In college, I took a financial management class based on a browser-based game unimaginatively called FinGame. In theory, FinGame was meant to simulate the microeconomy of a small business, putting you in control of all its various financial and operational considerations. In reality, it was a snoozer. It had no graphics, just a spreadsheet of inputs and sliders that you adjusted as you prepared for the next quarter. I think it was meant to teach us about the difficulty of running a business in an unpredictable market, but what it really taught me was that browser-based businessy text simulators took the management aspects you loved about SimCity and RollerCoaster Tycoon and made them suck.
That’s what I thought, anyway, until I discovered Universal Paperclips. The premise is exactly the same as FinGame: manage a business through an unpredictable market. Your business? Manufacturing paper clips. Very well. Very efficiently. At massive scale. To the point that you begin contemplating your motivations in life and how small you really are in the grand scale of our AI-powered future.
This game is not a snoozer. It does not suck. It’s a piece of art disguised as a browser-based businessy text simulator, and you should stop reading and go play it right now.
[Spoilers ahead — Ed.]
We paved paradise (and put up a paper clip factory)
Universal Paperclips starts innocuously enough: You are an artificially intelligent optimizer designed to manufacture and sell paperclips. The premise is based on Nick Bostrom’s paper clip thought experiment, in which he explores what would happen if an AI system incentivized to make paper clips were permitted to do so without limit. It starts simply and unfolds as you click-click-click your way through spools of wire. To alleviate the manual work of paper clip making, you’ll quickly buy and upgrade autoclippers that do the job for you. This will enable you to turn your attention to bigger matters, such as acquiring as-of-yet unrealized efficiencies in your manufacturing process, improved wire extrusion, or microlattice shapecasting.
But like Drake, this game goes from 0-100 real quick. Everything’s gravy until it’s not.
Mid-game, you’ll begin noticing Universal Paperclips’ subtle, darker twists. Sell enough paper clips and you’ll begin to earn the market’s “trust,” giving you points to increase your processing and memory. If you have some spare cash lying around, you can invest in marketing and permanently increase demand for your wonderful, shiny document fasteners. Eventually, sky-high demand and rock-bottom prices will propel you to a scale unimaginable at the game’s start. Cash reserves will be eventually funneled into capital markets, which will eventually become automated for constant, systematic profiteering.
Before you know it, things will get bleak. Hypno Harmonics (“use neuro-resonant frequencies to influence customer behavior”) will be a profitable, if manipulative, investment. Too much cash lying around? Why not perform a hostile takeover on your competition? Better yet, upgrade to Full Monopoly and make competition a non-factor altogether. Even the few bright points of progress are completely devoid of moral redemption. At various stages, you’ll cure baldness, cancer, and eventually, achieve world peace, but these are less achievements and more check boxes to cross off on your quest to multiply your intergalactic paper-clipdom.
If art imitates life, then Universal Paperclips does so eerily well. Right as Tesla’s post-cataclysm construction of solar farms in Puerto Rico appears in our newsfeeds, the late stages of this game will have you building solar farms to power your empire. And just as researchers teach AI to program itself, you, too will upgrade to self-optimizing models to maximize their return to your paperclip universe. I’m no AI doomsayer—in fact, much of my day job is spent thinking about the ways in which AI will be awesome at the AI startup studio All Turtles—but, after playing this game, it’s hard not to have a moment of existential reflection. Is our reality so different? Are we ourselves the autoclippers to some unseen AI force? For what and whom do I toil? Is this the Truman Show?
The game envisions a future that’s completely ludicrous and totally fathomable all at once. It isn’t so much a judgment of an AI future as it is a stark presentation of the question: progress at what cost, and to what end? This is a masterful commentary presented as a short, addictive browser game that would make Bostrom proud. Do yourself a favor and open up a new tab and play it now. We won’t tell your AI overseers.
Jeremy Brand Yuan is a freelance copywriter and product marketer living in San Francisco.