What is the right way to play Rock Paper Scissors? No, I’m not talking about how to win at the game, though there is plenty of research and guidance, both academic and popular, on that, should you be looking for it. I’m talking about the cadence of each round itself: When do you throw your sign? Do you throw on a count of three—”rock, paper, scissors“? Do you throw on four—”rock, paper, scissors, shoot“? Or do you, like me and millions of wise, handsome people, do what got me so mercilessly mocked by my co-workers this week, and throw on a count of five—”rock, papers, scissors says shoot“?
All logical people agree on the value of RPS, which has been used to settle everything from points of law to soccer kick-offs, but there is widespread disagreement on the proper way to count off before throwing. This count-off is called “priming,” with the throw being the “delivery,” and oh buddy, you’d better believe that it’s taken seriously at the highest level. But informally, there remains a great deal of variation in priming, almost entirely geographic.
We at Defector learned a lot this week about each other. Everyone else learned that I’m supposedly a weirdo for including “says shoot” in each round of RPS, while I learned that no one else does this. This came as a shock to everyone involved. We’re all neighbors on this big space rock, but we live in different worlds, apparently. It came up because we were discussing Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni challenging potential draftees to games of Rock Paper Scissors, which no doubt sheds much light on their psyches. Are they fans of brute force who favor rock? Are they cunning paper men? Or are they total freaks who prefer scissors and should be avoided at all costs? You get the picture.
That led to some casual investigation of the history of the game, which, thanks to Wikipedia, we learned has origins in a family of games called sansukumi-ken, “meaning ken (fist) games where ‘the three who are afraid of one another.'”
The earliest Japanese sansukumi-ken game was known as mushi-ken (虫拳), which was imported directly from China. In mushi-ken the “frog” (represented by the thumb) triumphs over the “slug” (represented by the little finger), which, in turn prevails over the “snake” (represented by the index finger), which triumphs over the “frog”.Wikipedia
This is dumb. Who ever heard of a slug beating a snake? Rock Paper Scissors is much better, though perhaps not as good as the modern Indonesian variant, where
the game is called suten, suit or just sut, and the three signs are elephant (slightly raised thumb), human (outstreched index finger) and ant (outstreched pinky finger). Elephant is stronger than human, human is stronger than ant, but elephant is afraid of the ant.Wikipedia
From there talk naturally led to our own strategies for the game, and for ensuring a level playing field—how do you keep players (especially children) from cheating by waiting a split second to throw their sign, and potentially getting to see their opponent’s? The answer is priming, but that’s about all we were able to agree on. The following transcript from our work chat is lightly edited for clarity:
Wags if you both do it on “shoot” you can’t really hold off imo
we should have a RPS tourney one day
when we’re back in an office
Barry Petchesky let’s do it over slack
Luis Paez-Pumar RPS over zoom
Barry Petchesky rock paper scissors says
i played rock
Luis Paez-Pumar SAYS???
Luis Paez-Pumar What the fuck Barry
Barry Petchesky yeah rock paper scissors says shoot
Luis Paez-Pumar No.
Barry Petchesky you assholes
Luis Paez-Pumar What.
Luis Paez-Pumar It’s just Rock Paper Scissors shoot
Luis Paez-Pumar This mf said says
Maitreyi Anantharaman says???
Wags this mf!!!
Maitreyi Anantharaman i am doing a real life lol at “says”
Tom Ley barry is in mf mode
Barry Petchesky what the hell
giri barry learned the game from mr. rock paperscissors
Tom Ley barry went mf mode and said says!!!!!!!
Albert Burneko i’ve def never heard “says”
Luis Paez-Pumar Barry’s in the slack room showing says
Samer i’ve heard a word between “scissors” and “shoot” but i didn’t realize it was “says”
i thought it was like a tic or something
Kalyn Kahler its SHOOT
Maitreyi Anantharaman what does this even mean barry, am i to believe a rock, paper and pair of scissors are saying “shoot”??
Kalyn Kahler i was going to ask
who is the narrator here
giri if that were the case maitreyi this mf can’t manage subject-verb agreement
Maitreyi Anantharaman Rock, paper! Scissors says, “Shoot.”
Wags drag his ass
Albert Burneko maybe it’s like a Holy Trinity type of deal, where they’re a triune figure
giri mr. rock paperscissors up on 12th st
Maitreyi Anantharaman the father, the son and the holy scissors
Drew This is Barry’s duck duck grey duck
Kelsey McKinney SAYS?
Anyway, you get the idea. They were all very rude to me.
I swear I was not just pulling this out of my asshole, though. I grew up playing with “says,” and only with “says.” Surely I cannot be alone. I did a Twitter poll and it was, uh, not received warmly. But 12 percent is not zero percent!!
As you’ve probably already surmised, how you play appears to be a regional quirk of where you grew up. Much of the Western U.S. plays with the three-count, shooting on “scissors.” Centered on the populous Northeast is a bloc that prefers “rock, paper, scissors, shoot.” And within that range is a small enclave, comprising just New York City and Long Island, which plays with “says shoot.” Here’s a short blog on that, from a Cornell professor for a course about human networks.
“Says shoot” is played in a very limited geographic area—it includes me, since I grew up in Manhattan, but not Giri, who grew up in North/Central New Jersey—but I would argue it’s the best version. It extends the drama before each throw, and rhythmically, it’s just more pleasing: there’s a reason so much popular music has a four-count start with the song (the throw!) truly coming in on the fifth beat. Yet I concede that it’s uncommon, as just about every thread on RPS etiquette acknowledges.
So what’s “correct”? Even that is up for debate. The World Rock Paper Scissors Society’s international standards on priming mandate “rock, paper, scissors, shoot,” with the delivery on shoot. You can see that here, and you’ll see it in most internationally sanctioned tournaments.
But Americans are stubborn in all things, so at many informal and unsanctioned domestic competitions, you’ll see the more rapid three-count, with the delivery on “scissors”:
I am led to three inescapable conclusions about proper priming for Rock Paper Scissors:
- Agree on the rules ahead of time. Do not assume your opponent plays the same way you do!
- “Says shoot” is valid, damnit.
- Shun all who call the game “Roshambo.” They are the true aberrants.