The Glass Bead Game and its variants


This piece offers a brief overview of a variety of current attempts to create playable variants on Hesse's Game, with special emphasis on the different aspects of the Castalian GBG which seem to be the strengths of each.

Charles Cameron



Hesse's Game

There are now quite a few people designing playable variants on Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game, and what continues to strike me as I come across new games is the way in which different designers emphasize ("capture") different parts of the GBG as Hesse describes it. In this article I would like to describe some of these games and their "playability" as I see it, using the ways in which each one seems to me to illuminate a particular feature of Hesse's Game as my guidance system.

The Castalian Glass Bead Game

The Game Hesse describes in his novel -- and this is a very brief and dense overview -- is played with ideas. The ideas themselves can be of any kind (musical, mathematical, verbal or visual), but the game draws its profound beauty from the clash of those ideas: like cymbals, symbols.

The ideas played are linked to one another, Hesse tells us, in much the same way in which melodies are presented in a musical form such as a fugue: in another metaphor, he compares the Games to games of chess in which meaning has somehow been added to every move. These ideas are then represented in a "hieroglyphic language", which is capable both of expressing their structure (as an equation may express the structural commonality of a diverse range of phenomena in physics, or symbolic logic the structure of an argument), and of being presented in its own concise and beautiful calligraphy.

This calligraphy in turn is inscribed on beads, and these are displayed on a board. The hieroglyphs and "meanings" of games of merit are then stored in a Games Archive, so that they can again be called into play in future games. The moves and links themselves become the subjects of formal meditation. And in the most lofty of games -- the annual Solemn Games over which the Magister Ludi himself presides -- the beads with their hieroglyphs are ceremoniously presented on a large board to an attentive and cultivated audience for their edification and contemplation.

Hesse's Game in the Garden

Such is the Glass Bead Game as Hesse presents it at the height of its powers in the fictitious province of Castalia in his novel: but there is also a simpler and more direct form of Glass Bead Game which he describes in the title poem of his book, Hours in the Garden, and this is the Game as he played it himself, while raking leaves in his garden and burning them. In this simpler form, the great Game consists in imagining the great minds and hearts of the past -- "wise men and poets and scholars and artists" -- meeting across the centuries and talking...

Hesse's Glass Bead Game and some current variants

It is not my intention to describe all the current variants here, simply to pick a few among them which to my mind best illustrate the various strands -- elaborated above -- which comprise the Game as Hesse described it.

The clash of cymbals / symbols

Hesse writes:
Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.
I believe my own HipBone Games give their players a direct experience of what I am calling the clash of cymbals / symbols -- the counterpoint of idea with idea, whether those ideas be musical, mathematical, verbal, or visual. Our Games pull this off by being in some ways as simple as the game Hesse played while burning leaves: players name and quote the ideas themselves without recourse to a "hieroglyphic language", placing them on a spatial board in a way which allows players to "see" and meditate on the correspondences between them. The HipBone Games are also to the best of my knowledge the only games which contain a clear description of the style of meditation intended.

HipBone Games are usually played by email, using one of a variety of boards available from the HipBone website. They can also be played face-to-face, and we are currently working towards the development of CD-ROM and / or online versions of the HipBone Games.

The hieroglyphic language

Hesse:
Joculator Basiliensis applied himself to the problem. He invented for the Glass Bead Game the principles of a new language, a language of symbols and formulas, in which mathematics and music played an equal part, so that it became possible to combine astronomical and musical formulas, to reduce mathematics and music to a common denominator, as it were.

Mark Line's Waldzell Game approach includes the development of a "constructed language" for play, which allows players from different languages and cultures a common and unambiguous language in which to structure their moves.

While this "conlang" is not essential to the playing of the Waldzell Game, my sense is that here is where Mark's game leads the way in bringing an aspect of Hesse's game into reality: and I mean by this the hieroglypic language as a language of the structure of ideas, more than the hieroglyphic language as a calligraphy -- though the Waldzell Game also includes a calligraphic aspect.

Ron Hale-Evans' Kennexions Game is based on a beautiful form of imagery found in the Old English / Old Norse myths known as "kenning", in which for example a whale is viewed as a horse-of-the sea, so that the Norse poets would speak of the sea as the "whale-road". We can notate this kenning's implications more fully by saying "sea : whale :: road : horse" -- and at once we have both a hieroglyphic notation and a close similarity between "kennings" in poetry and "ratios" in mathematics. Ron's Game contains a poetic approach to the hieroglyphic language to parallel the more analytic approach of Mark Line.

The Game Archive

Hesse:
Each country's Commission possesses its Archive of the Game, that is the register of all hitherto examined and accepted symbols and decipherments, whose number long ago by far exceeded the number of the ancient Chinese ideographs.

The Waldzell Game is also strongly tied to the development of a Canon or Archive of moves, along the lines of the Game Archives which Hesse describes in the novel, and the same is true of the Kenning Game.

Both the Waldzell and Kenning Games can indeed be played now -- but in some sense they will come into their own as their respective Archives expand to cover a far wider range of ideas than at present.

Calligraphy and beads

Hesse:
With a luminous golden stylus he delicately inscribed character after character on the small tablet before him...

Gail Sullivan's webpage is aptly called Glass Bead Game Central. Her own game utilizes the "Bliss Bibliographic Classification System" for the cross-disciplinary indexing of ideas via beads, and the (unrelated) system known as "Blissymbolics" for calligraphy. Still under development.

A Chesslike Game

Hesse:
A reader who chanced to be ignorant of the Glass Bead Game might imagine such a Game pattern as rather similar to the pattern of a chess game, except that the significance of the pieces and the potentialities of their relationships to one another and their effect upon one another multiplied manyfold and an actual content must be ascribed to each piece, each constellation, each chess move, of which this move, configuration, and so on is the symbol.

William Horden's Intrachange performs a skillful marriage of Chess and the I Ching, and thus provides the best current expression of the GBG as chess-like game. William takes brilliant advantage of the correspondences between the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching and 64 squares of the chess-board, the 8 trigrams of the I Ching and 8 files of the chessboard, the 6 lines of a hexagram and the 6 pieces in a chess set, and the two aspects -- yin and yang -- which form the basis of all lines in the I Ching, and the two sides in a game of chess. Playable initially via the World Wide Web.

The Ludus Sollemnis

Hesse:
It was the crowd, the great congregation filling the hall and all of Waldzell, the thousands of souls who followed the Master down the hieratic and labyrinthine ways through the endless, multidimensional imagery of the Game, who furnished the fundamental chord for the ceremony...

It is the knowledge of liturgical drama which Terence MacNamee brings to bear on his games which seem to afford us a clearer insight into an aspect of Hesse's Game which others among us are not attempting: Terence is the first among us (I believe) to attempt a solemn and dramatic ritual presentation of his games, and thus strikes me as our premier exponent of the Ludus Sollemnis or solemn games.

Other GBG variants

There are other playable games which I have not commented on here, but wish nevertheless to draw to your attention as playable Glass Bead Games and / or designs in progress.

Robert Carrillo Cohen's CoreWave Game is eminently playable -- using "forms" to generate moves in its own graphically unified format.

Chris Severud's GBG approach focuses specifically on the educational potential of the GBG -- something which Hesse emphasized both by naming Castalia "the pedagogical province", and by giving the term Magister Ludi a second sense by the end of the book -- that of simple schoolmaster. Only this article seems available at present, but we believe a game is in the works.

Finally, I salute as first among us Dunbar Aitkens, whose Glass Plate Game has been in play for seventeen years now. Dunbar describes his GPG as a "game of conversation": it offers a means of mapping a conversation while it is going on, so that its larger structure can be seen and thus deliberately modified by players in ways which reflect the GBG's structured interplay of ideas. Played face-to-face: Internet play is still in the experimental stages.


Other Possibilities

I believe there are other possible approaches inherent in Hesse's book, which are still to be explored: for instance, none of us has yet concentrated on the GBG as a musical form akin to the fugue... and there is always the Great hypothetical Game of the future, which many of us see as developing from a braiding together of the various strands of GBG design discussed above.

HipBone Games warmly supports these various efforts, and enjoys the collegial discussions of the topic of GBG design on the Internet mailing list, Magister-L, of which Charles Cameron is co-list-owner.


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HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright © Charles Cameron 1995, 96, 97. See Concerning Copyright for full copyright details.