5 Things Jenga Can Teach Us About Structural Engineering

Earthquake Forces

The tallest Jenga tower on record was 40 levels, reached using the original Jenga set designed by Leslie Scott herself [source: Museum of Childhood]. Most players are lucky if they can get more than 30 levels before the whole thing comes crashing down. The reason the tower becomes increasingly unstable as is grows is due to uneven weight distribution. When too much weight is located at the top of the structure, it begins to act like a reverse pendulum, swaying back and forth on its narrow connection to the earth [source: FEMA]. In Jenga, the result is a two-minute cleanup. In real life, you'd have a catastrophe.

When structural engineers choose to build in a seismically active region, they need to consider the effects of lateral vibrations on their building. When seismic waves ripple through the earth, they jostle buildings both up and down and back and forth. The up and down bumps aren't as dangerous as the lateral movements, which are more likely to lead to collapse [source: Association of Bay Area Governments].

These side-to-side vibrations are experienced differently at different distances from the ground. The higher you travel up a building, the more pronounced the vibrations. When you throw weight into the equation, the effects can be disastrous. According to the seminal text, "Why Buildings Fall Down," earthquake forces grow in proportion to the weight of the structure and the square of its height [source: Levy].

A top-heavy structure vibrates with a much longer period -- the time it takes to cycle through one complete vibration -- than a bottom-heavy building. A longer period also means a larger physical displacement. Take the example of a two-story building. When an earthquake strikes, the building sways 2 inches (51 millimeters) off center. When you add weight to the top of the same building (even if it's something simple like a heavy tiled roof), the sway increases to 3 inches (76 millimeters) off center [source: Association of Bay Area Governments].

We hope you've learned a few things about why buildings fall -- and what you can do to finally beat your sister at Jenga. For lots more information about family games and everyday science, jump over to the links below.

Related Articles


  • Association of Bay Area Governments. Earthquake and Hazards Program. "Height/Weight Relationship" (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.abag.ca.gov/bayarea/eqmaps/fixit/ch2/sld011.htm
  • Association of Bay Area Governments. Earthquake and Hazards Program. "Period of Vibration" (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.abag.ca.gov/bayarea/eqmaps/fixit/ch2/sld012.htm
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency. Earthquake Handbook. "An Introduction to Structural Concepts in Seismic Upgrade Design" (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.conservationtech.com/FEMA-WEB/FEMA-subweb-EQ/02-02-EARTHQUAKE/1-BUILDINGS/C~-Structures-Intro.htm
  • Levy, Matthys; Salvadori, Mario. Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail. W.W. Norton & Company. 1994 http://books.google.com/books?id=Bwd-MHINMGsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Little, Rg. The Oxford Times. "Demolishing the Jenga Myth." November 12, 2009 (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/news/features/4728039.Demolishing_the_Jenga_myth/
  • Smith, Dan. Wired UK. "How to Beat Anyone at Jenga." June 10, 2011 (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to/how-to-beat-anyone-at-jenga
  • V&A Museum of Childhood. "Jenga" (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/collections/games/jenga/index.html
  • Yes Mag. "The Science of Structures" http://www.yesmag.ca/focus/structures/structure_science.html


Creaking Floors Served as Security Warning System in Ancient Japan

Creaking Floors Served as Security Warning System in Ancient Japan

HowStuffWorks visits Japan to learn more about uguisubari, or nightingale floors, which were features of Nijo Castles and Toji-in Temple.

More to Explore