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Feb 04, 2008



Within most game-style MMOs (those run by Jagex & SOE, for example) the style of governance is still very feudal or company-town. It's house rules, and if you don't like it, you are welcome to leave.

I've read a pdf-file from CCP (Eve) that is looking at creating some form of formal player feedback process, a sort of pseudo-democratic, consultative system. That looks interesting, relatively speaking.

Social MMOs, like LambdaMOO experimented with democracy (ballots, disputes, boards, etc.), but apparently, while interesting to be a part of, it was a multi-headed hydra that kind of took on a life of its own and at times, made governance much more complicated. I'm not sure if democracy is still even in effect on LM, although the point is mostly moot, since it's sort of a ghost-town now. Julian Dibbell would know more, much more, to be certain. (I've been visiting LM, and scouring old pdfs of disputes and ballots, since reading his book, My Tiny Life.)

The problem with governance and MMOs is two-fold.

1) No matter how "democratic" the management company sets things up, it remains a political meta-game within the game itself. Fact is, it's management that pays for the bandwidth, and has its finger on the server's power switch, so all promises notwithstanding, any democracy will be an illusion. Imagine if our politicians could snuff any of us, or the entire country, with just the push of a button, no questions asked.

2) Democracy in an MMO can be seen to conflict with management's IP rights. True, there are enlightened ways that may work around aspects of this, but the company lawyers are likely going to have a field day making everyone in management feel quite paranoid in the process.

True democracy could in theory occur on a communally owned (or creative commons, or copyleft licence, or other such similar things) for the software, donated or communally bought server hardware, and communally bought or philantropically donated bandwidth. It all seems unlikely, but I bet it could happen down the road.

Then again, even with all that, would they do any better a job than we do already in democratic republics, or that was done in LambdaMOO back in 1994-5.


A Tale in Desert has (or at least had during the first iteration, I don't know if still exists) a democratic system for governance. Everyone who had passed the Test of Leadership (get 10 signatures from random people I think it was) could propose a law. Then it was put up for a vote, and if a certain majority (it was more than 50% I think) was reached it was implemented by the developers.

The rules were that laws could not change physics, so purely social laws could be passed. For example, a law was passed that enabled guilds and a system for sharing in-game objects between guilds. Another law was passed that allowed people to salvage possessions left behind by ex-players who had been gone for a certain amount of time.

An interesting fact was that most laws were turned down, a lot of them due to 'slippery slope' arguments. People wanted a very libertarian system basically with no government.

Also a Test was implemented were people could run for Demi-Pharaoh. The Demi-Pharaoh had one power, usable one time. To ban someone from the game, irrevocably, with no need to give a reason. People were put in groups of 4 or 5, at random. Each person could vote for one person from the group (not themselves) - the one with the most votes went on to next round. Sort of cup style. At the end I think it 4 or 5 candidates who were put up for popular vote.

Very interesting attempt at virtual lawmaking and governance, and a shame it hasn't been subject of more study.


Here's the current implementation of their lawmaking system:



I appreciate the comments, blackrazor and Peder -- certainly there have been a number of attempts to realize democratic forms of governance in virtual worlds, as well as attempts at other pre-existing forms, with varying degrees of success. I'm less interested here, however, in how those attempts have fared, and rather more interested in the issue of political legitimacy as it relates to virtual worlds and the place of games and the outcomes they generate within that. CCP is an interesting case, at least for the first of those, as I wrote about here, because it suggests that virtual world makers are being prompted to establish the legitimacy of their rule on something other than economic grounds (i.e., that of letting customers vote with their feet, basically).

But still remaining is the use of games themselves as a basis for legitimacy. Games generate meaning because of their mix of pattern and open-endedness. Can legitimate virtual world rule -- not only for the makers, but for any institution involved in virtual worlds -- be established via contrived ludic processes, along the lines of Linden Lab's experiment with the chess-ranking of tasks? By the way, in the history of mankind, this is not an entirely new idea at all -- the notion that a contest or other performative challenge could be part of how a legitimate ruler is determined is a common solution to the problem of succession, at least for feudal and other kinds of vertical hierarchies. What I'm wondering here is if gaming outcomes are beginning to inform legitimate rule in this and other ways in virtual worlds.


I think the Demi-Pharaoh election process in ATITD is such a game within the game. It fits the bill of 'contrived ludic process'. I do not think however that much legitimacy will given to power (formal or informal) gained through such processes, except if the game is the primary vehicle of the world. And even then it might not mean much.

For instance, in World of Warcraft, there was a time when ranks were given for accumulating points in battle with other players. This was done in a system where only the top % of active players could attain the highest rank. However, this rank was not recognized as given any authority at all, except it gives a certain recognition of having played a lot.

In the current milieu of WoW there are Arena titles which are given purely on a basis of an ELO system. These titles give some 'street cred' but nothing more.

I do not think it's possible to legimitize any governing powers through processes such as these. Players will naturally gravitate towards the type of governance allowed by the 'system', by the culture of the world and what most effectively realizes their goals.

The 'guild' structure (which actually carries no governing powers for the leadership in most games) is the most prevalent for a reason: A simple organizational structure with a single, authoritarian leader and a small management staff is the most effective for leading groups the size of which is needed in most games today.

In the sandbox worlds, like SL, ATITD and such, people will usually either

a) Want no player-governance at all. They want freedom to experiment, play and trade. They will prefer to lobby for the operator to implement rules that help them maintain this freedom. But usually they don't want much in way of rules.

b) Want player-governance for role-play reasons. They have a vision of some kind of role-play environment they want to create and will try emulate this environment.

Mostly people just want to be left alone, unless they are in the world for social experimentation reasons. They might socialize, and usually a lot, but they want to do so on their own terms, and will usually strongly resent any kind of governance, no matter how it is legimitized. They accept the legitimacy of the operator because they recognize their ownership of the world. I don't think any other legitimacy can gain much acceptance in anything but the most niche of worlds.


Hi Thomas --

Call Q: "how are institutions learning to use games to establish legitimate governance?"

It seems to me that you've got to define "games" and "institutions" (not conclusively but at least for this question) before you can ask whether games can aid in the establishment of legitimate governance.

So re institutions, let's take this one: "A custom, practice, relationship, or behavioral pattern of importance in the life of a community or society: the institutions of marriage and the family."

And re games, let's take this one: "An active interest or pursuit, especially one involving competitive engagement or adherence to rules"

So based on that, one might argue that, in fact, games are institutions and institutions are games.

A football game can be a social practice of importance in the life of a community (ask a resident of New York today if that's the case.) In other words, an institution.

A political primary contest like the one tomorrow seems an awful lot like a competitive engagement that adheres to certain rules. In other words, a game.

I don't know if you saw the pre-game show yesterday, but Fox and the NFL had this really (imho, your mileage may vary) weird bit where there were soldiers and football players reading of parts of the Declaration of Independence. (Games and institutional legitimacy indeed!)

Anyway, one line of that Declaration is:

"to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"

That's Jefferson borrowing from Locke. It seems like one formula for legitimacy that might also apply to games (which, being generally voluntary, entail consent) and, in theory, democracies.


I appreciate the comment, Greg, but I think you know that both of those definitions are pretty far afield from how I'm using both terms here. A Weberian definition of an institution would run something like: "a persistent arrangement of people and resources that organizes behavior." And the definition of game from which I'm working is: "A game is a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes."

Of course, institutions (so understood) are involved with games (most notably in sports -- in fact, this may be the most useful way to distinguish sports from other games), but in most cases the governance of sports is not how the legitimacy of institutions which govern society is established. There is a fascinating avenue of inquiry here in relation to the Olympics, by the way, but that would be another post. In any event, I'm particularly interested here in *bureaucratic* institutions, those which seek to organize behavior through rationalized procedure (again, the modern state is the preeminent example). I'm sorry if it wasn't clear where I was coming from.

And you're right, that at a very broad level, one can liken consent to participate in a political form with consent to participate in a game, but that doesn't really answer our question, because I doubt that we believe that consent to participate in a virtual world (like WoW) is equivalent to granting that institution political legitimacy tout court.


Thomas: As always, a very interesting and thought provoking read.

I'd say part of the tension between RL governance and game governance will always stem from the very divergent definitions of what constitutes a "good game" vs. a "good life."

For RL government, there is no such thing as "too little crime," for example. There may be the reality of not being able to afford all the things that limit crime... but nobody ever says, "I'm OK, personally, with getting robbed or killed this week, because our government can only really afford X% of crime prevention." The goal -- backed up, as you say quite rightly, with force -- is to prevent all crimes. While a thief may state that, for himself, a robbery is a positive outcome, that is never the case for the victim, or the government that defines what constitutes crime. IN short, crime is never a zero-sum game, at least as far as governance is concerned. The goal of government (one goal, anyway) is to simply prevent crime.

In a game or game world, however, there are all kinds of tensions that are, essentially, zero sum. And they are tense and balanced for the reason that a good game is (for many people) much more risky than a good life. To take yesterday's football match as an example (I'm originally from Boston, so the lot of you NY sods can go fling). For some, as long as their team wins, it's a good game. For others, a close game, well played is a better outcome. For still others, beating the spread is enough. Assuming the magic circle remains unbroken, any of these interpretable outcomes are "good," in the sense that they satisfy the requirements of some players and interested parties. And while one team or another might have more fans, in terms of the players themselves (and not including various social aspects), the game is a zero sum; one team wins, one loses. That's part of the way football goes.

In society, in a nation, for a government... the idea is that everyone wins, or at least has a chance. It seems to me that governance of a game space will be much different than that of real space, since "good" is defined as something other than the welfare of the players or even their avatars. I'd much rather play (for example) a really, really good MMO where my character has a chance of real death than one that sucks but has easy respawn. On the other hand, I would not want to play a game where other players can sentence my character to death for random or silly reasons.

In short, games strive to provide contrived contingency, and RL governments try to minimize it.


I suggest EVE Online as a test subject, because there IS a kind of permanent player government in place in certain parts of the game world. To my knowledge no other MMORPG quite has the same system. AND its only a single server for all players. Player action DO permanently affect the game at large. IMHO feudalist and communist governments dominate, while democratic government systems have been defeated in the last 2 years.

Its also interesting that CCP now has established a player advisory council/government into which one can get elected by his/her peers. This "government" of players can have an influence on the direction of the game.

Another suggestion .... multi game guilds as goverments. Often an experienced guild migrates from one MMORPG to a new MMORPG. With tried and true methods they are often able to dominate the early game period on certain servers, effectively becoming THE dominant power on that server for a time (grabbing all the first kills, reaching max level first, mastering professions first etc.). After about 6-12 months they move on to the next game ("Been there, done that !"). Its like a government, with a group establishing a set of rules, enforced by their executive branch. If you dont follow the rules, you are stomped to the ground.

Have fun


Governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of those they govern. In practice, this is more often through consent in the system of government, rather than consent in the government itself (eg. I may not have consented to be governed by Tony Blair, if that was what was on offer, but I did consent to be governed by the product of a parliamentary democracy).

Governments claim many powers, but ultimately the governed give them only one: the right to use physical force. All other government powers are contingent on this one. Whatever decrees a government may make, they're worthless if the government can't enforce them. The government makes rules that regulate the behaviour of the governed, and uses the various instruments at its disposal to ensure these rules are followed. If they are not followed, then if all else fails it gets to send in the army.

Now with games, people agree to follow a set of rules they negotiate between them. If everyone follows the same rules, then there's a game; if people follow different rules, it's a different game; if they follow no rules, it's not a game at all.

So, games and government are very similar, in that they rely on the consent of the players/governed if they are to exist. There is, however, a key difference: governments get to use force on dissenters to make them conform to the rules, whereas games don't. This makes games the purer of the two: you can't have illegitimate games, because without the consent of the players there is no game; you can have illegitimate government, because the use of force can subjugate the governed without their consent.

Both games and government are after the same thing. With games, people agree to limit their behaviour in certain ways in order to gain some benefit; with (legitimate) governments, the rationale is exactly the same. I agree not to take four of your chess pieces in one move with my queen, not because it's physically impossible but because I gain a benefit from not doing so (the fun of playing chess); you agree not to pick flowers out of my garden not because it's physically impossible but because you gain a benefit from not doing so (I won't take your car). The only difference is that if I do take four pieces in one move in chess, that's the end of the game, whereas if you take flowers from my garden then I can call the police to call you to account for your thievery.

This causes problems for governments. Governments and games derive their authority from identical sources: the agreement of the governed/players. Games are always legitimate, but governments can be illegitimate. If a government makes rules regarding games, it can't say that it has a right to do so on the basis of the consent of the governed, because the game itself is sustained entirely by that same consent (of its players).

Also, a game is by definition legitimate (even, I believe, under Thomas's definition), whereas governments can be illegitimate. Using force to stamp out something built on the same foundations as what gives you the right to use force, yet which itself does not need force to be viable, looks rather illegitimate.

OK, so the argument I've presented here assumes that games are somehow isolated from the world in general. They're not. This means that governments can have cause to intervene on behalf of non-gamers who are affected by play. Two teenagers may genuinely believe they are playing a game when they see who can drive furthest the wrong way down a road before stopping, but the effect on non-players is too great to allow it to proceed. Governments can even intervene if there is no-one else involved: if narcotics are illegal, you don't get to take them simply by saying that you and your friend had a bet to see who could get out of their head first. Nevertheless, some activities that are banned in society at large are OKed in games, essentially on a consent basis: you knew the risks when you signed up for the boxing match, you can pull out at any time, you'll be wearing gloves so there won't be too many accidents - yes, OK, enjoy.

Consent is the basis for both government and games. This is why governments need to tread very carefully when they deal with games.



Great comments, all -- thank you. Andy, you articulate the root contradiction better than I could have; I completely agree. While everything Richard says is true, I think it's important also to consider the way that games are (legitimately) destabilizing, whereas governments (and other governing institutions, like guilds -- Erillion is very much on point on this, and the Malone paper is a good read about it) are characterized by an ethic of order, first and foremost.


p.s. I guess this is a meme:
In Some Circles of Friends, the Big Game Is Tuesday


A fascinating discussion. I am intrigued by Thomas' assertion in his opening sections on the parellels or otherwise between the state and games - particularly the notion that virtual worlds do not have recourse to the idea of the state, specifically that, 'there is no central metaphor of the nation already in place'.

This is true of course, but it is worth bearing in mind that the 'nation state' did not have that central metaphor either for much of the period of its development. The 'nation' bit, depending on which state you are talking about, is a concoction of local traditions, language, insitutions and various forms of social and political identity welded on to emergent 'modernist' bureacratic structures. As far as Europe and north America are concerned, this only really happened n the 19th century, for others it is much more recent or ongoing.
The issue here is whether it is the latter dimensions of state authority (the capacity to define, count, map, tax, police and, in doing so, subjugate populations) that is the key the construction of legitimacy rather than the more fragile and contingent paraphernalia of nationhood.
This is important with respect to the game worlds, because what they have all, without exception as far as I can tell, put in place are the standard infrastructures of bureaucratic power - money, cadastral mapping (SL's Grid is the most explicit expression of this), and systems of property title and exchange. The history of the western state insofar as it was anticipated ad planned as far back as the likes of Sir William Petty, is the history of the imposition of just these bureaucratic structures. This is not to suggest that there is nothing new in virtual worlds - clearly there is - but that the conceptual and practical foundations of their infrastructures are at least familar.

Finally, there is one aspect of the 'nation' that many virtual world's draw on directly as a source of legitimacy - the metaphor of the frontier. It appears in most of them in one form or another, partly because of their inheritance from sci-fi literature and cinema in terms of styling. However, the frontier offers more than a look and a good backstory. It also offers a proxy for nationhood in that it is the place where identity (and law, and language, and culture, and property relations...) are (allegedly) made in the absence of, or anticipation of, a more fixed communal identity. As we know, however, the frontier also becomes a mode of common identity in itself - a kind of permanent crypto-nationhood.

Potentially this could happen in the virtual worlds too, but only, I would suggest, if they can establish a degree of demographic stability comparable to that of states.


>>Can legitimate virtual world rule -- not only for the makers, but for any institution involved in virtual worlds -- be established via contrived ludic processes, along the lines of Linden Lab's experiment with the chess-ranking of tasks?

It can, and arguably is being done in a very widespread manner right now.

What makes this not so obvious is that the rules themselves aren't clearly and mathematically formulated. Rather, they are more an emergent property of a highly complex, aggregate social system. As such it is no less a 'game', but significantly harder to follow and play without considerable insight into the metagame.

I'll prove the point, below.

* * * * *

Say you are participating on the Second Life grid, on what is known as the 'mainland' - thousands upon thousands of small land parcels each with an absolute authority: the land 'owner.' However, they all affect each other to varying degrees via view, performance, traffic and so forth.

One parcel owner decides to make something unsightly, thus devaluing the entire area. Short term, other owners may respond by:
a) accepting the devaluation,
b) buying out the offender,
c) leaving the area,
d) retaliating in a similar manner,
e) diplomacy,
f) various less rational moves.

It is the classic Prisoner's Dilemma:

Rarely does the overall populace 'win' together. The coarsest person can sell the offending parcel at an inflated price to neighbours, or devalue land with intent to scoop up the surrounding area cheaply. It becomes a contest between least common denominators.

Such practise, while abominable, have the side effect of providing a basis for legitimacy elsewhere.

The owner of a private region may say: "Give up your freedom to do *absolutely* anything you want, but in return the Prisoner's Dilemma game will be dramatically minimised."

Now, how does this relate to ranking?

Consider that there are n private estates out there, each with various forms of governance. Perhaps it's the choice between Tyranny A or Tyranny B in the beginning. But over very short timescales someone comes out with "Oligarchy C... only 80% as Evil!" - the reward to do so being anything from notariety, fame, money, desire to scratch Tyranny B, or even (gasp!) for the sheer fun of playing the metagame.

Incidentally, this is really how it works.

Although with Second Life mainland now only 20% of the grid, the original raison d'etre is pretty much past, and mostly estates compete with one another.

Now the metagame gets really interesting. How does one rank governance of a private estate?

First off, and this is fairly key - private estates have varying degrees of Identity. Some private estates can barely be recognised as such. Others have flags, treaties, clear proponents and might proudly proclaim their mechanism of governance. In which case, people will often rank estates not 'best to worst overall' but rather, 'best or worst fit to my identity.'

Often, regions are tightly associated with their leadership, and leaders are ranked too. It's a complex but clear social ranking, very best described by the concept of the whuffie:

* * * * *

Ultimately, legitimacy in governance means different things to different people, and is deeply tied to the concept of personal identity in virtual worlds. I can't emphasise this enough. If you look at consumer habits, a huge fraction of virtual world spending is tied up in personal customisation and appearance.

If a person creates two characters, character A may 'rightly' prefer and play an enlightened social democrat, whereas character B would coexist on the same grid, but live and die by the sword. Same user, two different characters, two different but completely legitimate governance forms existing in the same world.

As someone once said: be careful who you pretend to be...

Desmond Shang
Independent State of Caledon


Thomas, you're right about the ambivalence the Lindens feel about vertical power as leftist-libertarians -- even though of course themselves practice the vertikal when they have to -- Philip decided Corey had to go, for example.

BTW, they also seem to have an allergy to *representative* power and a cynicism about real-life politics, and an almost mystical belief in "wisdom of the crowd".

It's been said in some countries where democracy doesn't turn out that they needed a better demos. And a "crowd" of 250 to play the JIRA game isn't much of a crowd. The more interesting JIRA game is the Public JIRA where the hapless residents have to duke it out, with anyone able to close off (and thereby freeze the votes of) anyone else's proposal.

You've also made the point in past writings that the Lindens have a deep-seated belief in tools as able to solve all social ills, and that if only they can code solutions to problems, they will work, like machines.

The problem comes with something like ad-farms, which Desmond has taken up here as the perfect example in the game of SL.

Philip said in his speech in Davos that there would *not* be any social solution to adfarms (a resident had urgently asked him from the audience at Reuters what could be done about this scourge of the mainland). Philip first said strangely that "the market" should take care of it (by leaving the extortionist plots to be bought up by high-rollers? By forcing everybody to leave and sell out at a low price?). He then talked about devising a tool to wipe out the view of prims you didn't like (then those ugly ad signs would be rendered as pretty landscape). Linden Lab isn't about to spend resources on developing that "wipe out the view of my neighbour" capacity.

But other Lindens on the community team, notable Robin Linden, a VP, and Blue Linden, a community team member, have been saying that they *are* coming up with a social solution. Today in her office hour, Robin said they would indeed come up with a social policy (not a tool) but that it was complex, and they were trying to do it so as not to harm "legitimate business".

Most of these ad farms are not only spam and not viewed as legitimate; they are extortionist schemes.

This may seem like a trivial matter to those not engrossed in SL, but it is a fascinating example to see how the Lindens will come up with a social policy, in the face of their own CEO and certain other camps within the Lab wishing to have a tool solution.

The resistance to any proposed solutions to this "Prisoner's Dilemma" is phenomenal, as you can see from browsing the discussions at jira.secondlife.com with a search for the term "ad farms". The most strident commentators want to take their very rare use cases for 16 m2 and hold hostage the solution to the entire problem for most people.


2 things.

We shouldn't confuse "governance" with "market dynamics," even though governments can (and usually do) influence the latter. The facts that: prices go up and down in a capitalist economy; that competition often spurs invention; that money can be made through loans; that certain factors contribute to inflation and others to deflation... all of these are "things that happen in a society," but not examples of governance, except in that laws may bounce them one way or another. A legal check on monopolies, for example, can be a governmental influence on how the market performs.

Much of what Desmond is describing is, I believe, market forces, not governance, per se. Prok's points are more about governance: rule by direct vote vs. representative democracy, techno answers to squishy political problems, etc. all impact on governance. That being said, the fact that governance might stem from avatars runs smack into Desmond's last point: I am not a right-wing capitalist war monger, but I play one on the grid... A democratic system hinged on "one avatar, one vote" is going to be... interesting.

Second point, mostly about the ad farm thing. It's similar to the differences in zoning regs in RL, isn't it? For example, I have a good friend who moved into a pretty ritzy neighborhood because the houses/streets all looked great, they had great value appreciation, and had great schools and great public service, funded by those high values. However... when his garage burned down, it turned out he couldn't build a new on to the same size as the old one (2 car). Because the zoning rules for new builds and re-builds in the town said that it would now be too big for his lot; just a 1 car garage for you. Not something you think about checking on when you buy a house... but it is now a giant pain in his butt.


A decent post with good analysis. I see these days there are many gaming blogs but none of them have any relevant news except for few. Could you please suggest me few relevant gaming blog. Right now I read http://blog.games2win.com/ and find its topic quite relevant.



Have you tried googling "games".


  • Reality:
  • agent(person) < institution(controlled by government) < environment(known universe is controlled by ??)

  • Game:
  • agent(player) < institution(guild/corp/etc.) < environment(game is controlled by Linden labs/ActiBlizzard/etc.)

    To say nothing of the textured relationship between these.

    Thomas, I'm reminded of Amy Chua's World on Fire. As players (or the game Gods) modify the possibilities of government - you could see imported rules of governance which prompt forms of digital genocide. Fun thought, that.

    On to "a good life," and "a good game," I can think of marvelous WoW examples of motivation on the guild level, and how that shifts depending on the type of institution.

    In order to motivate attendance and progression to 40-man raiding pre-BC,
    a GM of one guild offered selective economic incentives, 200-500 gold to every player in attendance when downing major bosses (twin emps and C'thun). He leveraged obsoleted (for us) yet precious guild resources (from weekly BWL clears) in the AH, in order to generate reinforcement towards his vision of making server firsts/seconds and progression.

    On the environment level, Blizzard now offers a scroll or resurrection - allowing free entry into their environment (lighting the importance of the game/reality relationship) for a number of days - motivating their reality goals, of bringing added players in to meet their own game goals. Not a straightforward example of developer efforts, so much as the blending of worlds.

    Ultimately the two seem inextricable.


    I've not been able to thoroughly study all of these great posts, but my general sense is that these new sets of relationships are really determined by the specifics of each situation... that, sort of ideally, that the structures, expectations, and responsibilities are all guided in a way that each constituent is comfortable with and that allows each to contribute effectively with respect to the others. Ie., the definition of each working relationship, as it were, is dependent on the core community values in relation to the technology and goals of the host organization: including those communities that stay "frontier" or unmanaged, or emergent or whatever. Though I'd argue there, too, that regardless of the rhetoric, such communities are guided by the expression of values brought from other venues (or philosophies) by those who emerge as community leaders. There's no blank slate, there are only differences in how the community leaders are chosen. I'd say... that successful communities co-exist, or support, their hosts due to mutually appreciable expectations and a positive working relationship.

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