Rock Water Tree. The Latest Iteration of an Ancient Game

Tree and Rock caught in an ongoing struggle. Though the eventual victor is clear. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

I was walking in the woods recently when I noticed a tree fighting majestically to grow straight, even as a jagged boulder stabbed into its trunk. This rock certainly appeared to be taking its toll, but then again it will probably help prop up this tree for decades to come. At least until freeze after freeze year after year creates enough micro-fractures to crack that part of the boulder off.

And suddenly it clicked: why, why, do we still play Rock Paper Scissors? We should be playing Rock Water Tree! When someone once told me to say “Treeeees” instead of “Cheeese,” when smiling for photos, I could never go back—and have said and have prompted others (while taking photos) to say “Treeees” ever since. Same here.

Rock Water Tree is essentially the game of Rock Paper Scissors but with a significant language upgrade—one that includes a science lesson in the bargain:

  • Rock beats Tree, as this example demonstrates, or even better, as do the downed trees one regularly find where hundreds of rocks are wedged in their roots, having impeded their root growth and eventually triggered their downfall.
  • Tree beats Water, drawing up water, through its roots into its trunk and sending it back into the sky to continue its hydrological journey.
  • Water beats Rock. While it may take centuries or even millennia, water will slowly wear away or freeze rock into sand and soil.
Rock, Water, and Tree in an epic battle. (Erik Assadourian)

Of course, there are counterexamples to all of these. Rushing floodwaters will rip up trees. Trees weave around rocks. Rocks stay safe from erosion for millions of years due to their placement. But if you want to be pedantic, then you could say the same thing about rock, paper, and scissors. A crumbly rock won’t win against strong steel shears; a small piece of paper can’t cover a boulder (and even a large piece will probably just blow away); and even the sharpest scissors can’t cut through a thick stack of papers. So this original game is as nonsense as the new one—minus the useful lesson and Earthy-framing.

Also, the transition to the new version is simple. The symbols for Rock and Water (Paper) can basically stay the same. Scissors becomes your fingers pointing downward like roots entering the earth (or if you can’t visualize that like Thing from the Addams Family when he’s walking). And, for the strategists reading, in this version, players throw Rock not as a sideways fist, but as a fist knuckles down—like you would a punch. (And during the countdown the wrist also stays down.) Thus, with all throws, the wrist stays down, reducing any tells on which sign you’re going to throw. (In the official rules of Rock Paper Scissors—yes those really exist—one starts with a sideway fist and must rotate their wrist for Paper).

The Roots of the Game

Slug Frog Snake from the Kensarae sumai zue (1809) via Wikipedia. Or possibly Centipede Frog Snake, another evolution of the game.

Now I suggested that Rock Paper Scissors was the original, but that’s not exactly true. I had no idea until I started writing this reflection, but it turns out this game was conceived during the Han Dynasty 2200 years ago in ancient China! The first version, “Shoushiling,” seems to have focused on three animals that were afraid of each other: slug, frog, and snake.* It migrated to Japan—taking on the name of Sansukumi-ken (the three who are afraid of each other + fist game) and took a variety of other forms, including: Kitsune (a supernatural fox), Village Chief, Hunter (fox beats chief, chief beats hunter, hunter beats fox)—a version that interestingly used both hands.

Eventually the most common variant became Rock Cloth Scissors, which, as it migrated to the United States (possibly with Japanese immigrants), it evolved yet again to its current form. Though to be fair, the true origin, like everything else, is nature. Scientists have found the common side-blotched lizard incorporates sansukumi into its mating strategy, with male lizards with orange throat colors beating blue colored males in competition for females, blue beating yellow, and yes, yellow beating orange.) I could go on, but you get the point.**

Blue beats Yellow. But look out for Orange! (Photo by Judy Gallagher via Wikipedia)

Evolving a Game

Of course, intentional linguistic changes are rarely easy, including in this case. It turns out there is a passionate Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) community out there, complete with annual RPS tournaments organized by the World Rock Paper Scissors Association. But a good starting point would surely be the outdoor education community—a community that should see the value in this new ecoeducational version—as it can prompt observation of the processes of tree growth, erosion, and the hydrological cycle. And language and games certainly change. After all, if Sansukumi-ken could morph from Slug Frog Snake to Kitsune Chief Hunter then to Rock Cloth Scissors, it can certainly evolve again from Rock Paper Scissors to Rock Water Tree!

So next time you need to decide who gets to go first, or who gets to auction off millions of dollars of your precious art collection (as Takashimi Hashiyama did with Rock Paper Scissors in 2005), tell ‘em we’ll decide by playing Rock Water Tree.***

When you’ve gotten good at Rock Water Tree, add another level to your game by adding a sword and helmet (cardboard-based only please). I tried this with my son and we had a laugh!****


*I couldn’t find exactly how these three animals didn’t like each other (frogs sometimes eat snakes, but also slugs, and snakes eat slugs too. No clear explanation of what a slug does to the snake). But this Indonesian version certainly is striking: Man Elephant Earwig. Elephant tramples the earwig, man crushes the earwig, and the earwig crawls up the trunk of the elephant and eats its brain, teaching players about parasitism in the process.

**Ok, if you insist. There is research on bacteria following these strategies as well, as this Nature article discusses. Sansukumi may be nature’s way of increasing diversity—and thus evolutionary potential—in different species.

***And if you wanna win, then read (and adapt) these strategic considerations that the WRPSA details. There is far more strategy involved than I had realized. Probably why emperors used to play this game!

****COVID note: long cardboard tube and face masks suggested!

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