the international journal of computer game research
volume 2, issue 1
July 2002
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James Newman is a lecturer at Edgehill College, UK.

The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame

Some thoughts on player-character relationships in videogames


by James Newman


One of the most common misconceptions about videogames is that they are an interactive medium. By this, I do not mean to draw attention to the problematic and ideologically charged notion of "interactivity" (see Aarseth, 1997 for example) or even to the difficulty in conceiving videogames as a medium as Friedman (forthcoming) has noted. Rather, the misconception reveals a more fundamental misunderstanding of videogames and the experience of play. Quite simply, videogames are not interactive, or even ergodic. While they may contain interactive or ergodic elements, it is a mistake to consider that they present only one type of experience and foster only one type of engagement. Videogames present highly structured and, importantly, highly segmented experiences. Play sequences, from where the idea of the interactivity or ergodicity of videogames derives, are framed and punctuated by movie sequences, map screens, score or lap-time feedback screens and so on.

Moreover, by examining the contexts in which videogames are actually used, it is possible to suggest that play need not be simply equated with control or active input. The pleasures of videogames are frequently enjoyed by those that commonsense might encourage us to consider as non-players – "onlookers" that exert no direct control via the game controls. In this article, I want to suggest that videogame players need not actually touch a joypad, mouse or keyboard and that our definition needs to accommodate these non-controlling roles. The pleasure of videogame play does not simply flow through the lead of a joystick.

I want also to suggest that the interplay of sequences requiring greater or lesser degrees of control, coupled with the variety of "controlling" and "non-controlling" or "primary" and "secondary" roles has significant implications for the ways in which videogame characters are understood, composed and related to. I want to suggest that, for the controlling player during gameplay sequences, the notion of "character" is inappropriate. Here, the "character" is better considered as a suite of characteristics or equipment utilised and embodied by the controlling player. The primary-player-character relationship is one of vehicular embodiment. In suggesting this model, I seek to challenge the notion of identification and empathy in the primary-player-character relationship and, consequently, the privileging of the visual and of representation-oriented approaches. Moreover, I want to show how the porting of videogame characters into other media further illuminates the complexity and multiplicity of character existences.

Expanding on Friedman’s work on SimCity and Civilization (1995, forthcoming), it is possible to go further and suggest that the very notion of the primary-player relating to a single character in the gameworld may be flawed. Rather than "becoming" a particular character in the gameworld, seeing the world through their eyes, the player encounters the game by relating to everything within the gameworld simultaneously. Perhaps the manner in which the Super Mario player learns to think is better conceived as an irreducible complex of locations, scenarios and types of action. Certainly, it is difficult to dislocate Mario the "character" from Mario World, with its interconnecting pipes, or from running, jumping, and puzzling, or even from the enemies, adversaries and opponents encountered in Dinosaur Island. In this way, perhaps the very notion of player-character relationships, and characters in locations performing actions and encountering other non-player-characters, still betrays an insensitivity to the experience of videogame play.

Beyond Visualism

Last year, at the UK’s first academic videogames conference, I took the opportunity to present a deliberately provocative paper that suggested that when playing videogames, appearances do not matter. Subsequently, I have tried this idea on groups of undergraduate media students and they, like many of the delegates at GameCultures, look at me as if I’ve gone completely mad. Why expend so much effort on lavish visuals, CGI intros, cut-scenes, graphics engines, texturing systems, lighting models and so on, if these things aren’t important? Videogames and systems are sold on the basis of their graphical prowess. Before long, in grappling with the apparent idiocy of such a blinkered view, discussion turns to the L-word… Lara. Can you seriously expect me to believe that if Lara Croft looked like Vibri from Vib Ribbon that Tomb Raider would have sold so well? Well no, I’m not quite saying that. In fact, in terms of the way the game sells or rather, has been sold, I’m not saying that at all. When I say that appearances don’t matter, I am certainly not talking about advertising and marketing games. What I am saying is that the pleasures of videogame play are not principally visual, but rather are kinaesthetic. In this way, the appearance of Lara or Vibri is not crucial to the primary-player during play. The way it feels to be in the Tomb Raider or Vib Ribbon gameworld is, however, of paramount importance. Many a great game has poor visuals – an entire generation of players grew up with blips of light, @ signs and even text-only games – but there are few good game with bad controls. Few good games feel bad. What I am suggesting is that, by better understanding the particular types of engagement that occur between players and on-screen characters during play, we may begin to arrive at a point where we don’t have to think about Lara in playable game sequences in terms of representation – we don’t have to think about her in terms of representational traits and appearance – we don’t even have to think about "her" at all.

Ergodic Videogames?

Aarseth (1997) has rightly pointed out the redundancy of the concept of "interactivity". The use of the term in a variety of contexts as qualitatively and experientially diverse as videogames and DVD scene access menus has rendered it meaningless and of use only to the marketer. While the concept of ergodicity, being grounded in a concrete definition, is immeasurably favourable, it is important to note that its application to videogames is by no means simple. It is useful to start by asking a seemingly simple but frequently overlooked and critical question: How ergodic are videogames?

We have all asked and have been asked questions along this line, and we are most used to thinking in comparative terms. So, we tend to ask whether games are more or less ergodic than television, or film or the web? However, such responses mask the true complexity of videogame ergodicity. A more fruitful way of conceiving the question is to consider how much time we spend actually in non-trivial action when "playing" a videogame. Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the question and rather depends on the specific game, but importantly, the answer in (I think) all cases, is "not all the time."

If we look at a game like StarFox 64 (renamed Lylat Wars in Europe), we begin to get some idea as to the amount of "non-ergodicity" in videogames. Turn on your N64 and you will be treated to nearly two minutes of intro movie before you get to the PRESS START BUTTON "title screen". Even then, you receive nearly three minutes of further contextualising/intro movies before you can start flying your Arwing spaceship. Importantly then, videogames do not present a singularly ergodic experience. They are highly structured and comprise episodes of intense ergodic engagement. However, these sequences are punctuated and usually framed by periods of far more limited ergodicity and very often, apparently none at all. Even once you have stepped into your Arwing and begun flying, the experience is not one of continuous play. Most videogames are portioned and packaged into discrete if interconnected sequences. These may take the form of levels (StarFox), laps (Gran Turismo), bouts (Virtua Fighter), or zones, stages, matches etc. This is not to say that you are staring at a blank screen waiting for the next level to load. These "non-ergodic" sections are integral parts of the game. They might, perhaps, give us some sense of progression through a world and explain how the levels fit together as in StarFox. They may offer breaks between levels informing us of our performance (Super Mario Kart) allowing us to gauge our progress, compare lap-times, bask in our glory or chide ourselves for the way we took that last corner. They might present cut-scenes that advance the game’s framing narrative (if one is present) as in the Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy or Tomb Raider series, or they may simply reflect the technical limitations of the host game system with its limited RAM and comparatively slow media access times. Regardless of their specific function or the reason for their existence, it is vital to note that videogames are not uniformly ergodic.


In my previous research, I have proposed a model based around the identification of two fundamental states of engagement with videogames that I have termed "On-Line" and "Off-Line". Broadly, On-Line refers to the state of ergodic participation that we would, in a commonsense manner, think of as "playing the game". So, I’m On-Line when I’m actually playing Metal Gear Solid - when I’m Mario in Super Mario 64; when I’m hurtling round a track in a souped-up Skyline in Gran Turismo 3. Off-Line engagement, could be seen as equating with non-ergodicity, and while it is important we do not allow ourselves to confuse this with passivity for reasons shall explain below, Off-Line describes periods where no registered input control is received from the player. In this terminology, I refer to players’ On-Line or Off-Line engagement with games and also On-Line or Off-Line sequences or sections within games.

The demarcation between On-Line and Off-Line sections need not be as blunt as simple switch from cut-scene to play sequence and a number of techniques are used that more subtly manage the segue. Perhaps the most obvious example would be a race game like wipEout in which the player is treated to a pre-race pan over the starting grid, before being deposited in the driving seat of their vehicle - waiting for the green light… During this section, the game is out of the player’s hands… However, rather than simply handing over control when the green light shows, the player gets to rev their engine. This doesn’t sound too impressive but it serves a number of purposes. Most importantly, as in games like Super Mario Kart and wipEout, you can try and elicit an extra fast Turbo Start. Consequently, boundary between Off-Line and On-Line sections and engagement is effectively blurred. Similar techniques can be seen in the most recent incarnations of the Final Fantasy series (e.g. FFVII and IX), for example, where attempts are made to more seamlessly integrate pre-rendered Off-Line and On-Line sequences. In games like Shenmue, for example, this boundary blurring helps generate a sense of experiential cohesion in which the player does not feel any wrench as they move from ergodic play to movie sequence. Similarly, as is the case with some of Shenmues QTEs (Quick Time Events), ergodic punctuations can interrupt and break up otherwise Off-Line sections and effectively lend the whole scenario a sense of enhanced participatory involvement as attention is maintained more solidly to guard against the potential for surprise attacks.

We can begin to see that the binarism of On-Line and Off-Line is insufficient to capture the variety of states of engagement. For this reason, On-Line and Off-Line engagement should be thought of as the polar extremes of an experiential or ergodic continuum. In this way, we can better account for states such as the acutely attentive watching and readiness as in the Shenmue QTE example above, where, despite the primary-player’s lack of control input, they seem more involved than when watching the opening intro sequence (or any other non-ergodic media form). Shenmues QTE device, like wipEout revving, imbues these sequences with an ergodic potential that demands and fosters a greater degree of player engagement than a standard cut-scene or introduction.

Moreover, an ergodic continuum of On-Line/Off-Line engagement allows us to account for roles such as the "non-controlling navigator’. As Jessen (1995, 1996, 1998) has noted, videogames are not exclusively solitary experiences, regardless of what popular discourses might suggest about their inherent asociality. Even ostensibly single-player games like Tomb Raider are often played by "teams" – with the primary-player performing the traditional task of control while others (secondary players) – interested, engaged with the action, but not actually exerting direct control through the interface, perform tasks like map-reading, puzzle-solving and looking out for all the things that the principal player doesn’t have time for. Here then, we note a level of ergodicity in non-controlling players. In fact, judging by their reactions, the level of secondary-players’ participative engagement during play sequences can be seen to be greater than in the primary-player during standard cut-scenes. While cut-scenes provide primary- and secondary-players a chance to relax between sequences of frenetic, high velocity and volume play, play sequences maintain interest and attention with frequent and often frantic suggestions, advice and warnings coming from secondary-players.

The secondary-player role is frequently taken by players who like the idea of games but find them too hard and is just one example of the ways players appropriate videogame experience in manners often not intended by producers (or observed by researchers). A number of players I have worked with love the idea of the Legend of Zelda series but get frustrated as their attempts lead to a few minutes of joystick mashing and then death. So they play together. Furthermore, adopting a "co-pilot" role allows one to notice aspects of the game that are missed in the role of primary player. Thus one can perfect one’s own skills Off-Line through the adoption of the secondary-player role.

A realisation of these often unacknowledged roles goes some way to addressing my students’ natural concerns as to the seeming waste of effort that is represented in the continuing battle for increased visual richness in videogames. Why bother painstakingly animating Lara’s ponytail if it is of no consequence to the player? Lara’s ponytail, like the gorgeous reflections in Gran Turismo 3, and the water effects in Wave Race: Blue Storm exist for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is incredibly difficult to sell "interactivity" through non-participative advertising channels (TV, print etc) or even in a retail environment as controls take time to master making throughput is poor, while the initial period of frustration encountered in most games is hardly conducive to sales. Selling games on the basis of their visual richness is much easier – non-playable demo sequences on videowalls, screen shots on packaging, TV and print ads… Secondly, the audio-visual richness of the gameworld potentially serves the secondary-player. In addition to map making and reading, pre-empting danger and puzzle solving, being able to scrutinise the gameworld, marvelling at the reflections, discerning graphical nuances and even spotting glitches, amplify and heighten the experience of the non-controlling, secondary player. Off-Line ergodicity can be characterised by this combination of activity contributing to the attainment of the game objective and the pleasure of the audio-visual.

Playing Games

The On-Line relationship between primary-player and system/gameworld is not one of clear subject and object. Rather, the interface is a continuous feedback loop where the player must be seen as both implied by, and implicated in, the construction and composition of the experience. Locked into this feedback loop at the level of interface or controls (hence the significance of the feel of the game), the player experiences at the level of first-hand participation and can then sustain and decode multiple and apparently contradictory presentations of the self. So, in a CoinOp driving game, for example, it is possible to be, at once, seated in a mock-up car chassis, grasping a steering wheel with pedals beneath one’s feet, staring at a screen (presumably the windscreen), through which we view a remote, clearly mediated vision of ourselves as relayed by a camera in a trailing helicopter. The view is replete with the trappings of explicit camera mediation such as lens flare. Yet the experience is reported as one of first-hand, being, doing and participation. Nintendo’s GameCube Wave Race: Blue Storm not only includes lens-flare but also shows raindrops and spray from the player’s jetski hitting the screen, yet first-hand participation is not diminished and the game does not take on the feeling of remote control. However, many game designers, critics and commentators, suggest that it should. Bob Bates’ (2001: 48) view is typical.

First-person games tend to be faster paced and more immersive. There is a great sense of being "in the world" as the player sees and hears along with his character. Third-person games allow the player to see his character in action. They are less immersive but help the player build up a stronger sense of identification with the character he is playing

However, if we see first-hand participation as being derived from an interface-level control loop we can disentangle viewpoint from reported feelings of immersion, engagement and being-in-the-gameworld. What Bob Bates seems to be better describing in the secondary-player who does scrutinise the gameworld and derives pleasure from taking in the sights and sounds. For the secondary-player, it may well be more accurate to discuss the greater degree of identification that comes with third-person viewpoint. For the primary-player, however, viewpoint is important only in so far as it impacts upon the game. Primary-players are often given dynamic control of viewpoint with the ability to switch between a number of preset viewtypes as in Sega’s Virtua Racing/Daytona series, or full 360 manipulative control as in Super Mario 64. Nintendo’s GameCube joypad has a dedicated "C" stick nominally set aside for in-game camera control.

It because the sense of being-in-the-gameworld derives from an interface-level connection rather than being a product of viewpoint that games such as Super Mario World that present their gameworld in a third-person viewpoint can be just as engaging as (pseudo-) first-person viewpoint games like Quake or even second (or dynamically shifting-) person games like Super Mario 64. During On-Line play, videogames are experienced by the primary-player first hand regardless of the mode of their presentation or content mediation. In recollection of their play, players talk not of playing or controlling but of "being". The concentration on viewpoint (often erroneously referred to as "perspective") reveals an over-reliance on representational models and mechanisms of player/viewer connectivity. It is my assertion here that the degree of participative involvement and engagement with any specific game is not contingent upon the mode of representation. While to the non-participating observer, or even secondary-player, gameworlds frequently present themselves in forms which deconstruct into "fake" or "unrealistic" or demonstrate flaws or bugs undermining the authenticity of the presentation (e.g. polygon shearing, tearing, z-buffering errors or polygonal "blocking in", see Psygnosis’ wipEout), to the actively engaged, implicated On-Line player, such limitations lose their immediate significance and the same gameworlds gel with an experiential coherence that renders them both believable and perhaps even "real".

The On-Line/Off-Line continuum reflects the significance of player involvement and implication in the generation and functioning of the experience, the need to move beyond detached and disintegrated analysis of "systems", "output stimuli" and "interfaces" (as in much classical HCI research, e.g. Benyon and Murray, 1988), and incorporate a recognition of the difference between controlling and non-controlling, primary and secondary player appreciation of, and engagement with, videogames.

There’s Only One Mario?

In her discussion of the Oedipalised narrative of videogames, Kinder (1993) identifies each of the four player-selectable characters in Super Mario Bros.2 with a target audience of players, thereby justifying and explaining the existence of each discrete appearance as a means to foster connectivity with each player-group. For Kinder, males 7-14 have "Mario" and "Luigi", pre-schoolers have "Toad", whilst females have "Princess Toadstool". (Incidentally, "Toad" is an anthropomorphised toadstool although Kinder omits to mention this fact. Perhaps there is no age or gender coding in fungal representation?) In fact, Kinder, herself, goes some way to highlighting the problem with this apparently neat classification by pointing out that:

…despite her inferior jumping and carrying power [Princess] has the unique ability of floating for 1.5 seconds - a functional difference that frequently leads my son and his buddies to choose her over the others, even at the risk of transgender identification

(Kinder, 1993: 107)

Quite rightly, Jenkins has pointed to the potential inadequacy of the traditional approaches of identification that are implied in Kinder’s account

Does this not suggest that traditional accounts of character identification may be inadequate descriptions for the children’s relationships to these figures?

(Jenkins, 1993: 68)

Perhaps the apparent willingness of these boys to select a female character in certain circumstances "even at the risk of transgender identification" is suggestive of a process of character selection based not on empathetic identification or even representation at all. However, it is not just that at the character selection stage players rationally select the best character for the task at hand (although this does happen, especially when players gain expert knowledge of a gameworld and the demands placed upon them in specific environments, at specific times, or even by other players/NPCs in combative games, for example). Far more significant is the realisation that the character-selection process described by Kinder reveals a relationship with these characters that disregards representational traits in favour of the constitution of character as sets of capabilities, potentials and techniques offered to the player. The player utilises and embodies the character in the gameworld. While it may retain significance on the box, in adverts, even in cut scenes and introductions within the game, during On-Line engagement, the appearance of the player’s character is of little or no consequence. By this, I mean to suggest that the level of engagement, immersion or presence experienced by the player – the degree to which the player considers themselves to "be" the character – is not contingent upon representation. On-Line, "character" is conceived as capacity – as a set of characteristics.

The On-Line/Off-Line distinction provides a useful framework within which to further examine these multiple existence. Sonic the Hedgehog in a cel-animation cartoon is a very different character than in an On-Line section of a videogame. In the cartoon, Sonic has an autonomy and an independence. In short, he has a character (limited, perhaps, but a character nonetheless, while Off-Line there is no "he"). It only makes sense to talk of Sonic as "he" in this world beyond the On-Line videogame. In the videogames, "Sonic" becomes the ability to run fast, loop-the-loop, collect rings…. In Lucozade adverts, Lara walks and talks, she shoots and runs. Importantly, she does all these things without a player. In the On-Line sections of Tomb Raider, without a player, "Lara" just stands there. In the Tomb Raider movie, I can go to sleep or walk out and Lara will still save the day. But the game needs me. Lara doesn’t need me in the introductions and cut scenes - but Tomb Raider needs a player On-Line. The game is nothing without a player. The characters are nothing without a player. On-Line, the individuality and autonomy of character that we see Off-Line whether in films, adverts, cut-scenes or even on the packaging the game comes in, is subsumed and gives way to game-specific techniques and capabilities that the player uses, and more importantly, embodies within the gameworld. We can see that as characters move between mediums they both gain and lose traits as the particular form demands. Jenkins notes the way in which, upon making the transition to the videogameworld, cartoon characters are stripped of many of their identifying traits rendering them "…little more than a cursor which mediates the players’ relationship to the story world" (1995: 61).

Thus, On-Line "character" in the sense we understand it in non-ergodic media, dissolves. Characters On-Line are embodied as sets of available capabilities and capacities. They are equipment to be utilised in the gameworld by the player. They are vehicles. This is easier to come to terms with when we think of a racing game like Gran Turismo where we drive a literal vehicle, but I am suggesting that, despite their representational traits, we can think of all videogame characters in this manner. On-Line, Lara Croft is defined less by appearance than by the fact that "she" allows the player to jump distance x, while the ravine in front of us is larger than that, so we better start thinking of a new way round…

The videogame production process reveals much about the (in)significance of representation and characterisation in the "traditional" sense. Pilotwings64 is illustrative.

[character designs] just turned up one day and we immediately started to implement them in the [partially complete] game. There’s no story built around the characters as such, but they are very visible in the game and possess different characteristics, the strong burly guy obviously requires a lot more lift but can turn the hang glider faster
(Gatchell, 1995: 64)

Again, characters here are defined around gameplay-affecting characteristics. It doesn’t matter that it’s a burly guy - or even a guy - or even perhaps a human. That the hang glider can turn faster is a big deal; this affects the way the game plays. This affects my chances of getting a good score.

The television advertising campaign for Ubisoft’s Rayman 2 for Nintendo64 is similarly illustrative of the dominance of capability and experiential opportunity in the appeal of the videogame. "Rayman" is defined not by his appearance or any traits of individuality or autonomy but by his ability (to allow the player) to run, jump, swim…

No arms, no legs… True, but Rayman can do anything (or almost!): jump, swim, loop de loop, climb, scale walls, slide and fly using his hair as a helicopter… Rayman will evolve throughout the game and will be given some temporary powers by his friends such as flying helicopter mode, or grabbing onto Purple Lumz, and even progressively increasing the power of his shot!
(Ubisoft (US) website, 2001)

Hideo Kojima, producer of the phenomenally successful Metal Gear Solid series (for PlayStation and PlayStation2), lauded for its filmic qualities, is similarly revealing,

We tried not to give him [Snake] too much character because we want players to be able to take on his role. Snake isn’t like a movie star. He’s not someone you watch, he’s someone you can step into the shoes of. Playing Snake gives gamers the chance to be a hero
(Kojima, 1998: 43)

The "characterisation", individuality and distinctiveness of Snake comes not from his appearance On-Line (where "he" is embodied by the player as a set of available techniques and capacities) but rather in the Off-Line cut-scenes and contextualising narratives of the introductory sequences. On-Line, there is no Snake.

Thinking Like a Computer

The discussion thus far has centred on reconceiving player-character relationships. In doing so, I have distinguished between primary and secondary players and have suggested that, to the primary player at least, the appearance of the character both in terms of their representational traits and the mode of presentation, is comparatively insignificance during play sequences. Following from Friedman (e.g. 1995), I want to suggest an even more radical way to conceive this relationship. On-Line, the "character" is a complex of all the action contained within the gameworld. By which I mean that On-Line, "being" Lara is as much about being presented with puzzles as it is having the techniques and resources to solve them. It’s as much about being in dark, dank caverns and being attacked by wolves as it is having the equipment to combat them. The situation and action within the gameworld are inexorably bound into the players’ conception of the experience of being within that gameworld. Player accounts are structured around action, around environment, around activity. In this way, any model of connection based around identification with a single entity in the gameworld is perhaps oversimplified. It is important to note that, while my examples have focused upon videogames in which a clearly defined player-controlled "character" may be identified (whether that be man, woman, car, spaceship, fungus), this principle can be seen at work in games where there is no apparent mediating "character" or even abstract "cursor", in Jenkins’ terms. As one of my PhD field research participants boldly but insightfully proclaimed, "when I play Tetris, I am a tetraminoe." In exploring these issues more thoroughly, they suggested that they didn’t consider themselves to be a single Tetris block so much as every Tetris block whether falling, fallen or yet to fall. Clearly, this demands a totally new framework within which to understand the relationship between player and gameworld. Even the notion of On-Line character as an identifiable and singular entity embodied by the player may be an oversimplification indicative of an implicit reliance on existent models of audience. As I have indicated, my previous and current research exploring the On-Line relationship between player and gameworld suggests that this linkage is best considered as an experiential whole that synthesises, action, location, scenario, and not merely as a bond between subject and object within a world… On-Line, the player is both the goal and the act of attaining it. Here, Friedman’s notion of "thinking like a computer" seems particularly pertinent.

When you play a simulation game like Civilization II, your perspective – the eyes through which you learn to see the game – is not that of any character or set of characters, be they Kings, Presidents, or even God. The style in which you learn to think doesn’t correspond to the way any person usually makes sense of the world. Rather, the pleasures of a simulation game come from inhabiting an unfamiliar, alien mental state: from learning to think like a computer.
(Friedman, forthcoming: 2)

It is possible to suggest that Friedman’s concept has currency beyond the "simulation" games he focuses on (Civilization and SimCity), and may be applicable in games where an apparent player-character is identifiable. In games like Tomb Raider or Super Mario, just as in Friedman’s Civilization, the primary-player may not see themselves as any one particular character on the screen, but rather as the sum of every force and influence that comprises the game.


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Kinder, M. (1993) Playing With Power In Movies, Television And Video Games: From Muppet Babies To Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles London: University Of California Press
Kojima, H. (1998) "Hideo Kojima Profile’ Arcade 1 (1) December: 42-43
Newman, J. (2001) Reconfiguring the videogame player Paper presented at GameCultures international computer and videogame conference, Bristol, 29 June-1 July
Segal, K. & Dietz, W. (1991) "Physiological Responses To Playing A Video Game" American Journal Of Diseases Of Children, 145 (9): 1034-1036
Ubisoft (US) website, URL (consulted July 2001):

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