Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

It All Started With Rock-Paper-Scissors

I guess it all boils down to the lunatic who created rock-paper-scissors in the first place.

Dec 11, 2016

One day, our dog pooped on the mattress. My twin began with his usual autocracy, ordering me to clean up the filth. I suggested that instead we decide with a simple game of rock-paper-scissors. My instinctive show of the palm — the paper — defeated his instinctive fist — the rock. How does paper beat rock though? Let’s get this right — rock beats scissors, scissors triumphs over paper and paper dominates rock. What in the universe gives a sheet of paper the supremacy to destroy a solid block of granite? Are we left to assume that the paper wraps around the rock, smothering the rock into submission? When left to battle paper, is the rock somehow dismantled, unable to execute its prime function of smashing scissors? What constitutes winning in a fight between two lifeless objects? And where do we place scissors in this entire symbolic mechanism?
Not too long ago, I was watching German football team Bayern Munich cruise past a lower team in the German Bundesliga. The usual freekick taker was halted in his way thanks to a tantrum thrown by his fellow teammate eager to take the free kick. How did they decide? Rock-paper-scissors. But that’s not the end of it: in 2005, when Takashi Hashiyama, CEO of Japanese television equipment manufacturer Maspro Denkoh decided to auction off a collection of vintage impressionist paintings, he was forced to choose between two leading art auction houses. The two houses weren’t successful in reaching a consensus as to how they would maximize profits from the sale. Do I need to tell you what decided the winner of the 20 million USD collection? Of course, it had to be rock-paper-scissors.
Let’s start over from scratch. Are we really relying on mere hand actions involving fists and palms to settle important decisions? Can rock-paper-scissors be a fair way to decide various social, political and economic disagreements? Actually, metaphor is the concern. As with rock-paper-scissors, we often let our imagination fill in gaps to make the games we play easier, condoning the intricacies and assumptions that keep the game running without questioning the leaps in thought that are required. We tend to accept something not because it’s true, but because it’s the convenient route to getting things accomplished and the simple way to dodge hurdles. There are even more practical examples, though.
“If you wanted to be 100 [percent] sure of where the electron is you would have to draw an orbital the size of the universe,” says my Chemistry textbook in a tiny, red box just millimetres from the edge of the page. Quite strangely, because the core of molecules and their reactivity phenomena depend on where the valence electron lies, it is technically impossible to precisely answer most questions in chemistry. So have we let cloud of doubt descend over the entirety of the scientific revolution? No, what matters is that the entire scientific community accepts the metaphors that made the scientific revolution possible.
So there you go, this rather silly game of rock-paper-scissors is just a meager depiction of the several everyday mind-bogglers where exactness or literalness is not important: the importance lies in the symbolism.
To be aware of such incomplete assertions, we must challenge the unconscious narratives we attach to the larger games we play — the truths we tell, the lessons we learn, the people we meet. After all, questioning the unquestioned is what will help us answer the unanswered. Or again, maybe everything I just said is trying to get at something else — but I guess it all boils down to the lunatic who created rock-paper-scissors in the first place.
Gaurav Dewani is a contributing writer. Email him at
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