Jenga and Civilization

Life is a game, so they say. Therefore, it stands to reason that if life is a game, then by studying games we should be able to understand something about life. For most humans, there is not life without civilization. Now, civilization is a loaded word. It can mean different things to different people. For some, civilization is a lofty concept that shows the best of humanity. For others, it is an oppressive term that is used to exclude people. For the purposes of this article, civilization simply means the systems we use to interact with each other in a beneficial way. No happy person is an island. Other people may be hell, but it is difficult to get through life without them.

There are a lot of games that could teach us about civilization. There is an entire series of games called Civilization. But the game that teaches us the most about what civilization is and how it works is Jenga.

Or giant Jenga, depending on how big of a city you live in.

Jenga I a simple game where you use wooden blocks to construct a tower. The goal of the game is to make the tower taller by removing pieces from its core and placing them on top. The strategy of the game revolves around knowing which pieces are safe to remove, and which ones are actually holding the entire thing together. Herein lies the first lesson Jenga can teach us about civilization: there is no clear path to victory, the best thing you can do is try not to lose.

Every person is like a block in the civilization tower. Some of use bear weight and it would be a tragedy to remove them. Others don’t really do much at all. The people who aren’t really doing anything are the safest to relocate to the top of the tower.

It is probably safer to get rid of the middle managers of society than it is to remove the lower classes, but it is safer still to re-purpose the blocks at the very top of the tower. Now, that doesn’t really seem fair. Why should the blocks that aren’t doing anything get to be on top of the tower? Why should people who work and toil remain in their position, while lazy do-nothings get to move to the top? Therein lies the next lesson Jenga can teach us about civilization: The people on the top don’t really do much, you can get rid of them and the world won’t come crashing down, but they do make the thing seem more grand than it actually is.

The best towers in Jenga have increasingly fragile upper tiers supported by a solid base. Does that mean the best civilizations have an increasingly fragile upper class supported by a robust population of solid workers?

This seems like a rotten deal for the solid people, but its not as bad as it seems. Sure, it might seem glamorous at the top, and those pieces just keep getting to go higher and higher, until the tower has grown too tall and the top levels come crashing down. Why would you want to be on top of something that is about to collapse?

The pieces at the bottom of the tower are strong and supported by each other. The pieces at the top are duplicitous and weak. The people at the bottom of civilization are strong. The people at the top are not. Which type of person would you rather be?

Ooh, that tower is collapsing. Quick! lets climb to the top before it falls.

Of course, the people at the top are always bragging about their great view and how they don’t have any weight. And, of course, how they deserve to be there. That makes everyone else want to be on top of the tower, too. They strive to remove themselves from their solid positions to more precarious ones closer to the top, because that’s how you win the game. But that’s not how you win at Jenga. That is how you lose, and you take everyone else with you.

Life for a human is about getting alone with other people. There is really no way around that often-overlooked fact. You don’t get along with other people by constantly trying to move ahead of them. People get along best when they support each other. There is no support at the top of the tower. Only a long way to fall when the cat decides to knock the whole thing over.

Always remember, the people on top of society are, by far, the least important.

(always remember, the people on top of society are, by far, the least important)