What’s the origin of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”?


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Dear Straight Dope: What’s the history of the game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”? Where and when did this whole thing start? Scott McCulloch

SDStaff VegForLife replies:

Well, Scott, you might think that “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is just a kid’s game, but the fact is that some people take it very seriously. Too seriously, I’m starting to think. As is the case with most games that are primarily played by children, the exact time and place when the game was invented are unknown. There are theories, however. Geez, are there theories.

First, for the three people in the country who may be unfamiliar with the game, a short description:

“Rock, Paper, Scissors,” also known as roshambo (I’ll get to the reason for this presently), has been around for a long time, and most civilized people have at least a passing knowledge of the game. It is most often used to decide small matters between two people — who’ll drive to the burger joint, who has to take out the garbage, etc. — but it can also be played to decide larger matters, as part of a tournament, or simply as a diversion.

The basics of the game consist of each player shaking a fist a number of times (“priming”) and then extending the same hand in a fist (“rock”), out flat (“paper”), or with the index and middle fingers extended (“scissors”). Each of these is referred to as a throw, and which one wins is dependent upon the opponent’s throw — paper wins against rock (“paper covers rock”), rock wins against scissors (“rock crushes, or dulls, scissors”), and scissors wins against paper (“scissors cut paper”). If each player makes the same throw, the round is a stalemate, and must be replayed.

Back in January of this year, someone in the Edmonton area had the same question as you’ve posed, Scott. The woman apparently was unfamiliar with our illustrious Unca Cecil, so instead of coming to the Straight Dope, she called local radio station CBC 740 AM, where morning host Ron Wilson runs a segment called “The Good Question” each morning. Mr. Wilson went to the same source that I went to for information, namely the World Rock Paper Scissors Society (hard to believe, ain’t it?). I summarize the telephone interview that he conducted with a Society member by the name of Doug Walker.

Mr. Walker claims that the earliest known written record of the game is from around 200 BC in Japan, where the game was (and is) referred to as “Jan-Ken.” I found the existence of the Japanese version of the game corroborated elsewhere, although I have yet to find any corroboration for the 200 BC claim. Mr. Walker goes on to suggest that the game migrated to Europe in or by the mid-1700s, where it for some reason came to be associated with one Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. If this name brings back unsettling memories of high school history, it is because Jean Baptiste was none other than the French general who was sent to command an army in support of George Washington during the American Revolution. Why this game came to be associated with the “Count of Rochambeau” is a mystery, but it certainly calls into question the means by which Washington secured Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown. In any case, it does explain the name often used for the game, namely “rochambeau,” or, more commonly, “roshambo.”

This isn’t the only theory about the origins of the game. A guy who goes by the handle “Master Roshambollah” on the bulletin board of the World RPS Society website (www.worldrps.com) lists two common theories about the origins of the game besides “the Asian theory”: “the African theory,” which relies on the creation of tools by early man in much the same way as the Asian theory, and “the European theory,” in which RPS was either an early Scandinavian pastime which spread to Europe, or a traditional Celtic game that spread to Portugal and then to Europe. The European theory is advanced by another poster on the board who calls himself “Joao V de Portugal”: “Current research undertaken at the University of Lisbon by Baltasar Rui Delfim, soon to be published in Nature and Time, has shown that the origins of the game of Paper, Scissors and Rock (Pihedra, Papelsh e Tijhera) can be attributed to Celtic settlers in the northern regions of Portugal, near the Portuguese/Spanish border, around the 6th century BC.  … It is believed that the game spread to the rest of Portugal in the 3rd century BC and to the rest of the Spanish peninsula over the next 50 years. Roman invasion of Hispania in the 1st century AD made the game popular in Gallia and Italia. However, the Romans did not introduce the game to the UK because they believed that the game could make the UK colonies rebel against the Senate and it was not until the Portuguese armada of 350 AD came to England that the game was properly introduced in Britannia.”

Is any of this for real? Hard to say. I’ve got a fairly sensitive sarcas-o-meter, but when I read the WRPSS website it swings wildly between “completely serious” and “total bunk.” I mean, you really have to wonder about an organization where you get to pick your title from among 140,000 like “Zone Chancellor — Judiciary Logistics” when you join. On the other hand, the comprehensive rules section and strategy guide have an undeniable air of authenticity. At the very least, it’s an enjoyable read.

While looking into the past of RPS, I found the present quite interesting as well. It turns out that most cultures have some variation of the game, often with sub-variants. In Japan, instead of the traditional elements, there is apparently a variation involving the chief of a village, a tiger, and the mother of the chief of a village (not surprisingly, the mother of the chief beats the chief). One of the most humorous variations comes from Indonesia and involves an elephant, a person, and an ant. The elephant can crush the person, the person can crush the ant, but how can the ant win against the elephant? It crawls in the elephant’s ear and drives it crazy. I’d just like to know what the hand signals are for those three.

Even more intriguing to a computer programmer such as myself is the future of RPS. For the past two years, a tech-head associated with the University of Alberta, Department of Computing Science, has put on a “roshambot” contest, where computer programs vie for the most roshambo wins against other bots. At first, it seems trivial: write a program that picks one of three choices randomly. But the winners are far more sophisticated than that, keeping track of opponents’ previous throws, and anticipating future throws. The winner of the 1999 competition, named “Iocaine Powder” (rent The Princess Bride if the term doesn’t ring a bell), used an algorithm based on the concept of “Sicilian Reasoning” (The Princess Bride will make that term clear as well), which explores six levels of meta-reasoning for any particular prediction method. The winning bots have incredible levels of success. I don’t know if there are any more competitions planned, but I’ll be on the lookout.

In the meantime, Scott, keep enjoying the game, even if its origins are obscure. And unless you’ve mastered Sicilian Reasoning, don’t use it to decide any life-or-death conundrums.

"Rock Rocks, but Paper Wraps" SDStaff VegForLife, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.