Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the Rock Paper Scissors and the little gray aliens that humans began imagining—or possibly seeing—in the early 20th century.
The 1980s were full of aliens—there was the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., of course, but also endless accounts of alien abduction, including the wildly popular book Communion, which featured an alien on its cover. Alien eggs, in which baby aliens were ensconced in green goo, became a popular toy. And purported eyewitnesses to alien visitation began popping up all around the world. Why the 80s? Maybe in part because in a post-Nixon America, people had lost trust in the government. It suddenly seemed plausible that decades earlier, the U.S. military had captured child-sized alien creatures from a flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico. I mean other conspiracy theories were true.
The thing about all these aliens is they had a lot in common with each other—they were small and hairless, with gray or tan skin, large black eyes, four limbs, and disproportionately large heads. Today, they are known as “gray aliens” or just “grays,” and they’ve become one of the central ways we picture intelligent life on other planets—versions of them appear in all sorts of science fiction movies, but also very commonly in stories of alien abduction, going back much further than the 1980s.
In an 1893 essay called “Man of the Year Million,” the science fiction author H. G. Wells imagined what humans of the distant future might look like. And Wells wrote, “Man is a creature of brain, and must live by that and not by physical strength,” He then goes on to imagine that our mouths will shrink, and we will become hairless and physically smaller, that our eyebrows will disappear. “But the brains grow … and the great soulful eyes”. In short, 115 years ago, H. G. Wells imagined humans of the future as we imagine the aliens of the present.
Then, in 1961, a New Hampshire couple named Barney and Betty Hill experienced an alien abduction while driving home from a vacation. They later described the aliens as resembling little gray humanoids. And because the Hills seemed like normal people, and because they both experienced this alien abduction at the same time, their story was treated more seriously than previous abduction accounts. They reported their story to authorities soon after their abduction, and as the Hills’ story spread, more and more people began to have experiences of being abducted or visited by little gray aliens with large heads and eyes. By the 1990s, according to one study, about half of all alien abduction stories in Australia and the U.S. involved “grays,” 67% of Brazilian abduction stories featured “grays”, and 20% of European ones did. And they also featured in like 80% of X-Files episodes.
I guess I should state here that I don’t believe that little gray aliens visit Earth and periodically abduct people to perform experiments on them. It speaks to our astonishing self-centeredness as a species that when we imagine intelligent aliens, we imagine four-limbed creatures that can stand upright and have roundish heads with mouths and eyes and a nose. We know this isn’t the only way organisms can be—like, we know about dolphins and ants and jellyfish and ravens—but when it comes to properly intelligent life, we imagine ourselves but with bigger brains and great soulful eyes.
Which maybe says something about what we value. As neurologist Steven Novella has written, aliens often “represent both our greatest hopes and our greatest fears.” We imagine them destroying us, or nearly so, everywhere from Independence Day to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But we also imagine them as better than us—wiser and more enlightened. Consider, for instance, E. T. or Arrival. And when we imagine aliens more powerful than ourselves, it makes sense that we would increase the relative size of the organs we associate with power—brains to think, and eyes to see. I mean, it’s no coincidence that one way of saying “I understand” in English is to say, “I see.”
In fact, in abduction stories, the aliens’ huge eyes are often really prominent—one abductee remembers coming to on Earth and immediately telling a friend, “Those eyes, those horrible eyes! They just kept looking at me!” And it also makes sense that the parts of us that we imagine as animalistic or base—body hair, sex organs, physical strength—would fall away, just as they did for Wells’ Man of the Year Million.
Now, reports of alien abductions generally, and specifically reports of abductions by grays, have dropped really dramatically over the last fifteen years—perhaps because aliens are no longer abducting us, but more likely because we aren’t constantly seeing grays on the covers of books and magazines and in movies. Humans are always swimming in an ocean of information, and I think it’s pure hubris to pretend we’re unaffected by the ever-changing tides. It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of the Anthropocene is that we fail to recognize the power our information feeds lord over us. I like to think of myself as immune to advertising and propaganda, but of course I’m not, which is why corporations and interest groups spend so much money on it—I mean, Google alone takes in over a hundred billion dollars a year in ad money, meaning that google’s advertising revenue is larger than the entire economy of Slovenia and Uruguay…combined.
But our information feeds don’t just shape what we buy and believe; they also shape what we remember and experience. A 2002 study with the charming title “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies” found that half of people began to remember having been on a hot air balloon ride that never in fact happened after being shown a doctored photograph; other studies have shown that it’s easy to implant false memories of being lost in a mall in childhood, or of having encounters with the police. Human consciousness is not some sealed vessel. We are born with the brain we’ll always have, but not with the mind we’ll always have.
And so if you surround humans with images of little gray aliens, of course we will start to see little gray aliens—not because we’re delusional or stupid or whatever, but because we’re human. And I say we because I have seen the little gray aliens.
I was around seven or eight years old when I started to believe that my parents, my brother, my classmates, and everyone on earth was a little gray alien. Like a lot of my problems, this one started out as a worry: What if I’m the only actual human being on this planet, and everyone else is an alien who, when I am around, wears a sophisticated human-shaped outfit? This is precisely the kind of unlikely-but-difficult-to-categorically-refute proposition that really engages my obsessive brain, and so I kept spinning around that worry. I wasn’t quite sure why aliens would create a universe in which I was the only actual human; maybe it was to test how human children respond to certain events, or maybe it was to see if human children were smart enough to figure out the alien truth, or maybe the aliens were just bored. Regardless, what started out as a passing thought quickly became an obsessive worry. I would try to reassure myself that of course other humans were human, but then I would hear a story about alien abduction, or I’d start to worry about the odd things that seemed to happen all around me. For instance, why exactly did my parents feel so strongly about me going to bed before 10 p.m.? Was it because the news that came on at 10 p.m. was the alien news with the aliens in their real bodies instead of their human suits? Did my parents take off their human suits when I wasn’t around?
And then there was the light fixture. I started out worrying, and ended up believing, that aliens would enter my bedroom via the light fixture in the ceiling while I was asleep, and then they’d do their alien tests on me. A few times, I even remembered this happening when I would wake up. Of course it might have been a dream, but it also might not have been. To try to catch the aliens coming through the ceiling, I would set my alarm clock for random hours in the middle of the night, but I could never catch them in the act of examining me.
I worried about this, on a daily basis, for years. I knew what the aliens looked like—their large eyes were entirely opaque, knowing everything and revealing nothing. Their heads were big and their mouths tiny. They were grays, and they could put on incredibly sophisticated human suits at a moment’s notice. I was terrified by this fear, but also really embarrassed of it. I recognized that it was wildly narcissistic to even consider the possibility of being the star of such a production, and I just knew that if I told anyone about it, they would laugh at me. Which wouldn’t prove anything anyway—humans would laugh off accusations of being aliens, but so would aliens pretending to be humans.
And so I felt isolated by the worry, alone inside my head, unwilling to risk confessing my fears. I remember feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t banish this thought from my head, couldn’t stop spinning around and within and through it, the prepositions failing as the worry became less something I was in and more something I was.
To be a child, after all, is to live in a world populated by a powerful alien race called grown-ups. And in that sense, at least, my fear wasn’t totally misplaced.
But at some point, it became too much to bear. One night, I sobbingly told my parents about my fear, about the possibility that they and everyone else might be aliens, and that I might be alone in the world. I just knew that they would laugh at me—but they didn’t. They listened. They took me seriously. They reassured me. And the big-eyed little men never again came down through my light fixture.
I give gray aliens two stars.
One of the problems with being a person is that you are constantly making important choices with extremely limited information. If you’re choosing, for example, whether to leave your rural community to pursue job opportunities in a big city, you cannot know whether you will meet the great love of your life in the city, or whether you will instead die in a workplace accident shortly after relocating. Or worst of all, both. Then you’re dead and you’ve left behind a heartbroken soulmate.
At every human turn, inadequately informed choices must be made. Should I marry this person? Should I go to medical school? Should I buy this house? We try to make the best choice based on our limited information and how we prioritize that information. But when you can’t know the future, you can’t know the best choice.
In July of 2007, my wife Sarah and I were about to purchase our first house—the question was, which house? House 1 was older, with mature trees on the property and a huge finished basement. House 2, built in the 1970s, had newer bathrooms and an updated kitchen, but less overall square footage. They were identically priced. We didn’t know which neighborhood we would like better any more than someone applying to medical school knows what it will be like to practice medicine for forty years. So we wrote lists of pros and cons. We wound our way to one conclusion before one of us would turn back. It was simply an unchoosable choice.
And so finally, Sarah had an idea: Rock paper scissors. I would be house 1. She would be house 2. I threw scissors. She threw rock. We bought House 2.
Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game in which opposing players simultaneously choose one of three hand gestures—a closed fist indicates rock, a sideways peace sign indicates scissors, and a flat hand, palm-down indicates paper. Rock crushes scissors; scissors cut paper; and paper covers rock. The game requires no equipment, is just complicated enough to feel strategic, and versions of it have been resolving disputes for millennia.
So-called “finger throwing games” have been around for at least 4,000 years—one is depicted in an ancient Egyptian tomb wall painting—but the game as we play it today originated in China, possibly during the Han dynasty around 2,000 years ago. The original Chinese variation featured different hand gestures to represent a frog, which defeats a poisonous centipede, which defeats a snake, which in turn defeats the frog. The game was played for lots of reasons, but was especially popular as a drinking game and also as a form of foreplay, about which I will not say more on account of how my kids listen to the show.
At any rate, the game spread to Japan in the 17th century, where new tripartite versions emerged—in one, a magical fox defeats a village elder, who defeats a hunter, who defeats the fox. Other communities chose different symbols—in Malaysia, for instance, bird drinks water; water sinks stone; and stone hits bird. An Indonesian version features an elephant, which crushes a person; a person, who crushes an earwig; and an earwig, who crawls into the elephant’s ear and drives it crazy. But by the late 19th century, the most popular version of the game in Japan was jan-ken or jan-ken-pon, which featured rock, paper, and scissors.
A 1932 New York Times article about Japan describes children playing the game to decide who gets a seat on a train car: “The lucky boy is determined by the way he thrusts his hand forward and is allowed to sit down until someone else wins.” An article in Compton’s Encyclopedia the next year called the game “John Kem Po,” and said that it was “such a good way of deciding an argument that American boys and girls might like to practice it, too.” Indeed, they already were—encyclopedias have always been a bit behind young people. Within a generation, American kids were calling the game Roshambeau for reasons nobody really knows but may be down to the longstanding U.S. tradition of being incredibly bad at pronouncing words in other languages. Or, since Rochambeau was a general in the American Revolution, the name might be down to the longstanding U.S. tradition of making everything about our Revolutionary War.
Regardless, over the last several decades, Rock Paper Scissors has become one of the world’s most popular strategies for resolving the unresolvable—and not just when it comes to questions like who should get a seat on the train or which house to buy, but also when it comes to multimillion dollar business transactions, as when a Japanese art collected named Takashi Hashiyama had auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s play RPS to decide which of them would get to sell his collection of paintings. Christie’s won with scissors, beating Sotheby’s paper. The Christie’s representative chose scissors after interviewing 11-year-old twins, one of whom said, “Everybody knows you always start with scissors. Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats paper.”
Of the decision, Hashiyama said, “It probably looks strange to others, but I believe this is the best way to decide between two things which are equally good.” And while I doubt I’ll ever be organizing RPS battles to sell a multimillion dollar art collection, I’m inclined to agree. We like to minimize the role that luck plays in our lives. We like to think that we deserve what we get—but I think “deserving” is the wrong frame for human experience. I don’t deserve the professional success I’ve had; but I also don’t deserve the misfortunes I have thus far survived but will one day not. In life, you don’t deserve what you get, not the good stuff or the bad stuff. Acknowledging that—in our discourse and in our games—seems crucial to me. Otherwise, we end up lauding people for getting one kind of luck or marginalizing them for getting another kind. Obviously, you try to make the best choice available to you, but sometimes with our imperfect knowledge, the choices aren’t obvious. And in a universe that is well and truly indifferent to us, sometimes our best and only shot is to throw scissors and hope the universe happens to answer with paper.
That noted, there are RPS strategies—although most are only useful if you’re playing, say, a Best of 7 RPS match rather than a single game. A 2014 Chinese study found that “if a player wins over her opponent in one play, her probability of repeating the same action in the next play is considerably higher than her probabilities of shifting actions.” Basically, we like to stick with a winner, and so if you lose to rock in one game, you should switch to paper for the next. Then there are the named gambits, in which players decide in advance to throw a certain set of signs—the pattern of paper, scissors, scissors is known as “paper dolls,” whereas throwing paper three time in a row is known as “The Bureaucrat.” But even with all these strategies, computer programs are able to consistently outplay humans, because our RPS patterns are usually predictable and relatively unsophisticated.
But more than that, they’re patterns. We can’t help but create outputs that are affected by previous inputs. Even when we try to embrace and acknowledge randomness, we struggle to, because it’s hard to believe that there was no reason why we ended up in one house, a few doors down from the people who would become our best friends, and not in another house, living a different life, populated by different people. So much of life is built on the sandy foundation of luck, and I’m grateful for games that acknowledge that.
I give Rock Paper Scissors four stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Hale Rojas and Tony Phillips. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown makes the music. Thanks also to August and Brian, who wrote to suggest I review Rock Paper Scissors. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at Anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. Lastly, today’s episode is dedicated to my parents, who could’ve laughed at me so many times, and never did.