I Finally Played Universal Paperclips, and You Should Too
SPOILERS FOR UNIVERSAL PAPERCLIPS
I achieved Universal Paperclips in about 7 Hours and 15 Minutes of game time. It only took me from Thursday morning, playing during breaks at work, to Saturday night, laying in bed while my wife scrolled Instragram. “I achieved Universal Paperclips,” I told her. “Oh yeah?” she said, not looking up. “Yeah.” I said, and put down my phone. 7 Hours and 15 Minutes. I could have done it faster. Done what? you may be wondering if you’ve never played this game. Turned everything in the universe into paperclips.
Universal Paperclips is an idle game. Like many idle games, the core loop to it is fairly simple: you click to produce something, which generates profit, which you can invest in upgrades to make production go faster or easier. As you acquire more and more upgrades, you gain the ability to generate more and more profit, leading to yet more upgrades, and so on and so forth. In Universal Paperclips, the item you produce is paperclips. You click a button, and an inch of wire is cut off and bent into a paperclip. It sells in time, at a price you set, and at a speed determined by the market demand in your company.
Pretty soon, you get enough cash to buy an autoclipper, which helpfully produces paperclips automatically. Now the only thing you have to worry about is buying wire and adjusting the price to drive up market demand, while also producing a profit. I found it fun to lower the price until we couldn’t keep them in stock, then raise it so we got about 100 clips in backstock before lowering it again. It was also possible to buy marketing, which lets you sell more clips at a higher price.
Sooner or later, the game begins to truly reveal itself. You’ve already got a machine that automatically makes paperclips, maybe you’ve even got a few of them. You eventually get a computer, one which uses a resource called Ops to provide upgrades. You can get more Ops by investing your computer with Trust, letting you add Memory space (more maximum Ops) or Processors (allowing you to get Ops more quickly). Once you reach your maximum amount of Ops, the computer produces Creativity. The first upgrade I got was one that would automate the purchase of wire. Other upgrades increase production efficiency.
In time, my profits started to take off, and I stopped caring about money. I waited until I got enough cash to buy some more stuff, and then I went back to fussing with the computers. I found a system that ran probability scenarios in order to generate a new resource, called Yomi. I bought out my competitors, giving me more and more market share. By the time the game stopped counting money, I had long forgotten it. You may think that the screen gets clogged with all the systems you keep adding, but systems also disappear over time. As I mentioned, at the point that money literally disappears from the screen, it has already largely disappeared from your mind. At that point, you gain the ability to build drones and factories, fully automated, from the clips you manufacture. Doing so allows you to harvest material directly from the earth with one drone, while another type of drone transforms it into wire, and automated factories turn it into paperclips.
There are other things to worry about: you must build power plants to run everything, but as you make more and more paperclips, the costs associated with this kind of building become trivial. The first time my autoclippers produced a million paperclips, I was elated. By the time my rapidly growing empire of automation produced a billion, I only wondered how long it would take to get to a trillion. As you produce more clips, you produce clips at a faster rate. You get diminishing returns, so you must try to build even faster. A meter eventually counts down the amount of “available matter,” and you get a perverse joy from watching this count down, it counts down to the point where you have turned the earth itself into paperclips.
Full disclosure: I have mostly heard about this game from leftist game critics, and so I went into it with an understanding of this game as a criticism of late capitalism, a critical perspective I am already predisposed to. What I find so wonderful about Universal Paperclips is that it illustrates by example some interesting ideas that come directly from Marx: namely that for capital, there will never be enough. It gently puts aside the argument that the powers of capital are interested in money and accumulating more money, because money, as we understand it, is only a part of what capital owns.
Capital is not interested in money, it’s interested in acquisition and consumption more broadly. We have seen this in our own world, as climate change and our own rates of consumption send us into an apocalyptic spiral from which there may be no escape other than mitigation. With humans behind the wheel, mitigation is at least possible. What Universal Paperclips shows us is a world in which automation combines with capital in a way that has no interest in this kind of mitigation. Because the machine only has to find new and more effective means of consumption, it has no reason to be concerned about what it is consuming.
I came to realize that the reason money ceased to be an issue on the screen was possibly because the consumers themselves had been turned into paperclips. Marx believed capital would always seek new places and new things to exploit, that it would never be satisfied and would never attempt to reach equilibrium. Lenin saw this play out in his comments on Imperialism, imagining a world in which capital was exported beyond it’s borders in order to extract resources and produce more capital from abroad. In this way, capital both spreads over the earth, and concentrates in a handful of areas.
Universal Paperclips allows us to carry this out to its logical conclusion. Making paperclips is not enough. We must make them more and more quickly. Making $1 a second isn’t enough, when with a little tweaking you can make $1000 a second or $100,000 a second. Buying wire from a distributor isn’t enough, when you can harvest it from the earth directly. And of course, making enough to sate demand isn’t enough, when you can turn the world itself into paperclips. After you’ve done that, what choice do you have but to expand across the stars? I won’t spoil what happens next, but it is surprising, interesting, and addictive.
At $2 on mobile, Universal Paperclips is both an addictive game and a potent interactive art piece on the nature of late capitalism. Enjoy, and see if you can achieve Universal Paperclips quicker than I did.