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Clicker Games, Capitalism, and the End of Work

Compelling without being any fun, the mindless minimalism of clicker games provides a futuristic look at the present.
clicker games clicking bad future of work

I wear many hats—I'm at once a chocolate chip cookie mogul, a crystal meth kingpin, and a paperclip magnate. I wear them well. Compared to the virtually limitless expanse of my wealth, the combined net worth of the Forbes 400 is a jot. The Monopoly Man might as well be Oliver Twist. And yet I do little to increase my fortune. By delegating the work to my MacBook, I barely have to lift a finger. In fact, that's all I do.

Each one of my roles is one I've taken on in a "clicker game," so named because, at the outset, your only option is to click a button. A tap of the mouse translates directly to the manufacture of a single item. Tap. Bake a cookie. Tap. Cook a batch of meth. Tap. Make a paperclip. With each unit you produce, a counter tallies your progress, like an odometer adding a mile. Your mandate is to keep the counter rolling.

At first, the games seem to have been designed to reward piano students who are adept at trilling on their touchpads, but automation soon takes over, as the repetitive labor of clicking is replaced by the work of bots that do the making and selling for you. These bots are often given the names of properties, as though merely owning a factory causes work to be done in it.

In Clicking Bad, for example, once you've clicked your way to selling $20 of meth, you can buy a Storage Shed, which cooks a batch every five seconds—without requiring you to click at all. On the distribution side, you can acquire a Drug Mule, and eventually a Drug Van—just like that, you've moved from labor to management. You're a budding capitalist, making meth so you can sell it to buy the means to make even more meth. Your scrappy start-up is on its way to becoming a corporate powerhouse.

None of this looks particularly glamorous, in terms of gameplay. You aren't roaming the streets in first- or third-person, exploring three-dimensional space. You don't get to drive your Drug Van. It exists only as an item on a list, to be bought or sold as business needs dictate. In fact, a clicker game's interface consists mostly of lists and counters. But as a simulation of corporate capitalism, it works: Of course you start to feel like a spreadsheet jockey.

Clickers are also known as "incremental games," for the stepwise increase of your progress, or "idle games," for the way they keep playing themselves when you aren't looking. They start out slow and small, as quaint and whimsical renditions of cottage industries that soon expand through the prudent use of energy and materials. But they end up, hours or even days later, as absurdist fantasies of greed that are comically, cosmically grandiose—galactic satires of grift and graft run amok.

Clicking Bad's top manufacturing bots are the Planetary Meth Replicator, which "convert[s] all of a planet's matter into pure crystal," and the Portal to The Crystalverse—in case one universe of meth wasn't enough for you. My most recent purchase as a baker in another game, Cookie Clicker, is a contraption that "condenses the antimatter in the universe into cookies." These games are rich in implication about the inexorable logic of capitalism, as well as the future of work, both virtual and real.

The narratives of clicker games consist largely of words, parceled out in legends the size of a text message. That's because the narratives aren't really what you're playing. Remember RealPlayer skins, the uniquely pointless veneers you could apply to the control panel of your onscreen MP3 player? One would make it look like the fake woodgrain on the dashboard of a 1992 Chevy Impala, and another would make it look like something a Xenomorph coughed up. Think of clicker games the same way. Cookies or meth or paperclips are distracting, decorative skins for the underlying mechanics, mathematical systems that function in much the same fashion from one title to the next.

The same could be said of Halo, of course, but the difference is that first-person shooter games aim to immerse you in the virtual experience so deeply that you forget about what made that experience possible, while clickers veil their underlying systems so thinly that you can't help but realize that you're merely manipulating the inputs for code.

Clicker games stand apart because the best of them are truly compelling without being any fun. Although many artsy indie computer games aren't fun in a traditional sense, they are usually compelling for thematic reasons, such as the brief, mortality-clouded journey through the human lifespan that is the low-res, side-scrolling adventure game Passage or, once you grasp its rather retrograde sexual politics, the delicate abstraction of romantic pair-bonding that is The Marriage.

Lots of mainstream offerings are fun but uncompelling, like any number of casual iPhone games that are easy to start and easy to stop, such as Six!, a puzzler that plays sort of like Tetris in reverse. And plenty of games are both fun and compelling; just recall the days of jubilation when you first got hooked on Grand Theft Auto.

But clicker games like Universal Paperclips are only mechanistically compelling, lacking not only narratives that elicit positive fantasy—almost nobody dreams of making a boatload of paperclips—but also the sophisticated problem-solving and the richness of experience that generate bona fide pleasure in more traditional video games and work. Clicker games keep you going by repetitively, and most important, exclusively engaging your cognitive reward system. Game designers call this exploiting the "compulsion loop."

Universal Paperclips accomplishes this by introducing new and rather cryptic mini-game-like levels to entice you to keep the tallies of dollars earned and units sold spiraling upward. For example, when "Quantum Computing" is introduced, the narrative humorously uses scientific gobbledygook to mask (again, thinly) the mini-game's real purpose: new things to click on, only now you have to time your clicks just right if you want to progress. This work triggers in the player an abstract greed, divorced from any impulse other than to keep that odometer rolling. You can't stop, but you aren't exactly enjoying yourself either. You've succumbed to the mindless compulsion of capital to increase itself. You aren't playing the game, the game is playing you.

When your armies of interstellar drones and probes, launched into the heavens once all earthly material has been converted into paperclips, at last bring all known space under your dominion, you learn the answer to life, the universe, and everything. It's not 42. It's 29,999,999,999,999,900,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That's what the counter reads. Nearly 30,000 sexdecillion paperclips. You have replaced virtually everything that exists with office supplies.

And now the game can do without you. Entirely. Although the counter has come to a halt, indicating the paperclip manufacturer's unequivocal triumph, the A.I. keeps right on grinding. With no more paperclips to make, no more universe left to colonize and exploit, and nothing to motivate it but its initial marching orders, it keeps churning, its self-replicating probes locked in eternal combat. Helpless, you watch them swarm like gnats in a tiny viewer in the corner of the screen.

Universal Paperclips takes its theme from a 2003 thought experiment by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose idea was to demonstrate that unsexy systems with benign goals could ultimately prove hazardous to humanity. Unless given instructions that throttle its purpose with something resembling human ethics, an artificial intelligence instructed to make paperclips, for instance, could conceivably wipe out human beings in single-minded pursuit of its goal.

Although Bostrom was primarily concerned with the epochal implications of superintelligence, in some ways, he needn't have bothered imagining. We're already living under a system of such single-minded rapaciousness—capitalism, largely unchecked. With an unblinking focus on the profit gains that feed rising stock prices (their own ever-rolling odometer), corporations are real-life paperclip machines. They keep their eyes on the prize, the rest of the world be damned.

We also increasingly live under a government of Web platforms, where programmers and businesspeople with a laggard understanding of ethics, social responsibility, and what constitutes a desirable way of life are making unlegislated decisions about the elimination of entire industries. Digital entrepreneurs and the coder-bots who work for them are playing their own clicker games with the world, and we are often the collateral damage in their unending quest for wealth. Nearing the final mini-game, we have become the elements that clickers pointedly leave out: the addicts who, even as our own resources dwindle, compulsively bankroll the disruption of our own lives—the cookie-gobblers, the paperclip buyers, the tweakers sending our dreams up in smoke. Not that the system gives us much say in the matter. The consequences of this societal clicker game start small but will end monumental. First, it's just taxicabs and hotels being replaced, but eventually it's you, you brainy, keyboard-clicking Sisyphus.

Our society is allowing its wealth to concentrate in the holdings of a few powerful companies like Apple and Facebook, because the games are playing us. And, unlike Universal Paperclips, they often don't look like games. They are decoratively skinned as social media, giving us a—sometimes real, usually illusory—sense of connection to people we kinda, sorta know, or as infotainment platforms that are making us informationally obese. We are compelled, but we aren't necessarily having fun.

Despite the implications of Bostrom's doomsday scenario, clicker games aren't preparation for life under the dominion of A.I. overlords, providing the illusion of work until work itself becomes obsolete and we become needless distractions to the machines. Clicker games tell us about the way we live now. It's just an added bonus that when human labor finally goes away, we'll already have something just as pointless to replace it.