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Chen, W. et al. (Eds.) (2017). Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Computers in
Education. New Zealand: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education
Minecraft as a Sandbox for STEM Interest
Development: Preliminary Results
H. Chad LANEa*, Sherry YIa, Brian Guerreroa, & Neil Cominsb
aUniversity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA
bUniversity of Maine, USA
Abstract: After a brief review of the science of interest and the game of Minecraft, we
present a taxonomy of common Minecraft actions and activities and propose that they
represent links to specific STEM disciplines. We then discuss the development of a
Minecraft survey intended to identify STEM-related interests, and present the results
of a pilot study using the survey in three Minecraft camps held in the summer of 2017.
We describe the most and least popular Minecraft activities, and report correlations
with a previously developed survey for gauging STEM attitudes and interest, revealing
moderate correlations between the surveys, specifically in the earth, biological, and
environmental areas of STEM. The paper concludes with highlights from interviews
conducted with selected participants, a discussion of the results, and an overview of
future plans for using Minecraft modes to trigger interest in specific STEM areas.
Keywords: interest, educational games, Minecraft, STEM education, informal learning
1. Interest and its impact on learning
1.1 Why interest matters
The presence of interest can have a profound impact on an experience. For example, someone who
loves the game of baseball is more likely to enjoy a low-scoring, nine-inning game (even perhaps
deeming it a “chess match”), while one who lacks that interest is more likely to leave by the 6th inning.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interest in a topic (like baseball) has a powerful influence
on one’s perceptions, beliefs, memories, attitudes, and willingness to learn more about that topic (Krapp,
1999; McDaniel, Waddill, Finstad, & Bourg, 2000; Renninger, Nieswandt, & Hidi, 2015b; Silvia,
2006). Hidi & Renninger (2016) summarize what research on interest has revealed:
People who are interested in what they are doing are recognizable because they tend
to have positive feelings, be invigorated, and choose to reengage with a particular
object/activity/idea, or content, repeatedly. Their engagement with the content is
distinctive and appears to be self-sustaining; their interest positively affects their
attention, goal setting, comprehension, motivation, and learning, and it can influence
their ability to achieve and succeed in their careers (p. 1).
Interests do not emerge from thin air, of course, and are influenced by a wide range of contextual and
experiential factors. For example, an attendee at a baseball game who is not really interested in the sport
might be drawn in by the passion and excitement of the other fans. Children at a science museum may
have their interest triggered in zoology after petting a worm or holding an insect. In this paper, we
address the more basic question of how choices made while playing a video game may reflect potential
interests in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Specifically, we ask to what extent
specific Minecraft activities may reflect interest in STEM disciplines.
1.2 Defining interest
Early empirical research employing measures based primarily on affect tended to describe interest as
an emotion (Ainley, 2007; Reeve, Jang, Hardre, & Omura, 2002). More recent formulations present
interest as a more complex construct that incorporates cognitive and temporal components. Renninger,
et al. (2015b) describe five characteristics on which researchers tend to agree:
1. Interest refers to interaction with particular content (e.g., physics).
2. Interest exists as a relation between the learner and the environment.
3. Interest has both affective and cognitive components, which can vary over time.
4. Learners may or may not be consciously aware that interest has been triggered.
5. Interest has a neurological/physiological basis – it is rewarding and linked to approach
At this stage of our work, we adopt the simplistic view that interests can be inferred via likert ratings to
judge interest in Minecraft play and STEM fields, but will adopt a longer-term orientation for our
1.3 Consequences of interest (or lack of it)
The many positive consequences of establishing interest and its facilitating effect on learning are well-
documented (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000; Renninger, Nieswandt, & Hidi, 2015a). When a learner is
interested, that interest can actually feed on itself and grow (i.e., it is self-sustaining) (Barron, 2006).
As a result, motivation to learn and attitudes about content improve (Potvin & Hasni, 2014),
achievement and performance in school improves (Harackiewicz & Hulleman, 2010), and learners are
more prone to establish deep conceptual understanding than are those lacking interest in the subject
(Andre & Windschitl, 2003).
One of the most important findings is that interest is malleable and can change over time. A
four-phase model (Hidi & Renninger, 2006) captures this malleability as two primary forms of interest:
situational interest, a product of environmental features, followed by individual interest, a relatively
self-motivating and enduring state that is marked by reengagement over time. Two sub-phases of each
lead a four-phase model: 1) triggered situational interest can become 2) maintained situational interest,
then under ideal conditions 3) emerging individual interest can grow into 4) well-developed interest, an
enduring and resilient state. In learning contexts, a trigger is simply some experience (e.g., touching a
worm) that establishes engagement and involves contextual features (Renninger & Bachrach, 2015).
Importantly, a well-developed interest has been linked to higher levels of self-efficacy and
decreased negative self-perceptions (Lipstein & Renninger, 2006) and is predictive of future academic
choices (Harackiewicz, Barron, Tauer, & Elliot, 2002). Conversely, an absence of interest can hinder a
learner’s willingness to engage or persist (Nieswandt, 2007; Sansone, Fraughton, Zachary, Butner, &
Heiner, 2011). Interest both emerges from experience and is heavily influenced by context. Our on-
going research integrates both of these aspects, and seeks to inform the design and deployment of
educational technologies in informal learning contexts. How to foster interest development is a critical
question with widespread implications for parents, educators, researchers, and policymakers.
Appropriate triggers and continuing opportunities to pursue those interests are needed if interest is to
flourish, both independently and with encouragement.
2.1 Why Minecraft is relevant for education
Minecraft has seen a dramatic rise in its adoption by educators worldwide who use it for educational
purposes (Schifter & Cipollone, 2013; Schwartz, 2015). The simplest probable reason for its rise is
that interactions in Minecraft involve a broad range of educationally relevant content, and how one
learns to play the game is entirely compatible with classical and modern theories of learning (Lane &
Yi, 2017). For example, in Minecraft, players routinely engage in activities that involve:
Exploring and investigating different biomes and climates that match those on Earth,
including deserts, forests, jungles, taigas, and many others.
Navigating in and around different types of terrain, such as hills, mountains, caverns, caves,
oceans, and more.
Interacting with a wide variety of wildlife and agricultural content, including animals, fish,
birds, wheat, grass, fruits, vegetables, and a long list of fictional content.
Searching for, mining, collecting, and combining many different resources such as different
kinds of wood, stone, metal, dirt, and more.
Building electrical circuits, switches, and complex machines.
Players have even reconstructed world wonders, many of which can be found online (e.g. YouTube,
dedicated servers) that are virtual copies of actual structures like the Taj Mahal or fictional places,
such as Westeros from the Game of Thrones. To achieve such feats of engineering, players often work
collaboratively by planning and coordinating their tasks. They assume roles (e.g., as resource
collectors, planners, builders, etc.), work iteratively to refine their creations, and of course, share their
work with friends, family, and the online community. In this paper, we ask what the choice to engage
in such activities implies in terms of young players’ interests.
2.2 The popularity of Minecraft
Since Markus Persson released an early version of Minecraft in 2009 (with the official release coming
in 2011 through his Swedish company, Mojang), millions of children across the world have chosen to
spend hundreds of thousands of cumulative years playing. With well over 100M players, 241M logins
per month, and 2B+ hours played on Xbox alone
, in 2016 Minecraft ascended to be the second most
popular game in history (passing Grand Theft Auto V but still well behind Tetris) (Peckham, 2016).
One report that looked at server usage data identifies 15-21 year olds as the largest demographic
(43%) and children under 15 as the third largest (20.6%).
Another way to think about its reach is that
millions of children worldwide have decided to interact deeply and meaningfully with a simulation of
the natural world. Given this, we believe that it is probably having some influence on the way they
think about the world around them – what it consists of, how it works, how we manipulate and exist in
it, the use of resources, etc., and we wish to gain insights into how.
2.3 What is Minecraft?
Simply put, Minecraft is played in a world made entirely out of blocks. The various blocks encountered
in the game have different compositions and functions, such as many variants of stone, wood, and metal.
Even liquids, such as water and lava, are modeled as block units, although they adhere to natural laws
such as gravity and flow accordingly. Prior to starting a single-player game, the terrain (i.e., a virtual
world) must be generated. These digital worlds are huge. The exact cubic volume area of a Minecraft
world is two hundred sixty-two quadrillion by one hundred and forty-four trillion blocks (West &
Bleiberg, 2013). The terrain generation algorithm produces remarkable (block-style) landscapes and
includes features found in the natural world, such as varying biomes (e.g., desert, forest), caves,
mountains, oceans, rivers, and lakes (Figure 1 shows two typical screenshots).
Figure 1. Typical Minecraft interactions. The left screenshot shows a player-constructed
shelter on the hillside above a creek with animals. The right screenshot shows a crafting screen
where the player can create new items (like an anvil) from more basic items (like iron ingots).
In stark contrast to a majority of commercial games, Minecraft does not include an active narrative or
set game play objectives. Nor is there a direct way to “win” or even obvious ways to “level up,” although
some elements of experience points are used and patterns have emerged for imposing goals (e.g., killing
the Ender Dragon). The two most commonly used game modes are: Survival, where the player must
actively seek resources, craft tools, build safe houses, and fend off monsters each night to survive as
long as possible; and Creative, in which monsters are non-aggressive and players are invincible, can
fly, and are given an unlimited supply of resources. Survival mode is more action packed and stressful,
while Creative mode is typically for large-scale projects and experimentation.
3. A Taxonomy of Minecraft Activities
In order to more formally approach analysis of Minecraft, we first created a Minecraft action/activity
taxonomy. To begin, we reviewed documentation, research literature, discussion boards, Minecraft
wikis, and talked with expert players to create a master list of actions. The first three authors
independently organized the actions into groups, then came together to form an overarching structure.
Common but significant in-game actions were selected, and six categories with subcategories emerged
(see Figure 2).
We then tagged each action using the 2010 Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP)
Codes from the US Dept of Education and National Science Foundation in the order of highest
CIP codes provide structure for STEM fields, skills, and professions. The purpose of the
CIP is to support the tracking and reporting of fields of study and program completions activity. When
combined with our Minecraft action taxonomy, the resulting tags become our claims of relevance to
those STEM fields. The links trace each action taken to specific STEM contents. For example, building
a functioning clock from scratch in Minecraft requires an understanding of circuitry, the ability to make
the appropriate calculations, and the ability to craft and design a model. Therefore, in accordance with
our taxonomy, building a clock would relate to electrical engineering, mathematics, and mechanical
engineering (from the greatest to the least significance).
Figure 2. Top two levels of our Minecraft taxonomy. The number of actions in each top level is
shown in the figure, with 166 total distributed across the sub-categories.
Minecraft action taxonomy
Build (e.g. build a
build a logic
Craft & brew (e.g.
tools / potions)
Improve quality of
life (e.g, build a
Mining (e.g. mine
Active (e.g. kill the
Passive (e.g. craft
armor and shields)
ride animals, fly)
Solo (e.g. playing
Group (e.g. play
MC with friends
on a server)
Plan (e.g. planning
Meta actions (15)
Use text command
(e.g. change time
(e.g. create and
maintain a server)
with shader packs)
mode (creative or
watch MC videos
It is important to note that not all actions can be sensibly tagged with a CIP code. This is
especially true in areas of communication (e.g. playing alone vs. playing with friends). Nonetheless we
find collecting data on the social aspects of Minecraft to be just as important as the correlation between
in-game actions to STEM content. Furthermore, non-STEM activities (those not tagged with a CIP
code) may play a mediating role in triggering interest: a player may enjoy the social aspects of Minecraft
while working on projects together, and then choose to become an expert in Redstone to promote these
social goals (Redstone is a Minecraft version of electricity).
As an initial evaluation of our Minecraft taxonomy and of the efficacy of our tags, we conducted a
pilot study using two surveys: one for Minecraft, based on our taxonomy, and a second, previously
developed STEM-attitudes survey. In this section we describe the study and report preliminary results.
In July 2017, we recruited 39 children participating in three, Minecraft-themed summer camps held at
the Champaign-Urbana Community FabLab. The camps used Minecraft for different purposes,
including to play group survival mode, 3D printing of Minecraft structures, and advanced topics (such
as using mods, setting up servers, command blocks, etc.). Participants ranged in age from 9 to 15, and
were all from the Champaign-Urbana, IL area. Based on survey responses, 9 were female (23%), 27
were male (69%), and 3 preferred not to answer (8%). In terms of ethnicity, 8 participants identified as
Asian (21%), 2 as Hispanic (5%), 22 as White/Caucasian (58%), and 11 preferred not to answer (29%).
In terms of experience with Minecraft, 2 said they were “new” (5%), 4 had played before and knew the
basics (10%), 10 played “often” and for “hours at a time” (26%), 19 considered themselves experts
(49%), and 4 said they play “way too much” and explore advanced topics often (10%).
Upon arrival on the first day of each one-week camp, parents were approached by researchers who
introduced themselves and described the goals of the research. Children were then invited to
participate in the research project if they chose to and their parents approved. For those that approved,
consent forms were given to the parents to read and sign. Researchers spent the first day of each camp
getting to know the participants, observing their work, asking general questions, and helping
whenever possible. At a designated time during each camp, two surveys were given to participants
who had consented: the first survey focused on Minecraft play and the second on attitudes and
interests in STEM topics. At later times, we the interviewed selected campers to gain a better
understanding of their interest in Minecraft and STEM.
4.2.1 Minecraft interest survey
We designed a 60-item survey by pulling a representative sample of items from the Minecraft action
taxonomy (section 3), which currently has 166 leaf nodes (recall: leaf nodes represent game actions or
activities). We chose items based on several criteria. First, we sought balance across the STEM
disciplines (according to our CIP code tagging), but also included other critical aspects of playing that
were not directly STEM-related, such as playing with friends, decorating buildings, and combat-
related activities, to name a few. This opens the possibility to infer a more nuanced understanding of
why children choose to play. Second, we attempted to include critical game activities that were
somewhat core to game play (such as crafting, building, exploring, mining). Finally, for advanced
activities (such as Redstone), we sought activities that were more common and likely to be recognized
by a wider range of players. Some sample items and a screenshot of the survey is shown in Figure 3.
Given our focus on middle school learners, we chose to use emoji rather than verbal descriptions for
eliciting judgments. We selected the set showing in Figure 3 based on research that these specific
representations have been shown to have high reliability and appeal for children (Rounds, Phan,
Amrhein, & Lewis, 2016). A big smiley represents “strongly like” and progressively less positive
faces through to the tongue out emoticon represent “strongly dislike”. Participants were instructed to
mark the middle item, “neither like or dislike”, for actions that they did not recognize.
Figure 3. Example survey items and interface (from SurveyMonkey).
4.2.2 STEM attitude survey
Participants also completed the Student Attitudes toward STEM survey (S-STEM), developed and
validated by researchers at North Carolina State University as an attempt to capture attitudes that
middle school and early high school students have towards STEM and 21st Century learning skills
(Faber et al., 2013). Part 1 of the survey consists of subscales capturing learner beliefs about their
abilities in key areas: math, science, engineering/technology, and 21st Century skills (e.g., “I am
confident I can set my own learning goals”). Part 2 of the survey focuses on future interests of the
learner – it provides short descriptions of 12 STEM-related fields (physics, environmental work,
biology, veterinary sciences, mathematics, medicine, earth science, computer science, medical
science, chemistry, energy, and engineering), and asks participants to rate from 1-4 how interested
they are to learn more in that field. In our correlational analysis below, we refer to part 1 as “S-STEM
beliefs” and part 2 as “S-STEM Future”.
Finally, as time permitted, we conducted open-ended interviews with 19 of the 39 participants,
focusing on players from underrepresented groups in STEM. Questions emphasized STEM-related
aspects of how they play Minecraft and how they feel about STEM-related content in school. It gave
participants a chance to go into depth about the reasons they play, what kinds of projects and tasks
they choose to pursue, and what aspects of the game are most appealing (or not). A few questions
from our protocol include:
Give me some examples of things you like to do in Creative mode? What kinds of things do
Tell me more about how you go about building X? Do you plan it in advance? What materials
do you use?
What’s the longest you ever worked on a single project in Minecraft? Tell me about it.
Do you have a favorite biome in Minecraft and why?
Do you use Minecraft in school? If yes, tell me how you used it. If no, do you have ideas for
how you might use it to learn?
Participants were given as many opportunities to explain their answers as possible, and to elaborate
more fully on responses they gave in the survey.
Here, we report preliminary analyses of our data by sharing results from each survey individually,
followed by initial results that show modest correlations between STEM-related items (and sets of items)
on the Minecraft survey with specific items on the S-STEM survey. At the time of this writing, we have
not yet analyzed additional aspects of surveys, such as those related to gender, age, ethnicity, or
4.3.1 Stated interest in Minecraft activities
Unsurprisingly, participants in the study – generally experienced Minecraft players – positively rated
many of the activities covered by the 60 items. Indeed, the mean rating across all items was 3.91 (with
the highest rating scored as 5, and the lowest 1). Nonetheless, some notable differences do emerge from
the data with respect to the relative scores between items. For example, as shown in Table 1, of the five
highest rated items from the survey, two fall into the meta category (playing with friends and playing
on a server), one in build-create-destroy (blowing things up with TNT), and two in the explore group
(new maps and flying/viewing from high up).
Table 1: Top 5 (blue) and bottom 5 (red) items from Minecraft survey (of 60 items total).
Playing Minecraft with friends (4.62)
Destroying things / blowing things up
with TNT (4.44)
Playing Minecraft on a server (4.41)
Exploring a brand new map (4.36)
Flying / viewing from high above the
PVP combat (3.41)
Calculating and measuring distances
when building a large structure (3.41)
Watching Minecraft story videos
Watching YouTube videos about
Building a calculator (3.0)
Survey results also generally suggested that participant attitudes towards STEM fields and beliefs about
their skills with respect to STEM were also positive. While responses to specific career-related
questions were modest with respect to math (3.67) and science (3.54), participants responded very
positively to questions related to creativity and engineering. Three of the five highest rated items were
found in the Engineering & Technology portion of the survey (*):
I can get good grades in math (4.28)
I like to imagine creating new products* (4.26)
Knowing how to use math and science together will allow me to invent useful things* (4.23)
When I have many assignments, I can choose which ones need to be done first (4.13)
I would like to use creativity and innovation in my future work* (4.10)
The two lowest-rated beliefs of participants both had to do with science. They had less interest in
pursuing a career in science (3.54) and were less sure they could do advanced work in science (3.51).
We note that these are still positive scores. Interestingly, while students claimed to know how best to
select assignments during homework (a metacognitive skill), they rated their ability to use time wisely
far lower (3.64). Our current study lacks the power to determine if these are significant differences,
however the differences are certainly worth of future investigation. Finally, in part 2 of the survey that
focused on future interest, computer science and engineering were clear leaders (3.28 and 3.23,
respectively, on 4-point scales), with veterinary and medical science coming in with the lowest ratings
(2.31 and 2.28).
4.3.3 Cross-survey correlations
Our overarching hypothesis is that Minecraft play reflects underlying STEM interests of children who
play, in part because the game models significant aspects of the natural and engineered world.
Furthermore, our ultimate goal is to design Minecraft-based experiences that trigger interest in specific
STEM areas (e.g., Astronomy). In this initial phase of the work, we seek to show connections between
stated Minecraft and STEM interests. For example, we posit that a player who uses Redstone frequently
is more likely to be drawn to mechanical engineering and electronics than one who focuses more on
farming and interacting with animals in Minecraft (who we would predict would be more drawn to the
agricultural sciences). As discussed earlier, we have attempted to articulate these connections through
linking our Minecraft action taxonomy and STEM CIP codes. Viewing these links as hypotheses, we
have completed an initial correlational analysis of our two surveys.
Using only the first coded tags of the items on the Minecraft survey, a Pearson correlation coefficient
was calculated between the mean ratings of sets of MC-items of a given STEM tag and the
corresponding relevant items on the S-STEM survey. For example, all items tagged as relevant to
agriculture (AG) were checked for correlation with S-STEM items related to both general science
beliefs and the specific future interest question for agriculture. All “sensible” correlations were run, and
are displayed in Table 2.
Table 2: Cross-survey Pearson correlation coefficients (NOTE: ANS = Animal Science)
At the time of this writing, we have transcribed interviews but not yet analyzed them. Unsurprisingly,
participants were eager to share when it came to topics for which they had an existing interest. Many
described their favorite mods, using advanced features (the few who were experts in Redstone
especially), setting up servers, exploring maps, and so on. A great deal of self-direction and motivation
was evident from their comments, especially to understand Minecraft at a deep level. A few examples
“I just self-taught myself, I also watched a ton of Minecraft videos.”
“I also like Galactacraft. It’s where you can go to the moon and harvest asteroids and you need
to have the right oxygen set up and make your rocket.”
“Um, it's a game that's very what you make of it. Like Minecraft isn't really a certain thing, it's
what you make of it. It's what you want it to be. Um that's part of why it's so popular.”
In discussions of STEM and school, most had very positive attitudes towards science and math, which
was reflected in the S-STEM survey. An emphasis on problem solving was also evident in their
responses, however we will need to continue analyzing the interviews to explicitly link these statements
to Minecraft activity preferences.
Minecraft items ENG MATH SCI AG BIO CHEM COMP EARTH ENG ENV MATH PHYS VETR
MC-AG -0.126 0.437
MC-ANS -0.023 0.433 0.359
MC-ARCH 0.205 0.062
MC-MATH -0.119 0.011
MC-CHEM -0.109 0.241
MC-CIVE 0.033 -0.044 -0.044
MC-MECHE 0.171 0.150
MC-COMP 0.037 0.053
MC-GEOL 0.085 0.394 0.314
MC-PHYS -0.095 0.092
S-STEM (future interest)
All of our observations require the caveat that this was only a small pilot study with a limited number
of participants. The goal of this work is to begin to identify the links between Minecraft play and
STEM interest. We will use the pilot to refine the instruments and improve the accuracy and
usefulness of the Minecraft taxonomy.
With respect to ratings of Minecraft activities, none of the top 5 activities are particularly
surprising, however it is notable that combat-related items did not make the list. Interestingly, the
highest rated items in our combat category were “build a safehouse” (4.26) and “craft armor and
shields” (4.23), both of which fall into the protection (or “passive”) subcategory of combat. Based on
the fact that 33 of our 39 respondents indicated at least that they were experienced Minecraft players
with strong knowledge of the game, these results are most likely skewed towards the later stages of
interest (in Minecraft, that is). In other words, novice players may find basic resource management
and exploration more appealing until they emerge into more advanced topics. We will analyze our
data along different experience dimensions in the future. Readers familiar with Minecraft are unlikely
to be surprised by the high ratings for engineering and creativity found in the S-STEM survey. The
links between creative aspects of STEM and Minecraft play are also worthy of further investigation.
Finally, our correlational analysis provides some potentially useful results. First, there appears
to be minimal correlation between STEM beliefs and Minecraft play – it is possible that game-related
attitudes and STEM-attitudes are not related in a meaningful way, however we will continue to
analyze the sub-questions for relationships. Several potential correlations are worthy of note, though –
in particular, items and categories related to animal science, agriculture, geology, environmental, and
earth science seemed to have the highest correlations. We were surprised at the lack of correlation
between engineering related items and the S-STEM responses. As we progress forward, we will
revisit our engineering-related Minecraft questions as well as how the S-STEM survey presents the
field (for example, its description focuses largely on development of products rather than
encapsulating Minecraft-relevant aspects of engineering). We also note that the S-STEM survey was
developed for middle school and high school students, and we discovered some participants may not
have fully understood the descriptions.
5. Future work
Our work seeks to elaborate on the links between Minecraft play and interest in STEM. Our
overarching hypothesis is that video game play not only reflects interest in STEM, but influences it as
well. We have reported our initial steps into investigating these questions and found modest
relationships between some aspects of STEM and stated Minecraft preferences (mostly those
revolving around agricultural, animal, environmental, and earth sciences). Surprisingly, our pilot data
suggests less of a connection between engineering and Minecraft, however we intend to continue
analyzing this data since our interview data does not support the result. The ultimate goal of our
research is to design informal learning experiences that trigger interest in STEM via specially
designed Minecraft mods. In particular, we are development mods that represent hypothetical but
scientifically valid versions of Earth (e.g., “What if the Earth had no moon?”). Using the tools
developed in this pilot work, we will investigate whether exposure to such virtual worlds has the
power to trigger interest in astronomy, astrophysics, and more.
This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No.
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