The Rock-paper-scissors game

Regular visitors to Reeko’s Mad Scientist Lab know that on occasion, Reeko likes to pull their leg (meaning he tricks them). Reeko doesn’t do this to confuse the little scientists but rather, to make sure they stay on their toes (meaning walking around on your toes makes it harder to have your leg pulled). What follows is a true news story and not one of Reeko’s sneaky tricks.

Chinese discover there is more to Rock-Paper-Scissors than meets the eye

Scientists in China have studied the Rock-Paper-Scissors game and released findings that indicate the game is more than a simple game of chance. Indeed, there is a strategy that can be used to win at Rock-Paper-Scissors. Seriously, we’re not making this stuff up. We could discuss the ins and outs of how scientists obtain the money they use to fund their research but hey, we’ll keep it fun today and just tell you how to win at the game.

Game Theory and the Rock-Paper-Scissors game

Game theory is a real type of math that studies how people make decisions. In the past, game theorists believed the best strategy to choose in Rock-Paper-Scissors was to just randomly choose a weapon (a rock, piece of paper, or scissors). Over the long run, this gives you an equal chance at winning. You and I just read this and said “Duh” but Chinese scientists scratched their heads and said, “There must be a better way.” Through the wonders of science they found that although the strategy may look random, there is actually a predictable pattern, one that nobody has noticed to date and one that may give the Chinese a Rock-Paper-Scissors advantage over the United States.

The Chinese scientists carried out their experiment with 360 students from the Zhejiang University, one of China’s oldest institutions of higher learning. The scientists divided the students into 60 groups of players and set them to war with each other. During their rock-paper-scissors war, the players played out 300 rounds of the game while scientists carefully recorded the result of each and every game. The results surprised them.

On average, most players chose each action, either rock, paper, or scissors, about one third of the time. Since there are three possible actions to choose from, this made perfect sense and the scientists beamed proudly at their accomplishment. But then the scientists noticed something else, a behavior that could give a rock-scissors-paper player an edge over his competition. Some players tended to stick with the same action each time while the ones that switched, tended to switch to the next action in a clockwise direction, meaning they often chose paper after they chose rock, scissors after they chose paper, and rock after they chose scissors.  The players that stuck with the same action each time tended to win the game more often.

The scientists were stunned and after picking themselves up off the floor (rumor has it that some actually feinted) realized that they had just witness what is called a “conditional response”. They put their remarkable finding in scientific words and announced:

“This game exhibits collective cyclic motions which cannot be understood by the Nash Equilibrium concept but are successfully explained by the empirical data-inspired conditional response mechanism.”

Meanwhile, across the ocean, American scientists rolled their eyes and offered their interpretation of the results: “People tend to stick with a winning strategy.”

And that’s the truth, straight from Reeko’s mouth.

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