Mental Health Jenga

Role: Creator, Game Designer

Mental Health Jenga combines the classic tile game Jenga with the Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory to create a gameful and visual representation of the impact of stress.

Mental Health Jenga was created as an assignment for the graduate course Games and Rhetoric taught by Mike Treanor at American University.

The goal of the assignment was to create a game whose procedural rhetoric matched the ideological rhetoric. In other words, I was tasked with creating a game whose very actions reflected the game’s message. I chose to use Jenga as a base to create a game about stress and used the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory as an empirical foundation.

This game uses “stacking” as its game verb to replicate in a physical and visual manner how life events and stress effect us as human beings. Based on the “stacking” mechanic, this prototype is based on the game Jenga. In Jenga, players pull out a single tile from a stack and place it on the top. This continues until the tower becomes too unstable and topples. In this version, players draw “stressor cards” which tell them how many tiles they must pull based upon the severity of the event. For example, a traffic violation is minor and would only require one tile pull. Death of a loved one is a major stressor and would require three successive tile pulls. Each removed tile literally leaves a whole in a once solid foundation, destabilizes the tower, and adds its weight to the top of the pile. Similarly, a stressful event depletes one’s resources, make a person feel uncertain and shaky, and adds on to the existing tower of life stress a person faces.

The second aspect of this game is a card component. These cards (amount to be determined) are life stressors and weighted on a scale from 1-3 based on their severity and intensity (as determined by Holmes and Rahe). The player is dealt a hand of three cards and must “play the hand they’re dealt.” The player must remove as many tiles as the card instructs, discard the car, and then draw another card to keep their hand at three cards at all times. The randomness of the deal and the draw reflects the unexpected ways in which life unfolds initially and over time. You never know what’s around the corner.

But it’s not all bad. Within the Jenga deck are several tiles which have been marked as “resource” or “strength” tiles. If a player draws one of these tiles, it may be used to counteract a stressor card. Sometimes, good things emerge from difficulty (referred to as post-traumatic growth) and while drawing a tile is the result of a negative stressor, it can have beneficial outcomes.


1. Stack Jenga tiles according to the official Jenga rules

2. Randomly select 20 Stress cards from the deck of Stress cards. Put aside the remaining 23 (you will not use them this game)

3. Shuffle Stress card deck and deal 4 cards face down to each player. If extra cards remain, create a draw pile.

4. Player must select one Stress cards to put into the Subconscious envelope. Players may look at this card but may not share it with other players

5. Players may look at the remaining three Stress cards. These cards constitute the players ‘hand’

6. Players maintain 3 Stress cards in their hand at all times until draw pile is exhausted

7. Players must choose one card to play per round and players must withdraw and place as many tiles as the Stress card demands

8. Players may not take any tiles located within the top 3 layers of tiles

9. Some of the tiles in the stack have Stress Relievers printed on them. Players may use these tiles to decrease the Stress card value played on their turn or any turn after

10. Players may give a stress relief tile to another player

11. Once the stress relief tile is used, it is discarded for the rest of the game. They may only be used once

12. If a player draws a tile that says “Trigger,” the player must immediately open their Subconscious envelope and play the card within. Remember, players can give Stress Relief tiles to others at anytime

13. To win the game, all players must play all Stress cards, excluding anything in the subconscious envelope

14. Players lose as a team if the tower falls

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