Everyone knows how to play rock, paper, scissors – or scissors, paper, stone – which is a game designed primarily to help us settle a dispute or make an unbiased group decision, similar to tossing a coin. Here are some facts about this childhood game that you may or may not know.
The design of the game
With only two possible outcomes – a draw or a win – it’s a simultaneous, zero-sum game. It’s impossible to win over a truly random opponent, but skilled players can recognise and exploit non-random behaviour in opponents.
Some video and card game characters are designed to interact in a rock paper scissors style with each other. For instance, the cavalry–artillery–infantry dynamic prevents the gameplay from being overwhelmed by a single dominant character or unit. In Pokémon, the Grass-type character is weak to Fire, Fire is weak to Water, and Water is weak to Grass.
The same principle applies in nature, particularly in bacterial ecology and evolution when they engage in antibiotic production. This allows for the continued competition among strains.
Origin of the game
Originating in China during the Han Dynasty, it was called shǒu shì lìng. It eventually made its way to Japan, where it evolved into jan-ken (or jan-ken-pon) by the late 19th century, which uses the rock, paper, and scissors signs that we know today. Both versions were originally drinking games.
How it’s played around the world
“Rock, paper, scissor” (RPS) is known by different names worldwide – in Germany you can find “Schnick, Schnack, Schnuck” or “Ching, Chang, Chong” depending on region; in France it’s “Pierre-Feuille-Ciseau”; and in parts of the USA it’s “ro-sham-bo”. Some games are played differently:
Korea: Players call out “(An naemyeon jingeo) Gawi, Bawi, Bo” (scissors, rock, wrapping cloth), or “kai, bai, bo”, but the “scissors” is sometimes represented by an extended thumb and index finger, resembling a gun. There’s also a two-hands version: gawi, bawi, bo starts off with two hands thrown, then players call out “ehseo hana bbagi il” (one minus one) and extend one hand they’re playing.
Another variant is “muk-jji-ppa”, which starts as a regular RPS game – then the winner yells out their next hand (followed by the hand gesture), and if the opponent makes the same hand, the opponent loses.
Singapore: In this two-hand game, players call out “Ji, Gu, Pa” [following Japanese word for scissors (choki), rock, and paper] and throw out both hands, following the Korean “muk-jji-ppa” rules in order to get players reduced to playing with one hand. The final hand is played like normal rock, paper, scissor.
Malaysia: “One, Two, Zum” is played as bird, water, stone; the bird (with fingers mimicking a beak) replaces the role of scissors and water replaces paper.
While the game is primarily played between two parties, you can also play it as a group. Players all throw at once. If rock, paper, and scissors are all thrown, they rethrow until only two gestures are thrown. The ones with the upper hand (ie. scissors over paper) will win.
Weird, modern variants
RPS can also be played with additional weapons – as long as it’s in odd numbers – to reduce the chances of a tie. “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” was popularised on the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Spock (Star Trek Vulcan salute) smashes scissors and rock; he’s poisoned by lizard (fingers mimicking a beak) and disproved by paper. Lizard poisons Spock and eats paper; it’s crushed by rock and decapitated by scissors.
There’s also a full-body version called “Bear, Hunter, Ninja” made popular by a FedEx ad. Players have their backs to each other, and then turn to face each other after yelling “Bear, Hunter, Ninja”, using their bodies to mimic the bear (hands like extended paws), hunter (holding a rifle), and ninja (holding a sword). Hunter shoots bear, bear eats ninja, and ninja kills hunter.
- There’s an official World Rock, Paper, Scissors Association (WRPSA), and they hold regular tournaments worldwide. Membership is free.
- 27 August is Rock, Paper, Scissors Day
- Kpop group BTS are WRPSA ambassadors – they play the game as a group to make decisions