I’ve just finished reading Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, a very good book I can’t in clear conscience recommend to you, because it is, without doubt, the least dramatic novel I’ve ever read. In the course of its 500+ pages fundamentally nothing happens. Our hero goes to school, which he likes; he goes to university, which he likes; he goes to a monastery, which he likes; he goes to another monastery, which is also likes; he gets a job, which he likes; and he makes a decision, which he has no cause to regret. In between, he has interminably genteel, articulate conversations with other genteel, articulate people, whom he likes and who like him. Somehow, along the way, it manages to be an extraordinary and unflinching exploration of the nature of love, authority, regret, responsibility, religion, knowledge, aging, nature, civilisation, war, individuality, fatherhood, history, friendship, childhood, society, music, philosophy and integrity, which is probably why it won Hesse the Nobel Prize for Literature. Oh, what the hell, I’m going to recommend it to you anyway.
And that’s partly because, as the title reveals, it’s all about a game. Who knew there was a Nobel-winning cornerstone of heavyweight Germanic literature all about games? Nor is it just about a game, it’s about a time in the near future when gaming has become the highest expression of scholarship, creativity and intellectual refinement. From our perspective, as games take their first fledgling steps towards being seen as a credible creative outlet, it’s an extraordinarily remote concept. All the more extraordinary then for Hesse, writing in 1943 about the 25th century, to see a time when playing could be viewed as the finest of our arts. Not least since, in the nine years it took him to complete the book, the upheavals underway in Germany and the world must have been continually reshaping his perceptions of how bleak our future might be.
Quite what the Glass Bead Game is is never fully explained in the book. It’s described by the narrator as being based on ‘a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts…and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture.’ Lofty stuff, but its genesis sounds spookily close to something we already have, something that was invented by a game-maker. The Game’s roots were in a music student pastime of calling out shorthands for motifs of classic compositions, which other students would have to answer with continuations or improvisations. Eventually, to facilitate this, someone constructed ‘a frame, modelled on a child’s abacus, a frame with several dozen wires on which could be strung glass beads of various sizes, shapes and colours. The wires corresponded to the lines of the musical staff, the beads to the time-values of the notes.’ Sound familiar? It should if you’ve encountered the Tenori-On, the totally abstract electronic instrument based around a grid of light-beads, invented by the designer of Electroplankton, Toshio Iwai.
We are, of course, a long way off a time when devising or playing games could (or indeed should) be seen as intellectually challenging, creatively stimulating and spritually satisfying as the Glass Bead Game is portrayed as being. And, indeed, the heart of Hesse’s book is a debate about whether or not something so esoteric and abstracted can ever make a meaningful contribution to human life. But it’s interesting to imagine where we might end up if we’ve already taken the first steps towards Hesse’s future, not least thanks to the Tenori-On. A few brave souls have even tried to create working prototypes of the Glass Bead Game – the most playable of which is here – albeit in a form which is a long way from the calligraphy-and-meditation based displays which are described as forming the height of the game’s evolution. And if you’re still not convinced that Hesse might have been ahead of his time on foreseeing the future of gaming culture, consider this: what are the players of his Glass Bead Game known as? ‘Lusers’. For real, just like that, thanks to a corruption of the Latin. How’s that for futurecasting?