Explaining the Glass Bead Game

And Just What It Is We're Up To…

This piece of blatant propaganda offers some appropriate quotes and a “thruline” to use, if you want to explain about the Glass Bead Game to someone who hasn't read the book.

Charles Cameron

This particular piece of work began when a friend wrote to me, saying:

It has been a great challenge in my life to discuss (and reach a common understanding of) the concept and descriptions of the Glass Bead Game with others who have not read the book.

I was amazed that you had, in fact, made great progress in defining the game itself.

It is indeed hard to give people who haven't read the book a sense of what the actual Game is about. What follows is my own way of approaching the topic…


I usually start by saying that Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Magister Ludi, the novel in which he describes the Game… instant credibility… and go on to say that various people have found it an important and illuminating analogy for the Mac, the net, the web, human mental processes, the interconnectedness of things in a buddhist or ecological sense, the evolving human group mind (Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere), and even good business… a seminal work for these electronic times, in other words.

There's Bruce Milligan, director of new media at the AOL subsidiary, Redgate:

As I work to help position Redgate as a leader in the programming of content for the World Wide Web, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about the nature of the Web – a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines, constructs of information designed to facilitate the sometimes-ordered, sometimes-random and often serendipitous roamings of human inquisitiveness… But more than anything, this process of information publishing and linking on the Web reminds me a lot of the Glass Bead Game that Hermann Hesse wrote about in his 1943 novel Das Glasperlenspiel (translated “The Glass Bead Game”, subtitled “Magister Ludi”…)

There's the late Tim Leary, who wrote a while back:

In the avant garde, cyber-hip frontiers of the computer culture, around Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, around Palo Alto, in the Carnegie Mellon AI labs, in the backrooms of the computer graphics labs in Southern California, even in the Austin labs of MCC, a Hesse comeback seems to be happening. However. This revival is not connected with Hermann's mystical, eastern writings. It's based on his last, and least understood, work, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game.

This book, which earned Hesse the Expense-Paid Brain Ride to Stockholm, is positioned a few decades in the future when human intelligence is enhanced and human culture elevated by a device for thought-processing called The Glass Bead Game. Up here in the Electronic '80s we can appreciate what Hesse did, back down there (1931-1942).

And Paul Saffo, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA, who writes in his The Manager as Mystic:

You're in your favorite bookstore, scanning the new titles in the business section, looking for something that will help you make sense of the turmoil of competition.

Wrong section! Wrong decade!

For the most important management book for the 1990s, try fiction from the 1940s: Hermann Hesse's Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Glass Bead Game. It combines leader-as-servant, pragmatic mysticism, creative destruction–in other words, all the business issues of the decade! Plus it's a great read.

And – last on this list but by no means least – there's John Holland, psychologist, computer scientist extraordinaire, and inventor of “genetic algorithms” – who said in his fascinating OMNI interview with Janet Stites:

I've been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they'd expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can't think of anything that would delight me more.


After hopefully establishing that this “Glass Bead Game” business is at least worth looking into, I go on to establish the breadth and scope of the Game. I find the most useful quote from the book itself is this:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. 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.

If there's still interest at this point, I get more specific about the Game itself. I say that Hesse didn't tell us how to play it, and that our best efforts will be approximations to it, but that it seems to be a sort of game designer's “grail”…


I think the first clue in the actual process of Game design is that Hesse's Game compares items across widely separate disciplines to find analogies between them, ie formal resemblances that can be stated. He writes:

Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature.

There's a resemblance, for instance, between the way a wave builds to a climax and breaks, and the way Ravel's Bolero does the same thing – and I think whoever put together the film of that name starring Bo Derek obviously saw a similar parallelism between Ravels' Bolero and the building to a climax and breaking in sex…

There's an analogy between the attraction between heavenly bodies and the attraction between human bodies which prompted Robert Heinlein among others to suggest the inverse square law of gravity was “about” the attraction between lovers. In his novel Orphans of the Sky, he writes:

It sounds like a rule for simple physical facts, does it not? Yet it is nothing of the sort; it was the poetical way the old ones had of expressing the rule of propinquity which governs the emotion of love. The bodies referred to are human bodies, mass is their capacity for love.

There are pretty simple examples, but they serve to illustrate the general principle in a way that's easily grasped.

On a more complex level, Hesse speaks of scholars proposing materials for inclusion in the Game Archives, and specifically mentions someone who had been studying “the rhythmic structure of Julius Caesar's Latin and discovered the most striking congruences with the results of well-known studies of the intervals in Byzantine hymns”…

Hesse couldn't possibly have known about it when writing that particular sentence, of course, but there is actually a book by Jane-Marie Luecke, OSB, entitled Measuring Old English Rhythm: an Application of the Principles of Gregorian Chant Rhythm to the Meter of Beowulf, Literary Monographs, vol 9, U Wisconsin Press, 1978. That seems quite a stunning illustration of the kind of thinking Hesse was talking about…

What all this comes down to, I suppose, is that I start with moves: I start with an understanding that Hesse's Castalian players were after analogies between those items from widely separate disciplines, and try to imagine where to go from there… And I think this basic consideration is what makes my own games potentially beautiful, educative, etc…


Then I point out that Hesse's Game seems to be an art – a “virtual music of ideas” to be precise.

As a poet, I have some very definite opinions about the arts, and believe for instance that all the arts depend on a marriage of passion with tight structure… I believe you can write a clever poem without heart, and it will be dry and lifeless, or a passionate poem without skill, and it will mean next to nothing to anyone except the person you wrote it for – but that when you combine passion and skill, you get a poem that can transmit your passion to a far wider audience… which is why the great love poems from Shakespeare to ee cummings are still feverishly quoted by teenage lovers…

I believe, in other words, that this business of passion and formal restraint is one of those cross-disciplinary truths like the inverse square law. As I put it recently:

Great splash alone is all wet. Tight focus alone is a trickle. But great splash passing through tight focus can send water arcing through the air to great heights, to land at a great distance…

Let's take this a little further.

Music is the marriage of passion with tight structure in the field of sound, poetry the marriage of passion with tight structure in the field of words, etc. And if I'm right about this, the GBG is the marriage of passion with tight structure in the field of ideas – specifically including verbal, pictorial, and musical ideas.

It is the art of the “multimedia” field in other words, in a far more precise sense than opera or film or performance art… It's what Wagner was after, when he wrote those operas – the gesamtkunstwerke or “work-of-total-art”.


In which case, the next thing to do is to come up with some tight structures…

I do this in my own games by adapting the “clustering” technique which is used in business and creativity seminars – linking associated ideas by putting them on a board in circles and drawing lines between them – so that the associations have to correspond to the set lines of one of my boards. This means that certain ideas in play aren't linked to certain others, and that some ideas are supposed to link to a group of specific others… and in practice, this constraint makes players go back more often to the “creative well” to come up with an idea which will link with whatever others it's supposed to link with.

The mathematician Stanley Ulam has a lovely quote about this process, which he describes interestingly enough in terms of poetry:

When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality… And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one's memory properly to find the analogies… [which] are essential to the development of new ideas.

That's exactly what my own games are all about…

Again, if I'm right, the “tight form” of my games will work like the “tight form” of the sonnet in poetry or the sonata in music, and allow players to express passion within the constraints of the board in a way which can therefore reach others…

This also allows me to think of my games as “forms” within the “art” of the GBG, which seems to me to be an appropriate way to avoid claiming that I have devised the “one true” Glass Bead Game, while still maintaining that my games bear a family likeness…


The final issue that I think is important has to do with the meditative aspect of Hesse's Game. I find that when two “items” from different branches of knowledge have a strong structural resemblance, that contemplating them together can lead to a kind of stereo effect, analogous to stereoscopic vision and stereophonic sound – which I term stereophany with an “a”, by analogy with such terms as “epiphany” and “theophany”, both of which refer to the “shining forth” of some kind of divine essence.

But I've gone into this aspect in more detail in my Meditations for Game Players

HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright © Charles Cameron 1995, 96, 97.
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