Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jenga: Simple Rules for a Simple Game

Jenga: a highly popular and simplistic game night essential. It is likely that you’ve played whether you own it or not, and you could probably play right now without being told the rules. You probably don’t remember the first time you played, and you probably don’t remember ever reading the rules of Jenga. Maybe you never did. There are, however, official rules to Jenga. They are a great example of Plain Style in use.
            The activity systems in action in influencing the production of the rules of Jenga include the Hasbro Company and a vast range of players. The thing about Jenga is that it is a universal game truly “fun for all ages.” The box states that the game is for “ages 8 to adult.” This means that their rules need to be readable by players as young as 8 year-olds, but they still must appeal to an older audience. This creates an initial conflict in activity systems. It is difficult to imagine other situations where an author would be writing to such a diverse range of ages. This speaks to the versatility of the game, but would likely be a nightmare for the rule writer. If the rules are written down to eight-year-old intellect and this becomes obvious, older players may be deterred feeling that they are not meant to be playing this game. The secret to the success of Jenga is its simplicity. No one wants to read directions. We are a society focused on instant gratification. When we decide to play a game we want to play immediately. Hasbro however is interested in making sure that we are playing the game that it is intended and so written rules become a necessity. Even inside the company there may be conflict. The makers of the game may prefer a more specific and concrete set of rules, whereas marketing might say there is not room for that in their design of the box. Thus, there is a conflict among activity systems. A plain style that does not condescend is the effective compromise that Hasbro makes to reach the entirety of their audience of player of all ages. This same style delivers the necessary rules as efficiently as possible to avoid stealing too much time from the aforementioned instant gratification lifestyle.
The compromise reached by Hasbro is an effective Plain Style with minimal embellishment to hold the attention of readers of all ages without being overly robotic and monotonous.
            Jenga rules begin with an object (after listing the contents): “Remove one block at a time from the tower, and stack it on top. The last player to stack a block without making the tower fall wins the game!” Simple enough. This bulleted statement uses coordination, but not to complicate the sentence, only to combine sentences to avoid an overly choppy objective. In this objective we also see the repetition of the word block. If the authors of this rule set were more concerned with creating a creative or official style they may have tried to vary the ways they referenced the wooden Jenga blocks, calling them “bricks” or “pieces” or “prisms.” Well, maybe not prisms.
            After the object, the Jenga rules contain directions for set up. The first of these directions reads, “Empty wooden blocks onto a flat surface.” This statement is nothing but plain. It is a set of directions . In terms of “who is kicking who” it is implied that you are the kicker and you are emptying blocks. It may be unnecessary to include this direction as it seems obvious, and this raises questions about writing instructions like these. When is it okay to exclude what you perceive to be obvious?  The writers might have considered leaving this out to respect the intelligence of older players, but is it perhaps beneficial to the 8 year-old portion of their audience?
            The first rule in the next section titled “Gameplay” is as follows, “The player who built the tower goes first. Play passes to the left.” This is an even better example of a clear, active, who kicked who sentence. The player is doing the action of going first.
            The rules continue on like this maintaining simplicity and straightforwardness. The only way that the rules seem to veer away from a strict Plain Style is in the addition of additional information. One gameplay rule states, “As play proceeds and the weight of the tower shifts, some blocks become looser than others and are easier to remove. You can touch other bricks to find a loose one – but if you move a block out of place you must fix it…” Anything before “You can touch other bricks…” is extraneous regarding how to play. Hasbro may have considered leaving this out if there only intention was to present exclusively streamlined Plain Style information. Similarly, there is an entire additional section of the instructions titled “Game Variation – Solo Play.” Here, no new information is presented and the rules do not change except for the fact that only one person takes turns. Also under this section is included a bullet point which asks, “How tall is too tall? Find out when the tower falls!” Again this is unnecessary in terms of communicating the rules of Jenga, but after all it is a game.
            Hasbro does an excellent job finding a happy medium for broadcasting the rules of Jenga, their household favorite to a wide range of audiences while keeping their rules brief and palatable. This compromise involves a mastery of plain style but not a strict utilization thereof. Some extraneous information is added for embellishment. This avoids the monotony of too much text in textbook Plain Style and may be necessary to keep a reader from extreme boredom as caused by plain style even in a brief text. These deviations can be accounted by the massive variety of readers particularly ages.
            So then is there ever a place for an entirely plain style? The variations from a straight plain style in this essay seem to give the rules personality. Writing entirely in plain style would be entirely sterile. The only thing that comes to mind might be a set of precautions, but even then, is a personality-less plain style the best way to get people to listen? I would bet more people could tell you how to play Jenga than what the precautions are on an oven that they use more often than they play board games. I believe there would be some value to talking to people responsible for writing such texts. Much of this discussion is based on inferences about their motives in writing.

Spencer A

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