Hermann Hesse and the Glass Bead Game

Hermann Hesse and the Glass Bead Game

Hermann Hesse, the Swiss-German novelist who wrote Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Demian, and Narcissus and Goldmund, won the Nobel for his final novel and masterpiece, Magister Ludi. This is the book in which he describes the fabulous game known as the “Glass Bead Game” – describes it clearly enough that you can almost taste the excitement of playing it, but somehow manages not to tell you exactly how it is played.

This section of HipBone's site contains materials about Hesse himself and his novel.

You could say the first Nobel for a Web-based computer game design was awarded to novelist Hermann Hesse – who received the Prize for Literature in 1946 for his novel, Magister Ludi… It's not strictly accurate, of course, to say his Nobel was for game design – but it does get a point across: that the design for a game, the “Glass Bead Game”, was central to Hesse's book.

Literature is a marvelous thing, and sometimes a very great writer will write a book that seems extraordinarily prescient to those who live fifty or a hundred years later. That's certainly the case with Hesse's novel. Since Hesse completed the book in 1943, a lot of things have happened which Hesse certainly couldn't have predicted – not least among them, the personal computer the internet and the web. And yet the Glass Bead Game as Hesse describes it is eerily reminiscent of these things. Timothy Leary said the Game was prophetic of the personal computer, Stanford futurist Paul Saffo claims Hesse's book is the finest introduction to the best of modern business practices, Alan Watts compares the Game to a psychedelic experience…

Michael Heim's The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality explains why Hesse's GBG is a crucial metaphor for understanding the nature of cyberspace (and the world our children are about to inherit)…

Lewis Lapham, writing in Harper's, says that Hesse's Glass Bead Game “lends itself so obviously to the transcendental aspirations of the Internet” that the detailed exploration of Hesse's Game as a metaphor has much to contribute to our understanding of the future of electronic communications and culture – and one could extend these comments to include as well certain specific topics in hypertext, AI, semantic networks, constructed languages etc.

It's not always the easiest thing to “explain” the GBG to those who haven't read the book: and yet if we are to discuss the Game itself rather than the novel – to view Hesse's GBG as the blueprint for actual, playable computer games – we need to be able to do just that.

Explaining the Glass Bead Game offers some quotes and suggestions as to what the GBG is and what our playable variants may be capable of…

Finally, no Glass Bead Game section could be complete without a direct link – outside these HipBone pages, I warn you – to Gail Sullivan's Glass Bead Game site.

For more on implementing Hesse's Glass Bead Game as a computer game, see our next section, A Grail for game designers.

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