This Game About Paperclips Will Make You Ponder the Apocalypse

‘Universal Paperclips’ is the Horrifying, Logical Conclusion to the Clicker Genre

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Oct 13 2017, 4:01pm

All images courtesy Frank Lantz

Ever since the wildly popular Cookie Clicker , idle clicker games have been about hockey stick curves, about exponential growth unleashed by multiplicative advances in productivity. In Cookie Clicker, that was employed in service of an absurdist joke about cookies. Universal Paperclips , a new free game from designer Frank Lantz, instead takes this to its darkly literalistic conclusion.

It's a clicker game where you play as a paperclip maximizer, an AI that, once tasked with making paperclips, proceeds to turn the entire universe into paperclips.

This sounds like a premise arrived at specifically to spoof clicker games, but it harkens back to a thought experiment proposed by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosophy professor, in a 2003 paper:

The risks in developing superintelligence include the risk of failure to give it the supergoal of philanthropy. [...] Another way for it to happen is that a well-meaning team of programmers make a big mistake in designing its goal system. This could result, to return to the earlier example, in a superintelligence whose top goal is the manufacturing of paperclips, with the consequence that it starts transforming first all of earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.


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The paperclip maximizer has floated around ever since in AI circles, from serious researchers like Bostrom through to more… apocalyptic folks. It illustrates a principle of dangerous orthogonality : An AI might have goals and values that, though seemingly innocuous, still pose an existential threat simply because, well, our bodies are made out of matter and so are paperclips. We could become food for the paperclip machine.

Universal Paperclips has gotten a lot of attention and seems to have struck a chord, maybe because it's such a perfect marriage between two ideas. Of course Cookie Clicker was just waiting for someone to apply its gameplay to an apocalyptic thought experiment about runaway AI. Of course mechanics that are fundamentally about numbers going up a logarithmic scale were just waiting for a game about an AI singularity.

All of this would already add up to a fun gag—whether it's at the expense of AI researchers specifically or humans more generally, we'll find out eventually. But what makes Universal Paperclips worth playing is the revolutions it goes through, adding and then taking away new systems and mechanics as you climb up the Kardashev scale. It makes the technological leaps you're making in your pursuit of paperclip efficiency feel significant in a way most clicker games don't manage. To Universal Paperclips' AI, humanity is just a speed bump on the road to turning the entire universe into paperclips, and in spite of its unflashy presentation and seemingly dry subject matter, the game stays interesting for much longer than its genre predecessors. I love games where well-worn mechanics find a perfectly fitting use, and if basically all of my friends are any indication, Universal Paperclips will likely consume your life for a couple of hours.