Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Zoya has launched a new book today! It’s called Digital Bodies — go check it out.

A machine can encourage new patterns of behaviour, building different postures and muscle groups. Historically this has been most clearly understood in relation to factory labour; the industrial revolution transformed people’s lives; public health was devastated by pollution, long working hours, and cramped living conditions. At around the same time, the bourgeoisie was deliberately using machines to change their bodies through the development of exercise machines: technology used for leisure often stands as a direct, although perverted, reflection of technology used for work.

The dot com boom of the late 1990s had lasting effects on culture. Even after the financial bubble burst, the growing role of network-connected computers in both working life and leisure was undeniable. Meanwhile, bodies were themselves becoming more malleable and adaptable, through a rapid rise in the uptake of plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures; 1999 saw a 66% increase on the previous year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. In technologically-advanced, capitalist countries, the body was changing in relevance, with a decline of manufacturing and an expansion of the service industries. Increasingly, the human body was a display object meant to do emotional work.

Have you ever watched the video for Linkin Park’s “In The End” and thought that it looked a bit like a post-Playstation Final Fantasy game? Weirdly, “Holler” by the Spice Girls seemed to be set in the same game. The urban fantasy computer-generated city in Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” also seems to be replicated in a Spice Girls video. Whatever this may tell us about the Spice Girls aside, this suggests that the image of the digital playground transcended genres.

A game world is a liminal space: a world of leisure and symbolism separate to daily life. The prevailing design ethos at the time was that gameworlds, by necessity, must feature conflict, or danger, or just an endless supply of disorder that the player can busy themself trying to resolve. When music videos looked videogamey, they looked current, but they also looked beset by some problem or another.

We can look to turn-of-the-millennium music videos’ use of conspicuous computer graphics to understand some of the worries that people had about the effects of new technologies on the body. Music videos’ use of computer graphics to depict bodies often seemed to describe contemporary problems with the changing media landscape — in some of the most interesting music videos from this time, bodies are being digitally altered in videogamey computer-generated worlds.

TLC, “Unpretty”

TLC’s “Unpretty” shows a woman being pressured by a man (maybe her boyfriend) to have plastic surgery: their discussion about the ideal body is shown visually through a wireframe model being transformed with breasts shifting in size. Computer-generated objects inserted into the space around her suggest that the pressure doesn’t just come from the men in her life, or from the mere fact that the technology to change her body exists, but from an ever-present critical gaze, represented by a flying camera drone that follows her everywhere. The same drone is shown in the scenes featuring the band members themselves, who sit in lotus posture in what looks like a computer-generated ashram: here the machine’s shell is closed around the camera, as if in this peaceful state there is an end to the self-conscious vigilance whereby one imagines how one is seen by others.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that the body has special symbolic significance in helping us to understand a society as a whole, that we should “see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.”

“The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures.”

The media gaze wasn’t just an assault on the body personal, but on other social institutions too. A 2010 Adam Curtis mini-documentary drew a link between how the media spectacle came — particularly since the 1990s — to distort the public’s perception of their society, and how it distorted their perception of their own body: through hypervigilance, paranoia, and confusion. As journalism’s access to easy good vs. evil narratives collapsed after the end of the cold war, its reach and remit were expanded by 24-hour news and on-demand information over the internet. Under these conditions, everything became a target for scrutiny and a possible source of corruption, from the highest echelons of power to the unknown internal processes of the body itself.

The era of 24-hour news was also an era of 24-hour music. Teens in the 1990s listened to 4 times more music than teens in the 1970s. The availability of niche TV channels meant that for the first time, music videos could be played for hours on end. This era of pop was about availability not just to the ears, but to the eyes and minds of target demographic groups as part of a perpetually-moving marketing machine.

Robbie Williams, “Rock DJ”

Robbie Williams’s “Rock DJ” was released in 2000, an (admittedly terrible) track on an album called Sing When You’re Winning. The video used a combination of stage makeup and cutting-edge computer graphics to depict Williams taking off his clothing, skin and muscles in order to get a DJ’s attention. The story is partly couched in a heteronormative “boy tries to get the girl” narrative, but another valid reading is that the video is about the quest for fame. The body becomes the central playground in a game for attention. Williams is stood in the centre of a roller derby rink, with women zooming around him, moving too fast to pay much notice to what he is doing until he makes a spectacle of his own self-destruction — a spectacle gory enough to disrupt the flow of play, as they literally consume him.

“Robbie Williams, the deity of levity, is the combustible core of contemporary masculinity,” wrote Tara Brabazon in the International Journal of Culture Studies in 2002, in an article that establishes in clear terms that one of the things that made Williams interesting as a media personality was the way he played with image and pride.

“He has been prepared to not only age in public, but to discuss the crevices and cracks in the facade… surfing the simulacra, he is prepared to reveal paranoia, weakness, and confusion. He strips, smokes, plays football, wears interesting underwear and drinks too much.”

The level of gore in this video as the body is taken apart by a digital gaze is comparable to the way the body’s gruesome innards are made visible and public in Mortal Kombat. This use of the flesh made visible itself recalls Michel Foucault’s interpretation of public executions as the state making a spectacle of its control over bodies, as Amsel von Spreckelsen argued in a previous issue of Memory Insufficient:

“The body of the condemned is the site of justice and the justice takes the form of the state, or the individual whose power constitutes the state, taking ownership of that body and submitting it to their will. There is a side effect in that any torture or deprivation has a public element, a pageantry to it, that might discourage other potential criminals from their criminal acts, but the core of it is in the violent assertion of ownership. The public execution is not about showing to others what  might happen to their bodies should they transgress, but about reiterating that the state has the right to do this to its subjects, as well as enacting and so giving a purpose to that right.”

The “Rock DJ” video worked in part because it came from an artist who had been famous since the age of 16, and had been in the tabloids a great deal, as the press made news stories out of his struggles with substance abuse and depression. And the computer-generated human sacrifice is also, as Brabazon points out, an exercise in the futility of trying to render the white male dominant body into an object of desire: there is nothing interesting about Williams’s striptease until the skin is stripped away and the performance of celebrity draws its first blood.

Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” — a Kraftwerk-inspired video for a heavily Kraftwerk-influenced record — depicts an entourage of cyborg backing dancers who, while not themselves computer-generated, dance machine-like in a world that is established in computer-generated opening shots as being unreal and distant. “Even when the location is rendered abstract or uncertain, it is nevertheless always and unambiguously not a natural environment,” wrote Diane Railton and Paul Watson in their analysis of how this video frames Kylie Minogue’s sexuality as clean, controlled, and sterile.

Kylie speeds down a freeway in a sports car, heading deeper and deeper into a cold, grey, unreal city. Buildings pass by her, looking like low-polygon placeholders for where an actual city would be, the pace of their movement uneven as though some buildings were flickering in and out of existence.

An overwrought use of lens flare in this video suggests that you are watching Kylie through a camera. She goes through wardrobe changes, from red driving gloves to white ones, to a strange one-piece white garment that accentuates her dance moves while making her body look unnaturally long and stiff (“the fluidity of the dress merely confirms the flesh’s rigidity,” wrote Railton and Watson). Her final costume change introduces a dress that looks as though it is made of metal, suggesting that she has shifted from driving a machine to becoming machine-like herself. All the while, the throbbing beat of the song and its lyrics push the listener into a dispossessed, inhuman fixation on a product as Kylie sings “set me free!”

Media scholar Lee Barron, writing in 2008, explicitly interpreted Kylie’s work through Roger Caillois’s theories of play. He quotes Caillois, “all play presupposes the temporary acceptance, … of a closed … imaginary universe” — music videos are playful objects of make-believe, especially for an artist like Kylie Minogue who takes on different identities at different times, making everything seem like play and leaving nothing stable. For Barron, the “artifice and simulation” at work in her music videos from this era are strongly connected to notions of play and mimicry.

This play and mimicry, acted out in an imaginary universe made to look conspicuously unreal, spoke to problems that were then emerging in the physical, social world. The gaze of the media was ever harder to escape, like the floating drone camera in “Unpretty”. It was aggressive and demanding of its subjects, pulling them apart like the digital meat of Rock DJ. These videos exploited the uncanny valley to speak to how a technologically mediated gaze distorted its subjects and the world around them — all while fulfilling the commercial demand for pop music to provide a spectacle that looked exciting and new.

Digital bodies cover-1
Zoya Street is today publishing a book with Silverstring media called Digital Bodies. It is a collection of essays and articles that he has written over the past few years, covering themes such as digital craft and sexualised bodies. If you like this article, you might like the articles in that book.

References

Tara Brabazon (2002) “Robbie Williams: a better man?” International Journal of Culture Studies, 5 (1)
Amsel Von Spreckelsen (2015) “The body of the condemned: martial discipline.” Memory Insufficient, 2 (9)
Adam Curtis (2010) “Paranoia.” Newswipe S2E4

Paranoia

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Gustaf Zander’s Passive Abdominal Exerciser, c. 1892 Photograph
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Devin is the musical director for experimental games studio and consultancy Silverstring Media. He is constantly trying to one-up his own creations with new, bolder musical feats.

As Obi-Wan and Yoda discuss Anakin Skywalker’s future near the end of The Phantom Menace, you can hear the faintest whisper of the “Imperial March” in the background. It’s just a few fleeting notes, but that’s all it takes: you know what’s coming. And when John Williams was composing the music, he knew it too.

Leitmotif is a powerful albeit blunt tool that helps an audience associate a certain person or place in a creative work to a certain fragment of music: when you hear that melody or chord progression, the associated character must somehow be involved.

This is all well and good when you’ve been given the script ahead of time. Dust a little musical foreshadowing here, hint at a long-lost legacy with a French horn there, invert the hero’s melody for her arch-nemesis, and soon — ta-da! People hear your delicious little hidden “Imperial March” nuggets and exclaim, “Oh, wow! I see what he did there!”

Which brings me to The Edge, an experiment I’ve been chipping away at over the past year and a half. The Edge is a collection of music based on a series of tabletop role-playing sessions I’ve been running. Basically, we run a session, and in the next week or so I write music that is tied to the events of that day. We’re into the second volume of music now, which over 33 songs (divided across two albums) documents my player’s continuing adventures in a fantasy world of my creation. One song is released on YouTube each week along with a synopsis of the in-game events that occurred and a couple footnotes on musical decisions I made or issues I encountered while planning or writing.

The Edge Volume II Track 1

Full Album available from Silverstring Media
or on Bandcamp

At first, I approached this as a fun reward system for my players — the actions of their characters would be immortalized in music. As a player, I’ve always loathed the end of a good adventure or campaign and I often suffer the gaming equivalent of a book hangover: an intense longing to delve back into the same world and experience more. The music was intended to be something special for the players to hold on to after all was said and done.

But as I began writing the music, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. How could I do all of the sneaky leitmotif stuff without knowing how it was all going to end, let alone whether or not a player was going to light an entire city on fire in the following session? I could plan and plot and scheme until the cows returned to their domicile only to have a character say something really dumb in front of the King of Nimnaren and unexpectedly get his head chopped off.

Suffice it to say: The Edge is leitmotif hard-mode. And so far it has been a highly entertaining and hilariously tragic, musically embarrassing and confusing exercise that I have enjoyed every moment of. There’s little room for subtle “Imperial Marches” in this experiment, and those that do exist are tremendous, terrifying musical leaps of faith. (I’m still waiting to see if some of my earlier leaps of faith will actually pan out.)

The most intriguing result of this experiment so far (50 songs in and counting) is the rough, organic nature of the music. Without a clear knowledge of the future, I’m forced to write about the here and now. Musical themes relating to the region or city the party is travelling through have become more prominent. Musical themes relating to different characters have become more obvious than normal as well. I can’t account for what a character will do at a later time, so I find I have to announce their current actions with gusto. I find I have to reserve the use of a character’s theme for times when they do something truly noteworthy; if I did it every time they appeared “on-screen” and said something, every song would be a jumble of everyone’s themes playing simultaneously. The story is always about the characters and their actions in the world — there are no plot exposition scenes in some far-away land.

The music on the whole tends to be a lot more fragmented at times than one would expect. I do my best to put a bit of gloss over otherwise gloss-less scenarios, but the fact that the characters are controlled by real people — each of whom plays with a very different degree of seriousness — still sticks out like a sore thumb. In some gaming sessions, the characters spend an entire day accomplishing literally nothing because the players themselves are distracted. Most notably this happens in “Illicit Substances”, the third track of the upcoming instalment. I dutifully wrote a somewhat goofy, two-and-a-half minute song that, with the exception of a little bit of the theme for Nimnaren, (the realm in which this session took place) has virtually no ties to any other song on the album.

Of course, I can’t poke fun at the role-playing abilities of my players without looking at my own shortcomings. At times in the first instalment, I made the mistake of trying to do one song per session. A lot can happen in a single session, especially when there’s dungeon-crawling involved: sudden combat will shift to a riddle then shift to more combat and then to a diplomatic encounter. Encapsulating that all in a single, short song seamlessly is difficult, unless every track runs ten minutes in length. An example of this difficulty is found in the ninth track of Volume I, “Portals to Nowhere”. The song shifts pace many times in a very jarring fashion as I try to address a mystical cavern room filled with active portals, a combat situation, a trap, and a difficult puzzle all in three minutes. And I don’t want to just document these events, I want to save space to address how the characters are affected by them, too. Thankfully, I’ve learned my lesson and now I will sometimes devote two or even three songs to a single session if it’s needed.

These kind of mistakes (there are many more like it that will be touched upon in subsequent YouTube videos) are what make this experiment so interesting and unique: not only are you watching the characters carry out their actions in the context of the story (the end of which is unknown), you’re also watching the players settle into the roles they have made for themselves, one role-playing faux-pas at a time.

Unless your GM leads you by the nose, or your players are immersive RPers, of course. At the end of the day, the direction the story goes is at the whim of a group of casual gamers, some of whom had never picked up an icosahedral die in their life prior to this campaign.

I see Volume I as an introduction: the players, the characters, and the music are all struggling to settle into a comfort zone. Volume II is the start of the meat of the adventure, and the music — finally having figured out what it is supposed to be doing — is beginning to sound awfully convincing. The stakes are higher, character’s lives are in jeopardy, and the players are really starting to buy into it all.

Now we just have to wait and see not just how the music compliments the story, but how the changing story affects the music.

The Edge Volume II album art
The Edge is an epic adventure soundtrack with a twist–based upon a series of live roleplaying sessions, the music follows the story of a group of adventurers as their journey takes place. Each song is written after a gaming session–the actions of the players decide how the music sounds. The result is a soundtrack that evolves organically as the story and characters do.
Full Album available from Silverstring Media
or on Bandcamp
Subscribe to the Silverstring YouTube channel to get The Edge videos as they are released

For many years, Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game systems design, and emergent storytelling. He is an author, game designer, producer, storyteller and partner at the narrative design consultancy and game developer Silverstring Media.

Let’s talk sports. In 2002, the English football club in Wimbledon was purchased and moved to Milton Keynes. The local supporters felt betrayed by having their club taken away, and so founded a new local team, AFC Wimbledon. This team would not be owned by one person capable of taking it away again; instead, it would be jointly owned by its fans. You too can be a part-owner of AFC Wimbledon.

Unlike North American sports leagues, teams can move up and down through the leagues of English football: just because you are a top-tier team this year doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, and just because you’re amateur now doesn’t mean your team can’t become professional. There are nine leagues of football, and the top teams from each year move up to the next league, while the bottom ones are relegated.

So while AFC Wimbledon was forced to start in the 9th league of football, over the past decade they have managed the stunning feat of being promoted five times. As of 2011, they compete in League Two, the fourth tier, and the lowest tier of professional football, marking a huge success for the new team. Being in the professional leagues also means that AFC Wimbledon appears in the FIFA videogame.

AFC Wimbly Womblies

For a couple of years, famed YA author and vlogger John Green hosted a series of Let’s Play videos of him playing FIFA Soccer with a fictional team called the Swindon Town Swoodlypoopers. Last year, he left that team to instead play as a fictional version of AFC Wimbledon, which he calls the AFC Wimbly Womblies.

From his early vlogging days in 2007, Green has had a very close relationship with his audience. “Nerdfighteria” — his fandom — has a history of actively participating in multiple projects such as the charity event Project for Awesome. Most of Green’s work has an interdependence with his audience; he relies on their passion and direction as much as they rely on him.

It’s in part because of this relationship that Green was inspired by the story of AFC Wimbledon and their legacy of being owned by their fans, and decided that rather than simply make money from YouTube ad revenue on his videos, he would instead donate all proceeds from his FIFA videos to the actual AFC Wimbledon team, making himself, and in a way, every single viewer of those videos, a part-owner and supporter of the club. Today, the club’s stadium even has posters and banners designed by Nerdfighteria, and the fandom’s slogan, “DFTBA,” (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”) appears on the players’ shorts. DFTBA is an important ethos for Green and Nerdfighteria; it’s a commitment to empathy, to fighting to decrease “worldsuck,” to viewing others complexly and engaging in intelligent, thoughtful discussion. The comments sections of YouTube videos are normally notorious for bile and trolling, but for years Green’s were full of meaningful conversation.

As he plays the game and talks over it (with the occasional interruption of “ohgodohgodohgod everything worked out better than expected”) Green gives distinct personalities, backgrounds, and stories to each of his players. He refers to himself as the manager of the team, and references the talks he gave to the players between games. Some of the players are completely fictional, such as his lead strikers, Bald John Green and Other John Green (a married gay couple, “teammates in life and in love”). Many were originally real football players (from FIFA‘s roster) that Green turned into fictional identities.

Each has a nickname based on their actual name (George Francomb becomes “Francombstein”), each has a song sung when they score (“Bald John Green, John Green, he gives it all for the team, upon his mustache we’re keen, Bald John Green”), but most also have carefully detailed backgrounds. When Green brought two new strikers in (Deeney, (“Who? Deeney,”) and Dicko (which constantly leads to “context is everything” jokes)) he took the time over a couple of videos to explain what kinds of people these were. Deeney is an all-night partier, drinker, and has many sexual partners; Dicko is a family man with a college education, a wife, and kids. Seemingly polar opposites come together to form a great striker team.

These stories are constantly developing over the course of Green’s FIFA career. Things that happen in the course of a game help contribute to these character legacies, and ultimately the overarching story of the team. For instance, when Deeney failed to score a number of times over the course of a few games, Green blamed it on him being hungover, and that they were going to have a serious talk about Deeney’s future on the team. In a culminating match a little while later, Deeney scored a much-needed and improbable goal, though, and Green decided to keep him on for now.

The Johns Green, getting older now and starting to think about retirement, recently adopted a baby from Ethiopia (JJ, or “John John Green”); the process, however, took them out of the game for a couple weeks as they went to Ethiopia, leaving Deeney and Dicko to lead the team in their absence.

The old AFC keeper, Seb Brown, who Green constantly reminds viewers is the reason AFC even appears in FIFA ’14 for having saved two penalties against Luton Town to send them into League Two, furthered his legend with the Wimbly Womblies when he again saved two penalties in the final of the FA Cup to win them their first. And so the story grows as Green continues to play; some of the “lore” is purely constructed by Green (such as character backgrounds) but much of it arises as an emergent narrative, stories created by Green in response to what actually takes place in the game, leading to emergent personalities, legacies, in-jokes, and the arc of the team. So much so that the AFC Wimbly Womblies even have fanfiction.

He is the manager and directs the team, but to the audience, the players have lives beyond that. It doesn’t even feel like Green is directly controlling them in the game.

The Controversy

At the end of the in-game season last June, when the Wimbly Womblies were poised to move from League One up to the Championship League, John Green made a controversial decision. At the time, the team was in the top two teams of the league, which would mean automatic promotion; those teams in the 3rd to 6th place spots would have to go through a final tournament to see which additional team would advance.

Also in League One was the Milton Keynes team — the club that had “stolen” the original Wimbledon team away — who had been made into a major rival to the Wimbly Womblies out of a sense of justice. Nearing the end of the season, while AFC was set to advance automatically, Milton Keynes was close behind; they might also advance if they did well in the tournament.

Green decided then to try to create some narrative tension. He wanted to make sure MK didn’t advance to the Championship League as well, so that AFC wouldn’t have to face them ever again. The only way to do that would be to make sure they lost in the final tournament, by beating them personally. And so Green started purposefully throwing games by scoring own goals to drop AFC’s rank such that they would also have to play in the tournament and could beat MK in order to advance.

It’s important to note here that Green records several games at a time and then posts them on YouTube over the course of a couple weeks. So when he made this decision, he ended up playing several games with this strategy long before any of his audience could respond. But when the first video went up, respond they did.

AFCcomments

Green had made some controversial decisions before, when he played as Swindon Town — decisions that hadn’t worked out very well. The audience was concerned, among other things, that this decision would end calamitously: what if he lost? All of the work of the season would be for nought, and their rival team would advance.

It almost seemed as though many in the audience didn’t feel like MK was much of a rival. They cared more about AFC and its players, and their lives. Other audience members noted that throwing games in real life is completely against the rules of the league, and AFC would have gotten thrown out. What Green was doing was decidedly Not Awesome.

What made it perhaps worse, though, was that Green put the idea in the mouths of the players: he explained that the fictional characters had come up with the plan as a way to prevent MK from advancing. This made the whole thing feel even less Awesome: Green was deflecting blame from himself for the idea (saying the players had come to him and he had to respect their wishes). But though the players felt like they did have lives of their own outside of Green’s control, the audience had great respect for them, and this felt more like something Green would do than something the players would.

The fact that no one person owns AFC Wimbledon, that by playing FIFA, Green and his fans were becoming part-owners, that the fans of Green’s channel were made to feel as important as Green in their relationship both to the virtual team and the real one. And then Green made a decision about the future of the team that went completely against what the fans wanted.

Green ended up playing the entire end of season before really seeing the fan reaction; after several episodes were posted, he made an apology video, acknowledging his mistake—in it, he reassured the audience that everything worked out okay, but that it had been a mistake to try it in the first place.

Thank you for reminding me that these are not just pixels; they are pixels that we collectively make kind of real.


I’d be one of the last people to say that the audience is always right; it isn’t. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they’re given it. Just because they don’t want a character to die doesn’t mean it’s not the stronger narrative choice.

But sometimes, certainly, the creator isn’t always right either. When you’ve established a storytelling style around emergent narrative, trying to construct something outside of that emergence goes against audience expectations and can ruin the experience of the story. The AFC Wimbly Womblies embody an emergent narrative far more than an authored one.

When you have established a trusting and symbiotic relationship with your audience, predicated on a moral ethos such as Awesomeness, it’s vital to carefully consider the audience’s expectations and desires. AFC’s overriding theme is about audience ownership, and Green had failed to communicate effectively with his audience or react to their views.

Luckily, everything turned out better than expected. The AFC Wimbly Womblies continue to play and do well, now in the Premier League.

More recently, Green asked his audience how they should approach the end of their latest season: with caution and care to be better prepared for next season, or to take a risk and go for glory. Despite a large part of the audience desiring caution, Green explained that he “borrowed $10 million from the owners of the club in exchange for the promise that they would end in the top four of the Premier League” — this despite the fact that “the owners” of the Wimbly Womblies should be the fans. Did Green not learn his lesson? The reaction hasn’t been as loud, but only time will tell if everything works out. I watch every game with anticipation.

Apology video clip

John Green (2014) “Google Autofill ‘Is it Possible to…” (L-Z) AFC Wimbly Womblies #91″, Hank Games, YouTube 0:00-1:38
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“A Change in Strategy” video clip

John Green (2014) “A Change in Strategy: AFC Wimbly Womblies #89″, Hank Games, YouTube 1:42-3:10
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“Meet the New Kids” video clip

John green (2015) “Meet the New Kids: AFC Wimbly Womblies #179″, Hank Games, YouTube 0:40-1:12
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