Sex, Mortality and Jenga

Sex, Mortality and Jenga.

Many people have noted my disdain for classic board games. And while it’s true that I loathe Risk, Clue and Monopoly, one classic I’m all for is the madcap blocktastic game of Jenga. If you’re unfamiliar, the game is simple enough to explain. You have a tower made up of layers of bricks. The bricks have a length-width ratio of 3:1, so that 3 laying length to length to length make a perfect square. Layers are stacked with the bricks running one way, then the other, to form a sort of weave.

Players take turns removing a block and placing it on top of the tower. This placement continues the tower’s construction, so that it grows higher and higher as the game goes on. Eventually the loss of the lower bricks and the strain of the ever-rising summit cause the tower to collapse. Whoever made the building collapse is the loser. If you demand a winner, you can eliminate the loser from each round until only a winner remains, though less competitive circles are usually happy to just have one person lose and start again.

So what’s fun about building a tower over and over, only to watch it fall? Sisyphus was sentenced to something similar, and it was considered an eternal torture. Well, to quote Albert Camus: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Though he was talking finding meaning in a godless universe, and not playing Jenga, I think it still applies. Besides, imagine how much happier Sisyphus would have been stacking wooden blocks with his damned pals Tantalus and Prometheus instead of lugging that boulder.

Pictured: Jenga Prototype, circa 500 BC

Pictured: Jenga Prototype, circa 500 BC

There’s enough skill involved in Jenga for the hardcore competition-heads, but with simple enough rules and fast enough play to keep casual players entertained. The playing of the game is so intuitive, I’ve seen people who don’t speak the same language teach and be taught how to play. So while the Tower of Babel fell due to the sudden existence of other languages, the tower of Jenga continues to fall in spite of them.

Games can have any number of players, and coming up with variants and house-rules is easy. You can even play by yourself, trying to see just how high you can get the Tower to climb (the current world record is 40 and 2/3 block layers high).

First-time players often just try to keep the tower stable. If the tower is stable, it won’t fall, and if it doesn’t fall, you don’t lose. True enough. But no Jenga game can continue forever. The weave of blocks might as well be our own mortal coil, for each are as fragile and ultimately doomed. The tower must fall, and there will eventually be a loser. It’s up to you to make sure that loser is not you.

"For in that sleep of death what games may come / When we have knocked down this Jenga coil"

“For in that sleep of death what games may come / When we have knocked down this Jenga coil”

So instead of keeping the tower stable, you want it unstable: as unstable as possible without falling over. Every move has its own level of risk and reward. The more your move weakens the tower, the greater both risk and reward grow. Jenga becomes a game of proving the very limits of a construction’s stability and a player’s dexterity. In this testing of limits, there is fun to be had.

The mounting tension as the tower becomes higher and more unstable lends a delectable suspense to the game. When the tower falls, the tension is released, and all players are encouraged to yell “Jenga”. Though often whoever triggered the collapse is too busy shaking their head.

This pattern of rising tension followed by sudden release and ecstatic shouting is not unlike sex, and that may lend to it’s appeal. (Freudians, pay special note to the shapes of the blocks and tower.) The idea of attempting to get as close as possible to a certain point without exceeding it could also resemble lovemaking, as per Tantric sex. It then follows that the ‘loser’ of each round is the one who triggers his lover(s) orgasm(s) before their own, and hence does not join in the cathartic yelling.

Why do you think Jenga is fun? Or not fun? Is it just a game, or does it speak of something deeper?


2 thoughts on “Sex, Mortality and Jenga

  1. Alex

    Jenga is fantastic. Anyone who disagrees needs to remember to use ONE hand only, and to force themselves to pull only the first block they touch. That’s the real way to play.

    Some fun variants can be had by using a pencil to mark different blocks. You can put truth/dare suggestions on the blocks to be performed as they are pulled. Perhaps values for drinks to be had?

    1. zanderwarren Post author

      Yeah, when I was in Thailand I played Jenga at a bar and the drunk Thai kids were definitely fudging the rules (using two hands, touching multiple blocks, etc). It was still fun, but the games went on too long and all the leeway prevented exciting or dramatic things from happening.

      Penciling on truths/dares/drinks/rule-modifiers is a good idea. There are also colored Jenga sets that come with color-dice, so you roll to see which color you can take.



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