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How many people can I play rock-paper-scissors with in a day?

I don’t know why I thought I had time to do this…


I’m David, a computer scientist fresher from Churchill, and I spent an entire day trying to play rock-paper-scissors with people around Cambridge! That meant finally asking a question to a lecturer (my greatest fear), walking up to strangers, calling friends I hadn’t seen in months, and being rejected more times than the average NatSci.

Why am I doing this? Like most teenagers, I find it difficult to approach people and I thought this would be a good way to overcome that. Would I improve at this complex and deeply nuanced game? Probably not. But I might meet some new people and at least it’s a fun story.

Practising before the day! Image credits: David McIntosh

So here’s the challenge: I have one 24-hour period to try and play rock-paper-scissors with as many people as possible. All the games need to be face-to-face or on a video call, and I’m not allowed to play with someone more than once. I’m also not allowed to use weapons to threaten people into playing. I don’t own any weapons, so that’s not really relevant.

Preparation

I do have a slight journalistic conscience, so I thought I should do some research and skimmed the official 195-page rock-paper-scissors strategy guide to see what I could learn. It included a bizarrely intricate responsibility code (“Think twice before using RPS for life-threatening decisions”) and a thorough analysis of different strategies (“The scissor sandwich is an invasive and devious gambit”). It also suggested that strip rock-paper-scissors could be a good way to bring couples together. Intriguing.

The book also recommended the Urbanus defence: a clever strategy you can use in best-of-three games by intentionally losing your first game, lulling your opponent into a false sense of security. If that’s not your speed, you could instead try the Urbanus offence, performed by intentionally winning your first game to put your opponent on the defensive. I started to wonder if this book was going to be useful.

I did learn that rock was slightly more common, particularly among young men. Of course, this is because of our insatiable desire to assert our aggression. Paper is the rarest of the three. Whatever. I didn’t really care about winning games, so I thought I’d do what all the worst rock-paper-scissors players do, and go with whatever I felt like at the time.

I did learn that rock was slightly more common, particularly among young men. Of course, this is because of our insatiable desire to assert our aggression. Paper is the rarest of the three. Whatever. I didn’t really care about winning games, so I thought I’d do what all the worst rock-paper-scissors players do, and go with whatever I felt like at the time.

I woke up at 5 am. Someone had set the toaster too high, and in my foolishness, I didn’t notice until it was too late. Not a good start to the day. Clutching the charred remains of what once was bread, I dragged myself out of the building and cycled to the boathouse.

I’m a cox for my college’s rowing team, which means I get to wake up at sunrise to sit in a boat screaming at people. It’s an absolute joy. Even better, I had spied my first competitors. The Women’s second team were preparing to row. I rushed down to meet them, and by some amazing coincidence, defeated all 9 of them in glorious hand-to-hand combat.

I barely managed to challenge my own crew before we hopped into our trusty rowboat and glided down the river Cam. I’m only really supposed to give instructions and advice when coxing. Still, I have a microphone and no one can really stop me, so I periodically stopped the boat so we could admire the sunrise and all the pretty scenery. It was a beautiful morning.

Playing with my crew. Image credits: Agno Kachapilly

8 am

As I was cycling back I spotted a dog walker. I convinced myself he was desperate for a stranger to ask him to play rock-paper-scissors, and only I could be the one to make his dream come true. After a predictably awkward introduction, I deftly played paper, which would have been a fantastic counter-play to his rock. Alas in my hubris, I hadn’t even considered that he might play scissors. I never stood a chance.

I cycled back with a huge grin on my face. Maybe it was the ridiculousness of the whole situation, or because I wasn’t expecting people to be so helpful, but that silly moment with someone I’d never see again really cheered me up. I hope he found it amusing too.

So I kept playing. I played with a porter who had never played before. I played with someone I met at a crossing. I played with a group of people I stopped on the street and watched their amusement turn to pity as I lost every game.

I decided to walk to lectures because I thought I’d find the most people in town. This turned out to be totally wrong, and I barely played with anyone there. I was quite aware that I was a young adult male on my own, so I limited my options to groups who looked like they’d be comfortable if a stranger spoke to them. I didn’t want to annoy or inconvenience anyone, so anyone in a rush, anyone wearing headphones, anyone in conversation… they were off-limits too. And that didn’t leave many people. People don’t want to be approached in an environment filled with strangers. And that’s fair enough.

10 am

I arrived at lectures, played with all the people I could see, and settled in for an enjoyable hour of algorithms. I can’t remember much of it, but it did feel like it was important. The operating systems lecture was similarly baffling, and I stuck around to challenge my lecturer, who probably assumed my question would be more technical than “can we play rock-paper-scissors?”

I went shopping, had lunch, did some work, cycled to labs, went to another lecture, did more work, cycled back, read through camfess and fell asleep.

Honestly, this is fair. Image credits: Facebook @2Cam2Fess

I woke up an hour later. What was I doing? Sleeping when there were more games to play? What would I say when my grandchildren asked what I’d done on this exact day? That I’d fallen asleep when the world needed me most?

No. The night was still young, and I had scissoring to do.

I checked my clock and it was 4:30 pm. My sleep schedule really is messed up.

5 pm

Rejuvenated from my nap, I grabbed a pizza and went to meet up with some other coxes. We had a great time discussing bumps, which is the big upcoming inter-college rowing tournament. From what I understand you have to throw a chain in the river when you hear cannon, and then try and crash your boat as soon as possible. Anyway, I had to leave early because I’d booked tickets for a play my friends were performing.

At least it wasn’t raining… Image credits: David McIntosh

Unfortunately, I didn’t leave anywhere near early enough because I found myself sprinting back through town, my suit flapping through the wind as I dodged bikes and cars. I did scream “Rock! Paper! Scissors!” at someone but I’d run past them before I could hear their response.

8 pm

I made it to the theatre just in time… and then realised it was the wrong theatre… in completely the wrong part of Cambridge. Back to running.

I got there eventually, and during the break, I talked to the two people I was sitting with. They were lovely, and it turned out they were the housekeeping staff for one of my friends in the play. His room is so untidy, they were concerned for his well-being, and that’s how they know him! Fun stuff. Of course, the whole time I was analysing their personalities so I could win the next game. I played rock-paper-scissors with them, and I managed to catch a lot of the cast as they came out too.

11 pm

I met another friend and we went to get ice cream. It had been quite the day so all I really wanted to do that night was snuggle up and watch a film. At 2 am, I found myself walking back through town one more time. In a way, things looked different to before…. but that might just be because it was night-time.

My best attempt at a night selfie. I was tired ok… Image credits: David McIntosh

Conclusion

And that concludes my rock-paper-scissors adventure!

Overall, I played 73 people and won 38 games, which leaves me with a pathetically predictable 52 per cent win-rate. 21 of those people were complete strangers. Five of them were online. Only four people refused to play, and three of those were people I knew. I drew with someone seven times in a row, the longest game I played. My longest win streak was nine.

Did I learn anything from this? Not much!

It does feel easier to talk to strangers now, and it also feels a lot more fun. Most people here are really nice. If they’ll waste a minute playing a silly little game, then they’ll probably be happy to take a minute to have a chat or say hello. Obviously, that doesn’t mean to be a creep, and there are a lot of situations where people wouldn’t want you to approach them. But a lot of people are really cool and are just as eager to talk to someone as you are.

I also didn’t realise that I saw so many people each day, or that I had so many friends. That makes me feel really warm. It’s nice to think that there are so many beautiful people, living their beautiful lives, and playing their beautifully stupid games of rock-paper-scissors. And I get to be there too.

David playing scissors against a rock on a pedestal.

Playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with a rock. I lost… Image credits: LT Stockmann