The World Game, the Game of War and the Do-Nothing Machine

José Luis de Vicente

In the late 1950s, the designers Charles and Ray Eames developed a prototype of a toy for the Alcoa aluminium corporation. Drawing their inspiration from Calder’s sculptures and from animated mechanical clocks, the toy could be described as a platform with a number of colourful spirals, weather cocks and mills.

The significance of the project lies in the fact that it was one of the first solarpowered devices, kitted with some primitive panels that transformed sunlight into electricity and made the spirals come to life and move. The story goes that Charles Eames contacted the California Institute of Technology to learn more about the possibilities of solar energy. In the end, it was the Institute that had to ask Eames for a detailed explanation about what he had discovered all by himself.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the project comes from its name and from the Eames’ intention when designing it. The toy is called the La máquina de no hacer nada [Do-Nothing Machine]. It comes without any kind of instructions, because it was not to be used in any predetermined way. It is not a reproduction of anything which might exist in the everyday world. The idea was for the machine to be a device to highlight that the pure experience of playing was valuable in itself, and that the best destiny for a toy is to be a gateway to exploration and surprise.

Though it never actually went into production and is now lost, the Do-Nothing Machine was not the first toy the Eames designed. The studio had impregnated many of their projects with a strong sense of playfulness, and understood that one of its operational principles was to “take your pleasure seriously.” One of the projects consists of a modular construction system consisting of light rigid laminated cardboard polygons allowing a six-year old kid to build structures at home six times his size. It was simply called The Toy.

Unlike the Do-Nothing Machine, The Toy was eventually commercialised1, though nowadays you can only find it in online auctions for art collectors. The box it came in described it as big, colourful and easy to assemble, to create a bright, dazzling and expandable world, big enough to play in.

The Montreal Biosphere is the most emblematic of the built constructions designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller, the visionary designer, architect and futurist whose ideas exerted a key influence on movements like environmentalism and cyberculture. The so-called Biosphere is in fact the most celebrated of Fuller’s geodesic domes, spherical structures that covered the greatest possible area with the minimum weight. The dome was one of the icons of the 1967 Universal Expo and originally housed the US pavilion. For Bucky, the Biosphere was a major landmark – it is his most photographed icon, and one of the symbols of Montreal – yet at once a failure. This is because his original idea was much more ambitious. Never carried out, the initial plan was not limited to the building itself but embraced all the actual contents of the pavilion. In his vision, when visitors entered the Biosphere they would be entering a game. The World Game.

It’s not clear when exactly Fuller conceived The World Game. It is mentioned as early as the 1940s and it reappears in different contexts right up until his death in 1983. One thing that seems clear however is that the original idea came about as an answer to the “war games” that are part of military training and which Fuller studied during his time at naval school.

In The World Game, the players are all the inhabitants of our planet, “Spaceship Earth”, and the goal is to design an equalitarian and violence-free model for the management and growth of sustainable resources. Or as he put it himself: “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

The pieces the players would use in The World Game would be data, detailed statistics in real time, of the origin, distribution and circulation of the world’s population, resources, goods and sources of energy. At the 1967 Universal Expo, all these were to be projected on a huge lighted playing board in the shape of the “Dymaxion World Map”, Fuller’s alternative cartographic projection in which the continents are depicted as islands surrounded by a single sea, without any geographical centre or a north and south.

The World Game is one of the best examples of Fuller’s holistic vision of the planet, and of his conviction that we can only resolve its problems by truly understanding how the flows of the global system operate, and by intervening in them by means of information. As one of his most famous quotations goes, “humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons”, and in Montreal, dressed up as an innocent and utopian game, Fuller wanted to give citizens of the world the tools that information science, systems theory and cybernetics had proportioned the military industrial complex. Deemed too radical, the project was rejected.

While Fuller is building the Montreal Biosphere, on the other side of the Atlantic, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, what was going to be one of the seminal texts of recent decades, was about to be published. This was Paris on the eve of 1968, so enough said about the atmosphere on the street. Debord was a corrosive enemy of intellectual copyright, an unclassifiable experimental filmmaker and, most famously, the founder of the Situationist International, an underground esoteric movement which cast such a long shadow that it reached the utopian experimental architecture of the 1970s, the Punk movement and all the way to Locative Media.

In 1967, Debord was already thinking about The Game of War, though another ten years were to pass before he patented the idea and founded the Society of Strategic and Historical Games together with his partner Lebovici, and 20 years before it actually saw the light of day. Its origins can be traced back to Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who fought his whole life against French armies. In von Clausewitz’s On War, the French intellectual discovered a guidebook for life more than just a military treatise. For Debord the goal of his Kriegspiel was to synthesise the nature of human existence on a playing board.

It is not easy to explain The Game of War. The board is divided into two facing territories of 250 and fifty squares each. Two of these on either side are “arsenal” squares, three are “fort” squares and nine are “mountain” squares. Each player has an army of 17 pieces that can be moved in turns of five consecutive moves. The game ends when a player loses all his fighting pieces or arsenals.

The problem is that this summary is an extreme simplification of the rules of the Kriegspiel. The specific experience of playing is intricate and unsettling, and scarcely enjoyable. The Game of War works differently depending on the particular moment in which the game is at. For Debord, one of von Clausewitz’s main contributions is to consider the men in combat forces as unreliable and as conditioned for loyalties and phobias.

The Game of War appeared in a limited edition in 1977 and would not be published and properly distributed again until over ten years later. In fact, it was practically forgotten about for almost two decades. However, in recent times, its significance has been defended on various fronts. In 2007, one of the activities organised by the London Games Festival was a series of matches of Debord’s game, and soon afterwards the artist and theorist Alex Galloway created an online version2 which earned him the wrath of Debord’s widow, who threatened him with legal action for copyright infringement.

For Debord, The Game of War was unquestionably one of his most important works. In 1989 he wrote: “I succeeded, a long time ago, in presenting the basics of war on a rather simple board game. The surprises of this kriegspiel seem inexhaustible; and I fear that this may well be the only one of my works that anyone will dare acknowledge as having some value.”

At some precise point in the past, The World Game, The Game of War and The Do-Nothing Machine would have been viewed as mere curiosities, footnotes in the careers of three of the 20th century’s most indefinable characters. Today, however, we can consider them as links in a tradition and prototypes for a methodology that is more contemporary than ever.

Arcadia. Games from a Culture of Innovation is predicated on a premise in which we firmly believe. In other words, that the game is one of the most significant cultural strategies of our time. It is present in the visual arts and its endeavour to develop mechanisms that activate forms of relationship among users. It equally underpins the performing arts and its current interest in transforming spectators into actors through ludic resources. It is also at the basis of new educational models and is opening new ground in areas such as communication, journalism, ideological critique and activism.

Rather than closed pieces, the 30 plus projects featured must be viewed as prototypes under revision and a demonstration of an emerging sensibility that oversteps the boundaries of our preconceived ideas on the function and form of the game.

Arcadia takes over and extends LABoral’s exploration of games in its trilogy of exhibitions Gameworld, Playware and Homo Ludens Ludens, perhaps the most exhaustive investigation of the issue undertaken by a cultural institution. That said, the form of this presentation is entirely different. Arcadia is the opening project in Mediateca Expandida at LABoral, a space exploring ways in which we can renew the premises of the Exhibition as a language and as a format, and reinvent it by downplaying the weight of certain of its elements (narrative linearity, distance and solemnity) while introducing other elements such as sociability and exchange, and a completely different rhythm of use. New cultural models need new rules, and there are few examples as applicable as that of the Game.