Moves in the Glass Bead Game as Hesse describes it

I’d like to turn our focus here to the Glass Bead Game as Hesse describes it in his novel, Magister Ludi, and in particular to the range of play, and the nature of moves: putting that in game designer’s terms, I’d like to talk about the gameplay as Hesse envisions it.


First, the subject matter of which the games are composed. Hesse wrote:

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.

That’s the range of cultural themes that Hesse’s game players are playing with. But what kinds of moves do they make with them?

Hesse tells us that the most basic form of play is (i) the juxtaposition (in symbolic form) of (ii) cultural items which are deeply similar, (iii) across wide disciplinary boundaries:

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.

At one point, he gives as an example the discovery of “the most striking congruences” between “the rhythmic structure of Julius Caesar’s Latin” on the one hand, and “the results of well-known studies of the intervals in Byzantine hymns” on the other. And this is by no means as far fetched as it might at first seem. In 1978, the University of Wisconsin Press published volume 9 in their “Literary Monographs” – 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 (see this review in Speculum).

Further, Hesse suggests that in play, this process of continual juxtaposition will lead to what is essentially a meditative experience of the sacred:

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.

How do our own concepts of a playable version of the Glass Bead Game embody these ideas?


Some time in the mid to late 1990s, I raised this question on the Magister-L mailing list with six or seven friends who had designed Glass Bead Game variants, and proposed a specific, particular juxtaposition of two parallel “cultural themes” to them, asking how their game variants would handle a move that made this particular linkage.

The answer in four cases, including my own, were fairly straight forward, and can be found about half way down the page where I laid out the question: A Test Case for Glass Bead Game Design. I suggested there that this move could be made in a Sembl-type game by playing emergence of trance in a voodoo seance in one position and emergence of the solo in a jazz session in an adjacent position, and it would be notated with a prose comment elaborating Ventura’s point, possibly with quotations from his brilliant essay. And I imagined that “the same” move could be made in one of Ron Hale-EvansKennexions games, and that it might for instance, be formulated in the kenning:

voodoo : trance :: jazz : solo

Two friends with particularly intricate GBG variants — one involving the development and use of a “constructed language” and the other a skillful blending of chess and I Ching — responded, and the ways in which they would handle a move linking these two themes in their own games can be found at A GBG Test Case Move: Mark Line’s Game and William Horden’s Intrachange.

I think it’s fairly clear from these six examples that this “test move” can do a pretty good job of helping us see how a Glass Bead Game move would work in practice, in a wide range of possible GBG implementations – and I’d like to present it again here, fifteen or so years later, to see what ideas it might elicit this time around.

Here, then, is the Test Case – the “case” being the two themes to be juxtaposed, and the “test” being how each individual would tackle the job of playing these two moves within their own concept of the GBG.

The Case:

Michael Ventura has a very interesting observation in the wonderful essay Hear that Long Snake Moan which can be found in his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA.

His insight is based on the idea that Dixieland jazz emerges from Voodoo seances in New Orleans: at a time when voodoo was strongly prohibited, the drums of the sacred dance continued to beat as the drums of the secular — and that when the drumming reached such a pitch that in voodoo one of the dancers would become possessed by a loa, in jazz a soloist would take flight.

In Ventura’s view, the relationship between ensemble dancing and the emergence of individual trance in voodoo, and ensemble playing and the emergence of the solo in jazz is not merely a fortuitous and close parallelism, but the direct translation of the moment of ecstatic breakthrough from one medium to the other.

The Test:

I would like to propose this insight as a sort of test case for our various game approaches, so that I could ask you these questions:

  • in your game, would this move be possible?
  • if so, how would it be notated?
  • if not directly, is there a move in your game which would capture the essence or the structure implicit in this move?
  • if so, how would it be notated?
  • if not, then what example can you give me of the kind of move that would be possible in your game?
  • and how would this sample move be notated?

In asking these questions, I don’t wish to imply in any way that games which can include this move are superior or inferior in kind to those which cannot: my purpose is simply to clarify what kinds of move are possible in each of our games — or would be possible in each of our approaches.

And I should perhaps add that there are other aspects to Hesse’s game that I am not attempting to capture here — notably the use of glyphic beads, so well illustrated in Joshua Fost‘s Towards the Bead Game variant.

2 replies
  1. Charles
    Charles says:


    I am honored that the last student of H Hesse’s Japanese translator should have contacted us.

    I apologize for not having responded sooner, but I have wanted to understand your system before responding — and my life has been chaotic these last few weeks, too.

    I see from this web page that you use actual glass beads, and wonder whether the four nodes of your diagram method refer to the beads you have designed?

    I am sending you this message by email, but will also post it in response to your comment on, so that others may see any response you make.

    With warm regards, and again my apologies,



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