It’s just another day in Beverly Hills, on the steps of Metropolitan Magazine, when Simon Orsik calls—again. “Hey, Sonia,” he says. “Glad I’ve got you on the line.” Lif, an exclusive club in Miami, is interested in booking me for an “appearance.” I look at my schedule. The shoot at Metropolitan this morning took up a lot of my available energy—but Kim Kardashian, my fairy godmother/benefactress/friend, says with a little bit of work in modeling, I might make it into films one day. I decide to take on the Lif appearance. It’s only an hour long, and once I’m in Miami, I’ll be able to work at the Kardash boutique Kim put me in charge of. That will get me a little extra cash toward buying this dress I’ve been eyeing. And anyway, a flight to Miami only costs $15. (The dress, meanwhile, costs $5,000.)
Welcome to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the new iOS game that has taken over my life and, if sales numbers are any indication, the lives of many others. The game’s developer, Glu Mobile, will likely rake in $200 million off the game, which has about 150,000 five-star reviews and seems unlikely to budge from the iTunes top-10 game charts anytime soon. In the game, your mission is to become an A-list celebrity, but once you do, you can still hang out, doing ever more runway shows and beach shoots, dating models or photographers or dental hygienists. The world is a big playground of ladder-climbing and leisure, encompassing a handful of swanky neighborhoods where rich people frolic: Hollywood, SoHo, Calabasas, and Tribeca.
The most interesting thing about KKH is how weirdly accurate it is about fame in our decadent, post-Twitter world. Kim Kardashian’s haters—and she has plenty—generally deride KKH for its superficiality. But KKH is aware of the foibles of fame. They’re built right into the game’s design, with an underlying message that says: You know that thing Kim Kardashian has? It’s silly and achievable. And hard. But also pretty damn fun.
Haters aside, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is undeniably well made. The small screen houses a complex variety of options without getting too crowded. The graphics are beautiful, and the wardrobe for the game is stunning (unsurprising, as it’s drawn from Kim Kardashian’s own closet). The game has several forms of currency—level-ups, K-Stars, dollars, and energy bolts—plus individual ratings for specific skills, like dating, industry knowledge, and professional networking. But you don’t need to know any of that to start playing. You don’t even have to design your own character if you don’t want to. Everything happens with tapping, and major decisions are presented as a menu of straightforward options, like Simon’s call I described above. It’s an intuitive interface.
I started playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood in Beverly Hills, while I was stuck in a hotel for 12 days straight for a television conference. I’d been to Los Angeles before but never to the super-wealthy part. In a week, I saw more Rolls-Royces and Bentleys than I’d seen in my entire life. The hotel for the conference is the same one that hosts the Golden Globes. When I went down to the pool after meetings one afternoon, I wasn’t allowed to take a lounge chair until I’d cleared it with the attendant. He said, in passing, as he handed me a bottle of water: “Yeah, there’s a lot of stars here today.”
In the evenings, after our long question-and-answer sessions with actors and showrunners, the networks would invite us to parties where critics, in our sneakers and jeans, could hobnob with actors and actresses who were making yet another appearance in a day filled with them. Our favor was being curried, and it’s part of the game to make the dowdy writers feel special by putting them up in Beverly Hills and inviting them out to cocktails with celebrities. And yeah, it was dazzling. But it was also overwhelming. There’s something exciting about the world of fame, but that excitement is quickly subsumed by exhaustion.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood became my guide to this alien realm. The world of the game is the world of celebrity, a small bubble of super-rich people who are all competing with each other to get noticed. Every conversation has a motive behind it, whether that’s dating to improve your social standing or networking at a club with industry VIPs. To emphasize that cynical reality, you win little rewards for having the “right” conversations.
Naturally, the best way to impress is to dress the part. KKH doesn’t care what you wear as long as it costs a whole bunch of money. You can dye your hair blue and pair that with an evening gown, a purse with a cat in it, and thigh-high boots—paparazzi will notice you and snap photos, and fashion editors will say you look great. The point is to look rich, not just put-together. (The game also lets you change your hair color, skin tone, and even nose/face/mouth shape at any time. Plastic surgery is just a tap away.)
The primary currency of KKH is not money or skills, but energy, indicated by a blue lightning bolt at the top of the screen. Every significant action you take requires energy: dating, modeling, working at Kardash, networking with influential people. As you play though the game, you use up your reserves, and then you have to either wait or buy more. At first, it’s easy enough to wait a few hours to top up, but as you progress through the game, the temptation to spend 50 K-Stars on a bunch of energy grows stronger.
If nothing else, the energy conceit is a smart, devious way to make money: The K-Stars cost $5 for 50, with bigger package deals that go up in increments to $100 for 1,250. Forty K-Stars will buy you 50 energy bolts, which you can use in just a few minutes if you’re in the middle of something big. It requires a lot of energy to stay in the game—to keep dating needy B-listers, to keep your modeling game on-point, to hustle cash for a wardrobe update.
In the middle of two weeks at the Beverly Hilton, the energy component rang eerily true. It doesn’t necessarily matter that you’ve bought a gorgeous dress. If you’re too tired to make it to Miami, then you’re not going to make your appearance.
And fame is measured in the most obvious way: Twitter followers. Or, rather, something that approximates Twitter followers without infringing on Twitter’s copyright. The star in the upper-right corner of the screen, which keeps tabs on what tier of celebrity you’re on (C-list? B-list? E-list?) also tells you how many fans you have. Each new media appearance, whether that’s a photo shoot or a party, gets you more devotees. A feed pops up when you do something newsworthy and mentions you by name. You might generate buzz by buying posh living quarters, being well dressed, spending a bunch of energy on a fashion shoot, or even having a fight with the game’s two or three villains in public. (Willow Pape and Dirk Diamonds are the jealous strivers who take umbrage at your success. They hashtag their tweets about you with #ratchet, #Obamacare, and #Illuminati.)
To play Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is to engage in a familiar fame game, an exercise in jockeying for “likes” where the only work worth doing is photo shoots, magazine spreads, or merchandising. It might not be a divine calling, but it’s reflective of what celebrities do to get famous. Fame, after all, is a slippery quality that has little to do with success and even less to do with talent. Just get noticed, the game says, reflecting our own standards for tabloid stardom.
Kim Kardashian herself played this game. Not Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, though probably that, too. I mean the bigger game. The game of getting from the E-list to the A-list, starting out as an unknown with a sex tape and ending up on the cover of Vogue. Kardashian is a punchline for many people, but to others, especially to those playing KKH, she’s an example of someone who played this rigged, flawed game and won. Kim Kardashian is herself making around $80 million for sponsoring KKH—four times her salary last year. It looks like a vanity project, but Glu Mobile actually approached Kardashian, not the other way around. Glu’s designers had a concept and knew they could make it bigger with the draw of a celebrity star attached to it.
KKH is tailored to Kim Kardashian’s life—the wardrobe is just the tip of the iceberg. Kim, in the app, is a benevolent friend with a sparkly, huge engagement ring and pictures of her family up in her own stores. She’s fuller-figured and differently dressed than anything your own character can choose, and none of the choices for noses or eyes get anything close to Kim’s signature look.
It’s even got characters in it that are modeled not-so-subtly on real-world figures. Willow Pape is thought to be a dig at Paris Hilton, at least according to Buzzfeed’s Whitney Jefferson, and Elizabeth Korkov at Muse magazine looks just like Vogue editor Anna Wintour. This is the rabble of people Kim Kardashian had to work with. Now it’s your turn.
It would be all too easy to dismiss KKH. It’s a game about fashion and celebrity and being friends with Kim Kardashian, and those are all, ultimately, silly fantasies for most of us. But the game is a phenomenon because it’s a fantasy that speaks to the ethereal and addictive quality of investing purely in image.
What Hollywood requires for celebrity is ridiculous—lavish expenditures on clothes, new houses, nose jobs and collagen injections, and a decadent, eco-ignorant approach to air travel and cars. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood offers a chance to see that glamorous world for its flaws as you spend fake energy on photo shoots for fans who don’t actually exist. You also get to be friends with Kim herself, who might counsel: Don’t hate the player, or the game, just because KKH presents an accurate picture of celebrity. Instead, ask yourself why this is the only way to win.