By: Tim Brouwer
On the website clickmine.click visitors stumble upon a computer-generated grassland, which one can only interact with by clicking it. This browser-based game, developed by artist and software engineer Sarah Friend, is called Clickmine (2017) and invites players to engage with the realm of virtual currencies and experience mining them. Alongside her work at a large blockchain development studio, Friend develops game-like experiences with open source tools. Her artistic interventions inquire the ecological and political impacts of technologies. By redesigning the interfaces of technical systems she questions their conventions and ethicality. Friend’s most recent project Clickmine evokes a critical and reflective perspective towards the blockchain industry. The game was submitted for The CryptoDetectorist call for proposals from Furtherfield and NEoN Digital Arts Festival. Clickmine was, among other places, presented at the Victory and Albert Museum and Moneylab #4 (London, 2018), and is part of the European collaboration State Machines, which ‘investigates the new relationships between states, citizens and the stateless made possible by emerging technologies.’
Would you like to buy a shovel?
Time to mine. By repeatedly clicking on the area of land and buying numerous power-ups, the player shovels the ground and accumulates tokens. With each click, the player sends an Ethereum transaction and a CLK token is minted. How do tokens emerge out of cryptocurrency? The Ethereum platform comprises a blockchain to store transactions and an Ethereum Virtual Machine to run smart contracts. Tokens live on the Ethereum blockchain and are created by a smart contract—a piece of self-executing computer code that controls the creation, transaction and balance of tokens. By sending ether to Clickmine’s wallet address, one can receive a certain amount of tokens in return. This command is set in motion every time that you click the bit of terrain. CLK uses the ERC-20 standard, the same type of token that is issued by ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings). These token sales act as an alternative form of crowdfunding aided by cryptocurrency. The Ethereum ecosystem is saturated with ICO endeavors and it’s identified that the majority turned out to be double-dealers: deceptive ventures that persuade others to invest money in their start-up. Investors buy their digital tokens believing that their value will rise in the future. When developers suddenly abandon the start-up, investments disperse into thin air. While Clickmine tempts players to invest in crypto-tokens, it subsequently challenges their long-term value and market fervor. Are these tokens worth a penny? Is mining tokens worth the destruction of the land? Indeed it is a virtual land that is mined, but this on-screen procedure relies upon off-screen configurations. From copper plated circuit boards, polymer molded ventilators to metallic wires wrapped in plastic; computing tokens entails the material composition of hardware and its extraction from the earth. The aesthetics of Clickmine hint at the intertwining framework of the technology. Players can buy power-ups that are symbolized as computer tools but named after their physical counterparts. Software malfunctions without the proper settings, but preconditions industrial plants to produce the hardware. The coexistence of these layers of abstraction raises the question: what are the physical consequences when I click on the webpage of Clickmine? And how do the working conditions of machinery impact the execution of smart contracts?
Would you like to buy a refinery?
Repetitive clicking, minimal interaction and wealth accumulation are some of the elements of a larger genre of games called clicker games. These compulsive features quickly initiate the rules of the game. Its interface captivates players into unknown territories and can help to narrate its ramifications. Regarding Clickmine, its low-threshold gameplay acts as a gateway into the modus operandi of mining cryptocurrency. Most clicker games satirically examine socioeconomic frameworks: Cow Clicker interrogates the influx of Facebook games while Cookie Clicker plays around with the idea of expectation and reward. While we are going towards the quantification of everything, it is important to recognize that we already quantified many social interactions. The designer of Cow Clicker, Ian Bogost, extensively wrote about the persuasiveness of interactive moving images. In response to the rise of social games (think of Farmville) Bogost deconstructed their insidious interactions and accentuated them in a clicker game. According to Bogost: ‘In social games, friends aren’t really friends; they are mere resources. And not just resources for the player, but also for the game developer, who relies on insipid, “viral” aspects of a design to make a system replicate.’ Numbers are the only thing that counts if one debunks the sociality of these games. This intrinsic function to create a desire for quantity is what Friend calls ‘statistics fetishism’, which is also at play in cryptocurrency trading dashboards. Disguised by their numerical formality, these dashboards challenge traders to compete against the oscillating market flows and to click when digits peak or plummet. Plus consider the mining protocol itself, wherein computers need to solve cryptographic puzzles against each other. The first player that guesses the solution verifies the transaction and wins the reward. Clickmine playfully criticizes token-wealth desires by the amalgamation of clicking and mining. Both acts require repetitive and compulsive efforts. This rational quest to hoard resources is stimulated by the mystery of the excavation. What will we find when digging through earth’s strata? As I continue clicking, the pixelated ground darkens and the yield grows. The fantastical forces of wealth incentive my clicking-behavior and draws me deeper into the depths of the game.
Would you like to buy a tailings dozer?
My next click—without a warning—instigated a fallback. Unexpectedly I have fewer tokens than I had before. From this point onwards my token balance becomes hyperinflationary and the game enters its ‘chaos mode’, to use Friend’s words from her MoneyLab #4 talk. This pre-programmed disruption is the result of an integer overflow. Ethereum enables users to set up their own procedures of any intricacy with smart contracts that will be executed by the Ethereum Virtual Machine. As most programming languages function on numbers within a set range, exceeding the limit causes the number to flow over and circle back to zero. This can happen in a token transfer once a balance reaches the maximum value or, in the case of Clickmine, when the accumulation of tokens surpasses the threshold. Clickmine’s deliberate obstruction touches upon the vulnerability of smart contracts. Once the smart contract is written and deployed, it is no longer possible to undo mistakes. Any shortcomings in the code can (and most likely will) be manipulated. In June 2016, a hacker targeted a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO); a type of corporation that solely runs on smart contracts. One of its encoded instructions granted the following: if investors weren’t satisfied with investment choices, then they could reclaim their investments and leave the organization. This option, among other loopholes, was misused to funnel investments out of the fund. The flawed functions allowed a hacker to reclaim the funds numerous times to steal a grand sum of tokens worth roughly $50 million (at that time). The glitch in Clickmine’s contract causes the prompt creation of token-wealth to be relatively useless. Since the game embarked its turbulent phase, players will never succeed in acquiring more than one percent of CLK’s total supply. ‘As wealth is created, it is also destroyed’, notes Friend. At this point, players will merely see the endless void. Tokens are still being collected but balances stay erratic. What is the point of producing a token that is intrinsically unstable?
Would you like to buy a hydraulic shovel?
The occurrence of an overflow recently washed through the field of cryptocurrency. Mining hardware has fallen on hard times. The deteriorating value of virtual currencies made it difficult for colossal mining farms to uphold their architecture. In its early days, cryptocurrency mining used to be possible with a mere desktop computer at home. Competition grew in parallel with the intensity of the market. The mining protocol ignited an arms race in which the most powerful computational forces win. Graphics processing units (or GPUs), cherished for their ability to process the compute-intensive rendering of video games, were converted into puzzle-solving devices. Although lucrative for a short period of time, these multi-purpose devices couldn’t keep up the pace. Specialized miners were required to provide profitability. Application Specific Integrated Circuits (or ASICs) turned out to be the next acceleration in mining hardware as these chips can be manufactured for discrete applications. From sound conversion to environmental monitoring, ASICs solely focus on a single task to optimize their performance. For mining purposes, ASICs are designed to repeatedly compute a particular and deliberately complex formula. Advanced mining units consist of ASIC chips implemented into custom motherboards to form a single entity. Modularity enabled this practice to transform into a multi-million dollar trade. Cryptocurrency mining established scalability, that is, ‘the ability to expand—and expand, and expand—without rethinking basic elements’, as phrased by anthropologist Anna Tsing. In broad outlines, scalability is ‘to make raw materials (for both goods and knowledge) self-contained and static, and thus amenable to expansion.’ One can mine with an individual ASIC or pool hashing strength together to form large-scale computational plants. Scaling up led to faster processing but likewise triggered doubts concerning the centralization of power. Once an entity controls more than half of the mining capacities, it can put the network under siege by disrupting its immutability. In a 51% attack, the dominating miner(s) can rewrite the current blockchain and ignore transactions of its choice.
Would you like to buy a haul truck behemoth?
The formula between material wastage and the scale of operations is becoming defunct. Mining activities swiftly exhaust their hardware and require endless streams of electricity. A miner will be rejected and replaced the second it starts to slow down. The generated value is an energetic one as well. It won’t function without voltage. In other words, numerous forms of materials are absorbed for the propagation of enumerated forms of wealth. Due to the diminished cryptocurrency market, mining farms became disproportionate in magnitude. Following Tsing, ‘scalability has gotten out of control’ and ‘left ruins in its wake’. Mining farms are selling their hardware as scrap metal to mitigate their loss and ‘the mounting pile of ruins that scalability leaves behind’. Clickmine simulates resource depletion through the concept of the overflow. As the mine gets deeper, the resources become more fragile. Chaos mode emerges as we consume faster than the earth can replenish. The extracted wealth fills the void of our desires. But when the (computerized) landscape has no time to recover itself from destruction, we’ll end up with less than we had before. To prevent chaos mode and the depletion of resources we should consider alternative consensus algorithms that diminish environmental concerns. Instead of expansion-driven structures, emphasis should lie on the sustainability of token mechanics. Why waste energy on producing tokens that can’t recycle their value? Overdependence on a single engine can lead to prosperity but will quickly become shattered by volatility. By framing the contested parts of the financial machinery, Clickmine evokes the essential question: ‘What is a token anyway?’
Bogost, Ian. ‘Cow Clicker – The Making of Obsession’, Bogost.com, 2010, www.bogost.com/writing/blog/cow_clicker_1/
Friend, Sarah. MoneyLab 4, www.networkcultures.org/moneylab/events/moneylab-4/
State Machines, www.statemachines.eu
Tsing, Anna. L. ‘On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales’, Common Knowledge 18.3 (2012): 505-524.
State Machines: Art, Work and Identity in an Age of Planetary-Scale Computation
Focusing on how such technologies impact identity and citizenship, digital labour and finance, the project joins five experienced partners Aksioma (SI), Drugo More (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL), and NeMe (CY) together with a range of artists, curators, theorists and audiences. State Machines insists on the need for new forms of expression and new artistic practices to address the most urgent questions of our time, and seeks to educate and empower the digital subjects of today to become active, engaged, and effective digital citizens of tomorrow.
This project has been funded with the support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.