It is the great equalizer in Korean society; the time-honored method of making any and all decisions; the basis for countless silly little games that entertain all ages; and the greatest tiebreaker known to man. I’m talking, of course, of the venerable game known as Rock, Paper, Scissors; or, in Korean: 가위 (scissors), 바위 (rock), 보 (cloth) — pronounced “kawi, bawi, bo.”
Spend any length of time around Korean children, and you will hear this phrase enthusiastically shouted over and over, sometimes slowly, for dramatic effect — “Kaaawi…baaawi….bo!” — and sometimes rapid fire, when there is a long series of ties — “Kawibawibo! Kawibawibo! Kawibawibo! Kawibawibo!” Kids seem to use Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS) in all kinds of ways, so much so that it hearing it has become a kind of background noise whenever I’m around a group of children.
Obviously, it works for any one-on-one situation. A common way to wile away time for middle school boys is to play RPS, and the winner gets to thump the loser on the head with their finger, or some variation of this punishment. But I was amazed the first few times I saw mass-RPS being used to select an individual, or decide whose idea is used for a group. RPS can be used for any number of people, from 2 on up, but I’d never seen it used as a group activity until Korea (I’ve seen up to about 12 kids play at once). Simply repeat the action as many times as necessary until there are only 2 of the 3 items being shown amongst the group, and the losers are eliminated. This can get quite complicated as the number of people increases, yet Korean children can accomplish it with stunning quickness.
As a teacher in Korea, I quickly realized the awesome power of RPS in the classroom. Its authority is absolute — nobody would dare question the validity of RPS, and I’ve never seen a loser complain (unless accusing the winner of delaying their hand in order to try to cheat). If we’re playing a classroom game, and there is a tie — RPS. If I want participation for an exercise, and 5 students volunteer for 4 positions — RPS. If I ask students to move seats, and two students argue over where to sit — RPS. If we’re playing a group game in teams, and order matters — RPS to see who goes first. Its applications in the classroom are abundant.
Though most widely played by children, RPS is a commonly accepted arbiter for adults, as well. The same rules apply as in the classroom — anytime there is a dispute, or an inconsequential decision to be made, or a volunteer necessary from a group, RPS works every time, with zero argument. At my second school, my office would occasionally eat lunch upstairs in our teacher’s room. After eating, we’d RPS to decide who had to carry the trays back down to the cafeteria.
Adults also use RPS for play. I know (though not from experience) that several Korean drinking games are based off of variations of RPS. At my first school, I attended a teacher dinner where there was a selection of prizes available. Some of them were won based on where we sat, and the rest were awarded after a particularly exuberant game of RPS. One of our favorite games we’ve seen played by whole families, or just kids, is simply RPS while going up or down a set of steps. The winner gets to progress to the next step, while the loser must stay still. Presumably the first person to complete the flight of steps gets to laugh heartily at the loser stuck on the steps forever.
I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if I found out that in the deepest recesses of the Supreme Court building in Seoul, while deadlocked in discussion about an important issue, the 13 adjudicating members of the Court simply eye each other slyly across the table, put one hand behind their backs, and wait for the administrating minister to say “Kaaaawi…..Baaaawi….Bo!”
Miss scale: 7