Occasionally I play “incrementer” or “idle clicker” games, where your only job is to make the count of something— money, candies, cookies, fans, paper clips— climb, and climb faster. You watch the number go up and buy things that help the number go up. There are often various currencies and resources to juggle for optimal growth, but it hardly matters in the big picture. You accrue potential upgrades quickly, so quickly that many games in the genre have some kind of “buy 100 of this upgrade” or “buy all upgrades” button. Depending on the design, sometimes you’ll get stuck in your quest to keep the asymptotic curve going and need to leave it alone for a few hours or overnight, but more often than not there is always something to do.
The important thing is that the main number climbs and climbs, into the millions, billions, trillions, and then to numbers better served by scientific notation but which are more impressive when written out. All those zeroes. All the funny words for giant numbers: duodecillion, septuagintillion. All the surreal imagery of whatever it is in impossible-to-understand quantities; planets, stars, entire galaxies turned into nothing but factories and raw material, everything put to the singular purpose of getting… more.
At first you might think: And it’s mine! All mine! But soon there’s so much of it, whatever it is, crowding out the rest of existence, that the idea of the stuff being yours fades away, and the sheer generativity of it is what remains. The number becomes its own point.
It would be easy to say that incrementers appeal to our basest desires. Of course they do, and, as is the case with any set of games designed to exploit them, some are more ethical than others. Many of them flatter common wishes for wealth or status and are clearly designed to go on for as long as possible, counting “your” money into numbers previously only physicists and mathematicians might have considered, while cravenly dangling real-money microtransactions in front of you at just the right moment.
Others are more dignified. Universal Paperclips lives up to its name and eventually scales to the universe, as many incrementers do, but in this case the universe is pleasingly finite. The defined end point makes it easier to recommend, though I’m still unhappy about how addictive it ended up being for me. I find incrementers compulsive enough that I consider them a little dangerous. I really only play them accidentally, like when I stumble across one that cries out for further investigation.
There’s something interesting at work in the appeal of incrementer games that goes beyond the draw of simple acquisition. After all, most games have an aspect of getting stuff and number-increasing. In a typical RPG you’ll fight enemies repeatedly while experience points, skill points, money, and items accrue. Hours and hours into the game, your hit points might be measured in the thousands instead of the hundreds, but you’re still doing the same thing you always did. It’s just that all the numbers on the screen have been multiplied by a factor of ten, let’s say— one order of magnitude.
I want to frame that kind of math with real life for a second. As a person in the world, a single order of magnitude increase in the consequential numbers of your life is about as much as you can realistically hope for. It might mean going from making $35,000 a year to $350,000 a year, which isn’t completely implausible— maybe you started as a junior employee at a large company and were promoted steadily over the course of several decades, or maybe you held down a job while going to medical school and then became a physician— but it hovers at the outer limits of what most people experience. Increases of more than that, two or three orders of magnitude, come only if you’re extraordinarily lucky. What are the chances? If you’re like most people, it’s not even something to think about seriously. It’s more realistic, if somewhat depressing, to assume you’ll stay in your mathematical lane, more or less, for the duration of your life.
Incrementers are explicitly about the fantasy of breaking out of your mathematical lane. They let you experience vertiginous climbs of a hundred orders of magnitude, a thousand, a million, all in just a few minutes. They let you ignore reality in a way even the most indulgent fantasies of other games don’t. And, when they’re designed well, the experience of playing them and seeing that number surge and surge again with each new upgrade can feel exhilarating— even a little scary, like a social media post gone more viral than you ever could have wanted. It feels like tumbling forward with unstoppable momentum. We say you “play” an incrementer, but what you are really doing is riding a wave.