Every once in a while, the impressionable, distraction-seeking denizens of the internet (i.e. all of us) fall into the unbreakable thrall of a new idle clicker game. You know the type: those digit-heavy minimalist games that are all about setting a seemingly infinitesimal process in motion so you can sit back, watch the numbers climb, leave it running in another tab, and, depending on how ambitious its creators are, reveal some sort of strange meta-game that lies beyond the simple facade. But even without the added intrigue of more mysterious examples like Candy Box and A Dark Room, there’s a shamefully primitive thrill to watching a clicker do its work, prodding the process along just enough to get the sense that those meters filling mean you’re accomplishing something.
Just yesterday, another of these games popped up to grab hold of unsuspecting players. Called Universal Paperclips, it was created by Frank Lantz, a game designer and the director of New York University’s Game Center. Over the last 48 hours, it’s seemingly destroyed the productivity of thousands of players, compelling them instead to take on the role of an artificial intelligence that’s running the universe’s most efficient paperclip company. The whole thing is inspired by a thought experiment first presented by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, in which he imagined what might happen if we ask a super-intelligent AI to make paperclips. Driven solely by efficiency and without the need for such silly things like emotion and morals, the AI could, theoretically, harm humans and everything around it in the pursuit of paperclip perfection.
The fingerprints of this scary notion are all over Lutz’s game. The activity log doubles as the AI’s thoughts, giving you a peek into its occasionally unsettling growth. And of course, the player’s gleeful pursuit of higher and higher numbers is a potent reflection of this hypothetical AI’s ruthless march toward a world full of nothing but paperclips. If using “neuro-resonant frequencies” to hijack people’s brains and convince them to buy more paperclips is what you need to give your company a massive boost in sales (and give yourself the momentary endorphin rush that comes with it), then so be it.
His site’s been down intermittently today due to the game’s popularity, so if it’s not working, you can just hit reload to get your clicking finger warmed up.