The story itself is about a future utopian society, where the world's intellectuals have walled themselves up in monastic orders to study their chosen arts and sciences. Chief among these pursuits is a strange GAME played by the monks that involves making connections between disparate ideas. My favorite quote from the novel, which many other people have also used to describe the game, is as follows:
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.Heady stuff! Still, Hesse takes it further. There's a new language that has to be invented in order to compare and contrast all of these ideas on equal footing. Also, in this postulated future age, where religion seems like it's lost its hold on people, the GBG becomes a virtual sacrament that delivers deep meaning to its players:
I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. 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.
This paradise didn't come without problems, however. Most of the book is about the gradual disillusionment felt by one Master of the Game, and his eventual leave-taking from this closed society. As portrayed by Hesse, the GBG was inherently non-creative, in that players just recycled and re-analyzed bits of culture that were produced centuries ago, and never created anything truly new of their own.
However, despite these problems, there have been people who want to actually PLAY this thing! The problem is that Hesse was good at describing it just enough to give us a feel for the excitement and intellectual stimulation felt by the players, but without enough detail to show us how it's played. That hasn't stopped intrepid game designers from trying to create "real-life GBG variants." Someday I hope to add to the body of work towards this goal, too. In future posts, I'll review some of what's been done in this vein, with a list of links to the games themselves (where they exist).
I'll leave you with one final quote, this time from a novel called The Broken God by David Zindell. It's a sci-fi take on a similar kind of monastic society that enjoys a similar kind of intellectual pastime as the GBG....
I believe we must learn the infinite subtleties and the deepest logic of language. I believe we must become true speakers of the Word. When we have learned to speak of all possible connections between all things, then we may extend the metaphors of language into an infinite number of new relationships and forms. Only then will we be able to make a new mathematics. Only then will we create a perfect mirror in our words and thus make a grammar for all nature that will be truly universal.