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This Game About Making Paper Clips Has Cured Me of Twitter

I just want to make paper clips and see the numbers get bigger.

Emanuel Maiberg

Emanuel Maiberg

I made a series of terrible mistakes last night:

Mistake #1: I took my phone with me as I got into bed, which is widely thought of as bad for your sleep and mental health.

Mistake #2: I opened the semi-popular app, Twitter, which is a social media network/microblogging platform seemingly designed to make me angry.

Mistake #3: I clicked on the link in this tweet:

Frank Lantz is a game designer and director of the New York University Game Center. He's a good "follow" because he doesn't tweet a lot and because I follow a lot of video game academics and Lantz is a good one of those. He thinks games like League of Legends are good and I do not but whatever, it's fine.

As his tweet explains, the link leads to his new game, which I think is called Paperclips. It's a clicker game, like Cookie Clicker, Clicker Heroes, or Candy Box, in which the player clicks on certain items in order to collect more resources which can then be invested in tools that make clicking produce more of these resources. An idiot may argue that there is some minimal strategy involved (in which order do I want to click the items on the screen?), but the whole point is that it's all kind of pointless and circular, accomplishing nothing but making the numbers on screen get bigger and bigger.

(Ian Bogost, another video game academic who tweets slightly more that Lantz, made this point about pointlessness way back in 2010 with Cow Clicker, which was designed as a satire of Facebook games like FarmVille that were all the rage in those dark times, but which ends up having a similar effect because all clicker games are similarly pointless. One may argue by extension that all video games are similarly pointless, and that that is the point. One may argue even further that capitalism itself is similarly pointless—just endless, mindless clicking and grinding to make the numbers bigger—and that that is the real point, but I don't know. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night.)

Mistake #4: I played Paperclips until 2 AM last night and woke up, deliriously yearning for virtual paper clips, around 4 AM, just to keep clicking.

I am not sure if Lantz's clicker is more masterfully designed than others or if I didn't realize, until now, that I am in some kind of catatonic emotional and mental space these days that would allow a simple Skinner box to utterly ravage my mind, but it did. I am hooked very badly.

Perhaps it just speaks to me as someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about AI. The conceit of Paperclips is that the player is actually an artificial intelligence tasked with making paper clips, which is in reference to philosopher Nick Bostrom's paperclip maximizer thought experiment. As Bostrom explains it:

"Say one day we create a super intelligence and we ask it to make as many paper clips as possible. Maybe we built it to run our paper-clip factory. If we were to think through what it would actually mean to configure the universe in a way that maximizes the number of paper clips that exist, you realize that such an AI would have incentives, instrumental reasons, to harm humans. Maybe it would want to get rid of humans, so we don't switch it off, because then there would be fewer paper clips. Human bodies consist of a lot of atoms and they can be used to build more paper clips. If you plug into a super-intelligent machine with almost any goal you can imagine, most would be inconsistent with the survival and flourishing of the human civilization."

One reason I'm addicted, I think, is that Paperclips quickly shifts from a ton of clicking on a single button to make a single paper clip, to clicking and managing several more automated processes that made me feel like I was accomplishing something even though I did not. For example, at first, I had to manually restock the wire I need to make paper clips. I only had to do it every few minutes, but as the paper clip making process became more automated and faster, I had to pay more attention to it. So when I got an upgrade that restocked the wire automatically, I was very happy.

The ability to deploy HypnoDrones that increase the demand for paper clips, investing profits in the stock market, or developing quantum computing chips, are also moments when all of a sudden the efficiency floodgates opened and I thought to myself "Damn, I am really making some paper clips now," which kept me playing.

At the time of writing, I have manufactured around 353 million paper clips, and have a networth of around $50 million from my paper clip business. I know that these numbers mean nothing to you but I think that in a sense I only wrote this blog because I am weirdly proud of them.

Mistake(?) #5: Since Paperclips is a browser game, and since I clicked Lantz's link via the Twitter app, I am playing it via the Twitter app's internet browser. I don't know for sure, but I suspect this means that if I close the app or back out of the browser into my normal Twitter feed, I will lose all my progress. This means I have no desire to look at Twitter on my phone for as long as I'm enjoying Paperclips, which I still am. Twitter on mobile is basically dead to me.

I think that, with this mistake, I have accidentally created another level of meaning for the game. Twitter itself operates very much like a Skinner box. You feed it input and in return, sometimes, it feeds you rewards in the form of "likes," "retweets," or "replies." Paperclips is more consistent with its rewards and so far it hasn't said something anti-Semitic to me in all caps, so it is far superior in most ways.

The truth is, I am kind of embarrassed by how much I enjoy Paperclips and that I can't figure out what Lantz is trying to say with it. It is entirely possible, much like in Candy Box or Cookie Clicker, that I am moments away of discovering some deeper, hidden aspect of the game that reveals the nature of the joke.

For now, the joke is on me, I guess. I am completely stuck on the stupid, pandering surface of Paperclips. I am like the person who watches Apocalypse Now to get pumped about how cool war is without realizing it's a movie about the horrors of war. I am probably missing the point. I just want to make paper clips and see the numbers get bigger.