Polar Jenga – How long can you keep the ice from melting?

By Marc Exposito, Scott Gilman, and Kalli Retzepi

The data say that the Arctic is melting quickly, which threatens many species that live there. We wanted to tell this story because the Arctic is already experiencing the effects of climate change more than almost anywhere else on the planet, and yet it’s easy to ignore what’s happening there as it feels so removed from our world. Our audience is students in their 20s or 30s in Cambridge – we specifically imagined that this could be something students could play with friends in the Muddy Charles. Our goal is to provoke them to take some small actions to combat climate change that are possible on a student budget and schedule.

We made a modified version of Jenga to accomplish these goals. We added a deck of shuffled cards to the game. Each turn, instead of just removing one block, a player draws a card and follows the instructions. Some of the cards are factual – for example, “In 2017, the area of Arctic summer sea ice was the second-lowest ever recorded – behind only 2007. Remove two blocks!” Others involve polling the group about their carbon-emitting habits, and taking action based on the result –  for example, “Ask each player if they turned the lights off before they left home today? If all of you did, congratulations. Otherwise, shame on you – remove a block!” Finally, a third category prompts players to take action and allows them to skip a turn; for example, one card asks players to call their Massachusetts state representative to voice support for a statewide carbon tax.

A sample of cards from Polar Jenga

Jenga’s end, when the tower falls, is symbolic of the Arctic melting. It’s also a simple, widely known game that can easily engage our audience without much effort on their part. Finally, there is already a dynamic of collective responsibility in Jenga – there’s no winner as the players are essentially working together to keep the tower up, and the loser is whoever lets the group down, which appropriately frames the latter two card types that are based on individual action for the collective good.

With more time, we would definitely invest more time into the design of the Jenga pieces, making them feel more Polar. The game is also very flexible, and we would experiment with adapting it to other contexts – for example, developing a giant version to play outside or in Lobby 10 during Earth Day. It would also be cool to make giant Jenga pieces out of ice and play it at a winter festival. The cards themselves are very flexible, and you could easily add new actions based on different contexts – for example, activist groups could add cards about fundraising for their organizations or signing a petition.