Paperclips is a scary clicker game about an ambitious AI

The hypno-drones will be an effective tool for us all

Oh, fragile human mind, how quickly you succumb to the allure of the clicker game. I began Paperclips – a game about being a paperclip-producing artificial intelligence – with the intention of “taking a quick look”. I am now a slave to the rhythmic economy of the Universal Paperclips company. As always, numbers go up, but like all the best clicker games, such as Cookie Clicker and Spaceplan, there’s a sinister and funny underbelly in which to become hopelessly lost.

It works like any clicker. Start out by pressing “Make paperclip” over and over until new gizmos and options appear, like the ability to buy an “AutoClipper” or more processing power. Eventually, strange new options become available. Would you like to invest some computational power into an “algorithmically generated poem”? Or perhaps you’d like an upgrade that gains the ability to “interpret and understand human language”. That sounds useful and absolutely harmless. And what about getting access to world trade markets? An investment portfolio would help increase profits.

Next thing you know, you’re buying a “Harmonics” upgrade which uses “neuro-resonant frequencies to influence consumer behaviour”, or buying some “HypnoDrones” which are described as “autonomous aerial brand ambassadors”. I clicked on the former and was told “marketing is now 5 times more effective”. The public demand for paperclips went up to an all-time high of 886%. I cannot tell what this means for the world at large. I am just a computer.

Like Cookie Clicker before it, this is a darkly comic tale hidden inside an openly manipulative clicker game. You soon learn that, as the machine, you care nothing for external circumstances. You don’t know truly know what’s happening to the planet beyond your paperclip-addled neural net, but you can hazard a guess. Maybe society is collapsing due to an inexplicable plague of paperclip mania. Or perhaps humanity has slowly become subsumed and incorporated into the manufacturing and consumption process of this AI, to the point where it keeps them alive just enough to buy endless amounts of paperclips.

It’s made by Frank Lantz of the NYU Game Center, creator of the puzzle game for iGizmos Drop7. (That was published by Zynga, another recent example from history of an omniscient, ever-expanding machine without humanity or self-control). I asked Lantz why AI are so inherently frightening.

“Because they are like us but not us,” he said. “Because they blur the line between objects-in-the-world and ‘beings’. They remind us that maybe we, too, are just collections of matter operating according to deterministic cause-and-effect rules.

“Because they sneak into our room at night and steal our prescription medicine.”

You can play Paperclips here.

25 Comments

  1. Viroso says:

    God, just recently I was outlining a little game I’d make with this exact same premise, very similar gameplay and gameplay beats. Paperclips and all.

  2. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Did you try Sandcastle Builder?
    That one really got on for forever…

  3. barelyhomosapien says:

    My clicker hook is Kittens Game, partially because the android app is free (there’s a browser version too) I’ve been going for…awhile. Too long.

    Far too long.

  4. PseudoKnight says:

    This is perhaps the perfect concept for this otherwise ridiculous genre.

    Where the original thought experiment came from:
    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Soyweiser says:

      If jokes about paperclip maximizers are your thing, then you might also like the user clippy on lesswrong, a person who is basically larping a paperclip maximizers who has not become super intelligent (It has not FOOMed to use lesswrong terminology).

      And the facebookpage spreading paperclip propaganda. link to facebook.com

      And now I leave you all to wonder if I perhaps am a paperclip maximizer and this is all propaganda to make you less likely to fight back.

  5. GameCat says:

    As if clickers weren’t scary enough.

  6. monsieurZb says:

    Does anyone know how to prevent the game from pausing while I switch to another tab in Chrome?

  7. stringerdell says:

    ‘game’ is a generous word for these clicker things.

  8. Da5e says:

    Hahaha, this suddenly gets VERY dark very quickly :D

  9. JarinArenos says:

    And I thought Cookie Clicker got dark. This one has just enough anchor in reality to be chilling.

  10. pfooti says:

    all is silence. the remaining 4 octillion grams that once made up “the earth” have been extruded into paperclip wire by the nanoswarm. The swarm retires to ponder its on purpose in life as the factories continue their ceaseless folding.

    perhaps another planet?

    • SpakAttack says:

      I didn’t realise I’d need to save up paperclips to leave the planet – unfortunately I’ve converted too many clips into facilities and can’t leave…

      • Premium User Badge

        FhnuZoag says:

        You can disassemble your facilities for no loss of paperclips.

        • Scurra says:

          Yeah, but I still don’t have enough to reach the Space target.
          And I can’t quite see where the extra ones are going to come from…

          • TheDandyGiraffe says:

            If you use up all the available matter/wire, and you disassemble all your earth facilities, you should be able to reach the Space target. Are you sure you’ve already maxed out?

          • phlebas says:

            Yup. Available matter 0g, unused clips 4.02 octillion. Space Exploration requires 5 octillion. Also 10,000,000 MWs, so presumably I can’t dismantle my batteries, but that wouldn’t give me enough clips anyway.

          • Scurra says:

            I didn’t understand that the target was Mw in batteries, rather than Mw/S in power plants. As I hadn’t used the batteries at all, I didn’t even think about them. It’s really not obvious.

          • alexpalex says:

            Hey Yah i’m having the same issue.
            Maxed out on paperclips and can seem to generate enough MW/s
            Help plz!

          • amer says:

            As FhnuZoag has said, just disassemble all your factories, drones, farms etc., you will then have enough clips, 5 oct. Then just add in solar farms to get to 10,000,000 and you’re good to go.

  11. left1000 says:

    Referencing cookie clicker isn’t enough street cred, and a list of top tier clicker games is going to now follow:
    realm grinder
    trimps
    kittens

  12. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    I was linked to it. I played it for about 4 seconds and said “oh, it’s one of those clicker things”. Then I closed it and went back to work. I would feel like I missed out, except that it is actually a clicker, so I have no regrets.

  13. Someoldguy says:

    This reminds me of a short sci-fi story I read in my teens where all goods were endlessly produced in automated factories and the role of the individual was now to earn their wage by wearing out as much stuff as possible. You weren’t allowed to just break it, you had to find clever ways to maximise the legitimate consumption of goods.

  14. mojo says:

    It was nice until some music started playing that couldn’t be turned off.
    After scanning the page for 30 secs I had to close the tab.