The Rock-Paper-Scissors Effect

I was recently watching the DOTA 2 2014 international championships. In these epic games, the best of the best teams play off against each other to find a world champion, this is not unlike many other sports such as soccer or rugby where teams compete for the top spot.

In one particular game, a certain phenomenon occurred to me. Two of the best teams faced off against each other and the one team absolutely thrashed the other team. But in this particular matchup, it wasn’t because the winning team was vastly superior in terms of playing or skill;

It was simply a matter of clashing play-styles.

You see both of these teams had a particular propensity, a particular style that they favoured, and when you face off those two styles against each other in this unique combination, the one flat out whips the other.

I have come to call this the “The Rock-Paper-Scissors Effect”

Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock-Paper-Scissors is an interesting game because it highlights the effect I’m referring to in an absolute sense. In other words, in an unbiased setting, the game contains no other variables but the rock-paper-scissors effect.

In Rock-Paper-Scissors, neither the rock, paper nor scissors is intrinsically “better” than any of the other objects. While playing it, if your opponent has no particular bias, then your chances of winning are equal no matter which object you pick. In this sense, all three of the objects are of equal value, although in particular combinations certain objects “flat-out” beat others.

Life lessons from the Rock-Paper-Scissors effect

Games are complex. If they weren’t complex and challenging, we’d derive little satisfaction from playing them. If a game is non-trivial there are often many factors in play. The Rock-Paper-Scissors effect is just one of many variables that can come into play in a game, and is rarely manifest in such an absolute manner.

I think it’s important for us to understand this effect because of our natural tendency to blindly or brazenly brand certain things “better” than others (especially in sports), and real life is full of a much richer, more nuanced landscape than things being merely “better” than other things. “IOS is better than Android” “Windows is better than MAC” “Liverpool is better than Manchester United” “The US is better than Britain”. We have a natural tendency to look for the best, the smartest, the quickest, the cheapest, but often this is a far too one-dimensional interpretation of a much more beautiful and intricate reality. That’s not to say there is no such thing as “better” or “superior” — quite the opposite, understanding where things are and aren’t actually better revitalises the real meaning of “better” and “best”.

Finally, at a deeper level understanding the rock-paper-scissors effect in its proper place encourages us to move away from the trap of dichotomous thinking; “You’re either with me or against me”, life is not so absolute and not so extreme. Reality is malleable and pliable.

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