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Philosophy, Star Trek, and the Glass Plate Game

By Aaron Smith ’13 on January 27, 2015 12:45 PM

Reed students play the Glass Plate Game at Paideia 2015. The game was adapted from Herman Hesse's famous novel, The Glass Bead Game, by Dunbar Aitkens, pictured on the right.

There were nine of us gathered in the classroom in Vollum. We chatted in hushed tones among coffee cups with brown rims and the winter sunlight filtering in through the blinds. We were alert, we were prepared—although a few late stragglers had the distinct look of an unmade bed—and we began.

We started with Species-Specific Norms, and reasoned our way to The Need Not to Judge and from there Emergence. After a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” we rejected Emergence as a suitable logical connection with The Need Not to Judge. Instead, someone posited Nature Tending Towards Perfection, which we accepted. Someone else posited Death as a counterargument, which led us to Emotional Manipulation, Unwanted Relationships, Agency, Music, and, finally, Hidden Potential.

Though it might sound like we were crowdsourcing a philosophy paper, we were in fact playing a round of the Glass Plate Game. The game has no winner or loser, and no score is kept. Instead, players engage in cooperative reasoning, and progress across a series of cards covering different topics.

One of over 300 offerings at Paideia 2015, the Glass Plate Game was part of a course led by Emma Handte ’16, who learned to play it at her freshman Paideia. She was attracted to the game not only because it allowed a venue for people to discuss topics that rarely come up in conversation, but also because it makes the task of conversing feel less daunting. “It’s a great game for people who are usually quiet or more reserved in social situations,” she observed.

The game was adapted from Herman Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game. The name comes from the game’s first iteration, which was a mosaic of cards beneath a plate of glass. While its creation was a group effort among students at Oregon State University, it was designed in 1976 primarily by Adrian Wolfe and Dunbar Aitkens, who attended the Paideia presentation.

Begun in 1969, Paideia is Reed’s annual festival of learning, an opportunity for Reed students, faculty, and staff to teach mini-courses on subjects not offered during the academic term. There are no grades or tests, and attendance is voluntary. Paideia happens the week before the spring semester begins at Reed. This year’s roster included classes on surrealist games, the didgeridoo, Kurdish, spectroscopy, the history of number systems, and the life of Lindsay Lohan.