total of 9% at the largest variance) since at least 2006. It uses data from the USA which is similar enough to Australia that it's useful for us, as well.

          If you want to completely dismiss the arguments for greater social cohesion, treating people well, etc and turn it into a purely money-based thing, take a look at this:
          https://www.polygon.com/2018/8/27/17671972/gamer-types-habits-demographic-research-eeda
          It's a news story about a EEDAR report (that's unfortunately no longer free) showing that 67% of all Americans play games. If we can take the Statista information as true (we can), that means that roughly 95 million women in America alone are video game players. It's a huge market and there's no SJW conspiracy in the changes to representation. There are huge markets that are being grossly underserved. Not catering to them is leaving a hell of a lot of money on the table.

    Also, besides all the race discourse... super keen for a grown-up, playable Efi. THINK OF THE INTERACTIONS WITH ORISA. !!! :D

    I think it’s sad how many people require characters to look like them to enjoy playing them.

    I realise it’s a thing in all forms of media. Making “relatable” characters. And there’s no more basic form of this more than changing the colour.

    Obviously this is my awful privilege speaking... but I was far more excited by Bastion and Winston when the game came out.

    Same with WoW - who on Earth wants to play a human when there are undead, trolls and GIANT MINOTAUR PEOPLES?

    Ah. But are they gay?

      maybe some people play alliance because they don't want to play the filthy evil horde?

      I think it’s sad how many people require characters to look like them to enjoy playing them.

      But thats not the reason for all, it is about the fact culture has been control by rich white guys for decades. Growing up, everything I watched and played was full of white men in control and women, a damsel. Now I am almost fifty in the last decade I have finally seen movies and tv have non white leads, female leads, and everything in between. Telling tales not based around a white man's fantasy. Seeing cultures represented on the screen beyond, British, US etc. Gaming is catching up, thankfully, but there is a still a long way to go.

      Now I am not a person of colour but I want, nah have to see a diversity of stories being told now. Because it helps me to think of things beyond my experiences, makes me understand and respect other cultures more, and above all it helps break down this notion in some peoples head that non-whites are foreign and therefore bad.

      It is not about

      people require characters to look like them to enjoy playing them.

      it is about the games I play, and the movies I see representing the rainbow of colours and cultures I see every single day, just walking down the street.

      Those rich white men are finally realising, how wrong they were for all those years. Thinking only white men fantasies are the only tales people wanted to see.

        I feel weird describing myself this way, but objectively speaking, I'm a tall, strong, fit(ish), blue eyed, white guy every day of my life. What do I get out of being one of those in my flights of fancy? Escapism is about being something you're not and stories are only good when they're surprising and engaging.

        I must admit, this is actually far better put than anything I've ever read on this topic from Kotaku. I actually sympathise with this point of view and can see where you're coming from.

        Like many people, I'm just tired of the discussion feeling so forced and combative.

        I often bring things round to something I feel strongly about - animal rights.
        If I take a holier-than-thou stance on not eating meat, 9 times out of 10, I'll only turn people away. It's crazy, I know, but sometimes you have to be inclusive if you want the majority to see your point of view. Don't force it upon them awkwardly.

        Here's two examples:

        1) McDonalds releases a new vegan burger range

        2) McDonalds replaces all of their meat products with vegan substitutes.

        Now, I know which I'd prefer. But I also know that option 2 would only piss off the masses, cause mass protests, and do more harm than good for the cause.

        At the end of the day - most people are happy for diversity in games. Only the most dire among us wouldn't play, say, the Paladin in Diablo 2 based on skin colour.

        Sexuality is, imo, quite different. I just can't see sexuality being a natural fit for most games - meaning it tends to feels forced. Who cares if Soldier 76 is straight, gay, trans or a pay-pig? He shoots other characters in a game with endlessly rotating maps with zero singleplayer or story.

        How is making him gay a win for anyone? To me, it just feels like a faceless corporate juggernaut pandering for twitter-love while primarily focusing on increasing lootbox sales for their soulless live-service games.

    But I long for the day when it’s not a big deal. It needs to not be newsworthy.

    Kotaku *Writes news article about it*

      Yeah, because it's still newsworthy. The media aren't the ones gatekeeping that day from coming, society is.

    But I long for the day when it’s not a big deal. It needs to not be newsworthy. We need to help normal be normal.These are my feelings exactly. It's like that line from the Incredibles "And when everyone's super, no one will be." What people have to remember though is that it's a street that goes both ways, we don't just need to stop feeling like it's a celebration to have diversity but we also need to stop groaning when we get another white, muscular, good looking male in peak physical fitness.

      I kind of agree. Diversity is good and should be encouraged, but people get annoyed when somebody writes a white male character and they are accused of 'not doing enough for diversity' or being criticised for no reason other than they're a white male character. It breeds ridiculous shit like when Gita Jackson tried to insinuate that player created content in The Sims 4 was racist because people were uploading fewer black Sims and seemed to argue for pushing players to make content she wanted instead of what they wanted.

      Way to early to do that. One day, sure, but not while people are still fighting for said inclusion. That’s the problem with comments like that, you’ve skipped the debate, the struggle, and gone straight to the end (like it’s already the norm) and asking everyone to stop. It’s an old tactic, used throughout time over and over again. It’s a way of shutting down the discussion without having to discus it. You’ll see it used against not just people of colour, but Others (you’ll see the Right media use this argument all the time) You’re either don’t realise, or you’re doing this on purpose.

    we will get there on day my dude don't worry, think of this like a pendulum it's going to swing back and forth for a while before it settles in the middle.

    Wonder if the writer of the letter even still plays overwatch?
    Strange I don't see Japanese women complaining about being not represented.
    I wonder how many people would trade all this diversity for a game they would still be playing now?

      Strange that you haven’t. Maybe you haven’t met _every_ Japanese women in the world yet?

      Japanese people are well represented in their home culture.

        Wouldn't you say everyone is fairly well represented in their own culture?

          I would say that as a rule, native peoples in modern Western cultures are not. I would also say that non-white people in white-dominated cultures are not. Japan is 98.5% ethnically Japanese. Australia, America, etc are white-dominated cultures, but have sizeable populations from non-caucasian backgrounds. Those populations are not proportionately represented in their own cultures' media. So it's an apples to fighter jets comparison.

            You said Japanese are well represented in their home culture though. So native and black people would be well represented in their home cultures as well. I suppose what I'm saying is that people who create art (used as a coverall in this case) tend to represent their own culture. It's a complex thing when it comes to culture ... is there a responsibility for people to create art (used as a coverall here) which fairly represents everyone within a wider and very complex culture like 'Western culture' for the sake of meeting percentages of ethnic population?

              It sounds like you're trying to argue that a black woman living in America isn't part of american culture.

              You're also using that coverall to dismiss (or at least avoid) the idea that art and commerce are inextricably linked and despite the fact that there is a very underserved market in diversification, capitalism is heavily risk avoidant and discourages finding the new market if the current one is still working well enough.

              You're also also using the very tired and very reductive argument that anyone who puts a non-white person in a piece of media that they're doing so in order to meet quotas.

              It seems like you're coming into this in good faith, but the arguments you're presenting have been refuted a million times by a million people much more qualified than I am. Which makes me suspect that this is just begging the question.

                Sorry, if it comes off that way, because I'm completely coming to this in good faith. It was just when you responded to the comment above, about Japanese women being well represented in their 'home' culture I thought it brought up an interesting point of view. Should a women of Japanese descent living in Western culture not be represented in Western video games because she is well represented in media in her 'home' culture? That's all it was, a question about the responsibilities of creators and media makers in Western culture when it comes to representation.

                  In that case, let me give you some anecdata. My girlfriend of 2 years was a Japanese born American and she spent her entire life wishing there was representation of Japanese women in American culture that wasn't in some way fetishised. She wasn't the only one. That was her home culture. If we're talking about Japanese women who consider Japan to be their home culture, they're well represented.

                  I honestly find the idea of the responsibilities of media creators to be a bit of a gotcha argument. Clearly there are artists who want to create this stuff. they're just rarely allowed because they have publishing houses who would rather their workers follow the established formula. unless you want to start getting into philosophy and debate whether we owe each other anything, it's safe to assume that there's a kind of base level of responsibility placed on all of us to be good citizens and if a media company wants to routinely ignore large portions of the population, they can do it. But people are going to be mad and their profits will suffer as a result.

    A really beautiful letter by Jeff and I wish Vivian all success with her games! :)

    Maybe they'll write a comic where Doomfist reveals she identifies as a woman. Problem solved and at little to no cost.

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