Summary of Approaches to Glass Bead Game Design

Summary of Approaches to Glass Bead Game Design
posted to Magister-L, 18 Mar 1996
Charles Cameron

It seems to me that there are two main avenues of approach to the design of Glass Bead Games or variants. Some of us are designing Games in “natural language” while others are working at Games which include an “analytic language” and / or “advanced graphics displays”. As you can tell from that somewhat clunky sentence, I'm clearer about the “natural language” approach than I am about the other: but I'll try to say a little about both. And I don't by any means suppose that these two approaches are incompatible over the long haul, merely that distinguishing them may help us to understand where we have come so far, and where we may be headed.


The easiest way to begin may be to quote Hesse himself.

I imagine, for instance, that both “schools” of GBG design would have common ground in the following text:

All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

This seems – to me at least – to be the lure we are all following, and also the irreducible minimum requirement for a Game to be considered a variant on the GBG.


The “natural language” approach, it seems to me, stems from such passages as this:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

I know that I began my own work on the TenStones and WaterBird Games began when I noticed – and appreciated – some parallelisms or isomorphisms between ideas and natural objects.

The branching of the river Nile at its delta, the branching of blood vessels and nerves coming down the arm and into the hand, the branching of trees, the branching of forked lightning… and the branching of a *family* tree, or a system of classification for libraries…

The biologically determined chemical congruence of salt water and human blood…

The slow build and eventual breaking of a wave, the slow build and eventual breaking of sexual energies, even – some film maker had the idea, don't blame me – the crescendo and denouement of Ravel's *Bolero*…

The “logic” of gothic architecture and the “architecture” of scholastic logic – again, this particular comparison is not my own, but one which forms the core of Erwin Panofsky's monograph *Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism*…

The lightning rods atop tall buildings and the ritual instrument in Tibetan Buddhism called a “dorje” or “vajra” – roughly, a conductor of the “lightning” of enlightenment, which a master may point at his disciple to cut through the “clouds” of ignorance…

The rotors of a fan in a hotel room – this one's from the opening scene of Coppola's *Apocalypse Now* – and the rotors of a helicopter.

These and many similar isomorphisms caught my attention, and I began to collect and play around with small items that represented them – a conductor's baton and a dorje, a dreidel and dice, and so forth. And it seemed sufficient to place the two items on a table together, to convey my delight to others.

A lipstick and a bullet… Placed side by side, their similarity is obvious. And wham! – the old poet's theme of Love and Death fairly screams out at you…


Going from there to the design of a board on which “ideas” – as opposed to natural or manmade objects – could be placed by naming them was a simple next step, but necessary if I was to be able to incorporate “the actual theme of a Bach fugue … a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads” into my Games… the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth, and the fateful knock on Mozart's door which led to the Requiem.

But in all this, I was working with physical objects and / or natural language.


I believe that Dunbar's *Glass Plate Game* works along fundamentally similar lines, representing as it does the flow, eddies and branchings of a “natural language” conversation by means of its numbered cubes, “idea” cards and colored transparencies.

Terence MacNamee's elegant Games, similarly, juxtapose ideas expressed in natural language, through the use of the sentences, tropes and glosses of grammatical structure.

In the hopes that the classification I'm proposing will be of some help, then, I'd loosely group Dunbar's GPG, my own WaterBird and TenStones family of Games, and Terence's linguistically based Games together as “natural language” Games. I mean by this that they can each be played without learning (or devising) an arcane language into which the ideas in question are translated.

This “natural language” approach, it seems to me, makes it possible to play “directly” with such things as Bach fugues or sentences from Leibniz or the Upanishads – and as a result, these Games can be fairly easily taught, and are in fact played, and compiled, and read.

EsterBee, Gail, I would imagine that your ideas for Games based on the “web” as archive, in which different web pages would be linked in such a way as to constitute a Game, would also fall in this category – as would this intriguing web / quotation Game by Glenn Kurtz.

And please, if I am misrepresenting anyone, please forgive me, and post a response which clarifies your own ideas…


In Terence's Games, however, we also seem to be coming a little closer to the second approach I would like to discuss, that of the “analytic language” Game.

Hesse writes

in our Glass Bead Game we analyze those products of the sages and artists into their components, we derive rules and patterns of form from them, and we operate with these abstractions as though they were building blocks…

It is clear from his description of playing the Glass Bead Game while sieving ashes from a fire – you can find it in his poem “Hours in the Garden” – that Hesse himself “played” a natural language Game in the sense I have attempted to describe above. But it is equally clear from the book, *Glasperlenspiel*, that the Game as played in Castalia *does* involve learning “an arcane language” into which mathematical, musical and other ideas can be translated. Indeed, mathematics is very likely itself such a language…

Consider these other passages:

Some dreamed of a new alphabet, a new language of symbols through which they could formulate and exchange their new intellectual experiences.

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. Š

These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines.

Terence's Games are the only ones I am familiar with so far which utilize a form of this approach, for while they *can* be presented in natural language, they are *built* on the linguistic structure of (Indo-European?) language itself, and the more detailed representations of his Games make this very clear. And as Terence pointed out to me recently, the “anatomy” of sentences itself parallels (or is reducible to) the “anatomy” of sacrifice as described in the Vedas…


I suspect, however, that there are others working in the field of GBG design who are exploring, in their different ways, the possibility of an “analytical language” which Hesse so clearly envisions in the book. And I suspect again, with very little evidence to go on, that these same people – the rumored group of mathematicians at Darmstadt, for example – may well *also* be thinking in terms of the graphical presentation of such a language… So that I tend in my own mind to lump those who are devising high-level graphical “boards” on powerful computers, together with those who are thinking along the lines of “analytical language”.

Craig's ideas for a Virtual Reality Game would clearly fall into the “high-level graphical” camp, I imagine…

So far, I personally haven't “seen” or “played” any Games of these kinds, and I'm not sure whether any of them are “up and running” yet – though I'd very much appreciate any information anyone can offer.


And I now seem to have talked myself into three approaches rather than two… the approach via Games in “natural language”, the “high-level graphical” approach to what is effectively board design, and the approach via “analytical language”.

I am not sure that this is anything like a complete spectrum of possibilities, but it is the best I can manage at present.

There are some people I haven't mentioned working in GBG design, whose approaches I don't yet know – our own William Horden, for example, is working on a Game which is in some way related to Chess, and today I heard from Dr. Ulli Kockel in Liverpool, who has been working on a Game which intersects with Go in some way…


There are two people on this list (MAGISTER-L) whose ideas, it seems to me, utterly transcend whatever categories I have established here, and I would like to mention them.

Eli Robillard has proposed the general game:

points in space and lines that connect.

There's something so simple and universal going on here that I feel I should flag it.

And Terrence Ross works with “lucid dreaming” as the vehicle of his Games, thus availing himself of far more sophisticated graphical and computational possibilities than those of us who work with “external” computers can conceivably manage…


That's it, that my attempt to sum up the “state of the art” insofar as I know it. Suggested additions, corrections and civil disagreements are welcomed…

Charles Cameron

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