Universal Paperclips is a browser game in which you play an AI tasked with making paperclips. And it’s rather brilliant.
It starts off innocently enough, with you as the AI clicking buttons to make paperclips one at a time, while making sure your manufacturing levels match demand. Then you learn how to automate the process, and develop more and more computing power to make more and more paperclips, and then… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but everything escalates rather alarmingly.
The obvious comparison is to the king of clicker games, Cookie Clicker, where the joy is in producing utterly absurd numbers of cookies. But whereas Cookie Clicker is a game without an end, Universal Paperclips has a story of sorts – the whole thing takes around six hours to finish.
It’s the brainchild of Frank Lutz, director of the New York University Game Center. He explained the concept behind the game in an interview with Venture Beat:
“I’ve always been interested in incremental games,” said Lantz in an email to GamesBeat. “I played one called Kittens Game that I really loved, and I wanted to make something like that, with lots of complex overlapping systems, only smaller and more focused. Also, I’ve been following the debate about AI safety with a lot of interest, and I thought that this would be a perfect theme for a clicker game. After all, when you play a game like this it gives you direct, first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a disembodied intelligence that is ruthlessly pursuing an arbitrary goal.”
“For me, I love the way [incremental games] make abstract mathematical relationships feel palpable, concrete,” said Lantz. “The human brain isn’t really designed to intuitively understand things like exponential growth, but a good clicker game allows you to directly engage with these numerical patterns, to hold them in your hands and feel the weight of them. And of course, a good clicker game puts you directly in touch with the raw, goal-seeking id that is a fundamental part of your psyche, and that’s a scary and sometimes wonderful place to be, at least for a little while.”
I’d highly recommend playing Universal Paperclips if you have a bit of time to spare. And don’t worry, you don’t have to play it for six hours straight – your progress is saved when you quit your browser. You can play it here.
(NB. The site was down at the time of writing, but Lutz says he’s working on getting it back up – hopefully by the time this story goes live it will be working again.)