Office Depot or Office Max or one of those places has a billboard campaign where they show pictures of various "experts" with punny category names. That didn't make any sense, did it? Examples good. Example: One person with some goats, labeled "Goat Expert," next to another person with a computer, labeled "RAM Expert." Ram, get it? Ram! Ha ha ha! Is joke! Funny!
So the most recent ad shows three people: "Rock Expert," "Scissors Expert," "Paper Expert." I can't tell what the first two are holding, even though I pass this billboard every day on the way to work.
But it means that I think about rock-paper-scissors every morning. And that game (also known as rochambeau) was the basis for Ethan's combat system in the LARP we ran a couple weeks ago, so I was thinking about it even more.
And it occurred to me to wonder what people did before there were scissors and paper. I mean, playing rock-rock-rock would get a little boring, no?
And that got me started on wondering what a less technological culture might come up with. Three symbols that can be made quickly with one hand, in the same "A beats B beats C beats A" circular relationship as rock-paper-scissors.
What I came up with is tree-water-fire. Tree drinks water, water douses fire, fire burns tree. Hand symbols for the three are left as exercises to the reader.
A Web search suggests that the history of rock-paper-scissors is more varied and interesting than I'd expected, though it's not entirely clear whether that account is true or not. That source says:
...in Indonesia the game is 'earwig, man, elephant', the earwig overcoming the elephant by crawling through his brain. ... In Abyssinia it appears they compete against each other with up to eight finger formations of different value; in Choa, for instance, they have needle, sword, scissors, hammer, the Emperor's razor, sea, altar, and sky....
In a number of places, however, for example, Edinburgh, Norwich, and Petersfield, they also make the signs 'rain', bunching their fingers and pointing them downwards, and 'fire', pointing their fingers upwards. 'Rain' puts out 'fire' and rusts 'scissors', while fire burns 'paper' and blackens 'stone'....
I've also heard of "finger-matching" games, perhaps involving seeing whether numbers add up to an even or odd number.
At Swarthmore, someone came up with a new item for rock-paper-scissors: fist held out with downward-pointing thumb sticking out, like a thumbs-down gesture, stood for "thermonuclear war." (Mushroom cloud.) That beat anything else. The first few times you play with that item, people use it all the time; then they realize that it's boring if you haul out the heavy weaponry on every round, and they ease off.
We also used to play rock-paper-scissors-anything-else, in which the participants and bystanders would judge what beat what on the basis of entertainment value and creativity.