Thursday, February 3, 2011

The HipBone's connected to the . . .

Okay, back to the Glass Bead Game.

Putting aside Hesse's warnings about how a closed GBG culture could be in danger of never creating anything new . . .

And also putting aside the fact that seeing connections between EVERYTHING and EVERYTHING ELSE is probably a hallmark of mental illness . . .

How could such a game be constructed?

We don't need to reinvent the wheel. People have been trying to "reverse engineer" Hesse's fictional game since at least the 1960s. I'd like to use this blog to talk about some of those attempts. I'll start with my virtual mentor in GBG studies, a fellow named Charles Cameron. These days he's blogging a lot about international politics, but in the late 1990s he was a lean, mean GBG designing machine.

The GBG variant that he's most known for is a deceptively simple game called HipBone. You know, "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone," and so on. This game starts with an empty board, which consists of discrete nodes (usually drawn as circles) connected by lines. One of my favorites, shown here, is called the WaterBird board. I'm sure there could be 3D (or higher dimensional!) HipBone boards, but most of the one's I've seen are 2D.

Players take turns placing ideas into the locations ("like stones in a Zen sand garden," Charles has said). A winning move is one for which the player can justify how his or her new idea is related to the other ideas on the board that are connected by specific lines. The ideas themselves can be just about anything -- words, music, images, movies, mathematical equations -- but usually a brief title or name for the idea is written into the circle as a memory aid. As the board fills up, the game gets more difficult because each new idea must be related to all of the previous ones on the board. The "victory conditions" are whatever the players agree on. Sometimes a game can be purely collaborative with no winner or loser.

Charles' ancient web page has links to dozens of example games, from relatively simple ones played by children, to some scholarly explorations of "deep" ideas in literature and mythology. The great thing about HipBone games is that they find their own level, just like good conversations do. Quoting Charles,
And whether you are book-learned, experience-rich or streetwise, a visual person or someone with a knack for mathematics, funny or deadpan or serious, a lawyer or an artist, a geek or a jock or whatever, intuitive, spontaneous, considered or cautious, prone to telling tall tales, or precise as only a scholar can be -- it doesn't matter. The game will take on the form of your own mind, interacting with the minds of those you play with.
As much as I love HipBone, I do have to say that there are some things missing from it that prevent it from being the One True GBG (if there is such a thing). It doesn't have its own language that allows concepts in different fields to be expressed in a common way. It wouldn't easily support the multi-layered structure needed to fully show how, say, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony is like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's greatly conducive to GBG thinking, and for that we all owe Charles Cameron a great debt.


  1. Hello, Hello, and welcome to the blog o sphere of wonder. I love Hesse and have a Glass Bead Game on my shelves. I also love Mancala but none of my rpg pals play Mancala.

    I'm gonna have to get The Glass Bead Game of my shelves and give your game, Hip Bone, a look.

    Have a good un, C C

  2. Thanks, Chris! I hope to post about many of the other playable versions of the GBG out there, too. A few of them do actually use real, mancala-type glass beads, but many don't. :-)

  3. Hi Cygnus --

    the "lean, mean GBG designing machine" here -- hipbone. Do I already know you under another name, perhaps? I have updates on my GBG variants here: and a note on how things have changed here, and mix GBGs in with my national security blogging at Cath Styles and I both blog on the "Sembl" variants she's devised and she and I are developing, at

    Great to run across your page -- I went looking for the "hipbone connected" song text, and volia!

    All the best, Charles (now reachable on gmail as hipbonegamer)

    1. Welcome, Charles! I'll get back to you via email about my other name. :-) I've been following your various web presences over the years, and I'm curious about where Sembl may lead. I should point out that I also wrote a post about you for last April's blogging A-to-Z challenge:

      (I profiled a different inspirational creator on each day of that month. For a list of them all, see the link to "April A-Z Posts" in the banner at the top of this page.)