In the mega-popular Kim Kardashian smartphone game, cartoon Las Vegas is stripped down to what’s important: It’s an idealized two-dimensional tourist vision of Sin City, with nothing more than a nightclub, an upscale Italian restaurant and Glamm magazine. It’s only enough of a place for your character to make club appearances, date celebrities and pose in photo shoots on her (or his) way to achieving the same fame and fortune as her (or his) cartoon fairy godmother, Kim. Oh, and there’s a newspaper machine that sometimes belches out money when you tap it. (No word if it’s distributing imaginary nudie mags or something else.)
Before any diehard locals get offended by the game’s reductionist depiction of our city, be comforted by the fact that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood offers up reductionist depictions of every city it features: Beverly Hills, Paris, London, New York City and Punta Mita, Mexico. That’s part of the appeal.
This game—released on June 26 and still growing in buzz—is the mental equivalent of that bagged popcorn where the kernels have already been removed … because eating regular popcorn is just too laborious. It’s part of the new-ish wave of video games that are free to download but then dribble money out of you. As such, traditional attributes of games—challenge, thought, complexity—are eliminated because they might exclude paying customers. This is why Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is basically impossible to lose. There is nothing that you can do, short of not playing, that will make you fail. There is no puzzle to solve or monster to battle or even the risk that your starlet avatar might gain weight, get old or descend into a Lindsay Lohan-esque spiral of self-destruction. It’s just wish-fulfillment eye candy all the way.
If anything, the true challenge of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is an esoteric, meditative one: You’re playing to keep your money. (Full disclosure: I spent $15 before I figured that out.) See, almost every action in the game requires energy points, and it only takes about two minutes of game play to use it up. (Game play mainly consists of the utterly skill-less tapping on blue bubbles that represent actions such as “profile shot,” “wardrobe change,” “react to backdrop image,” “grab a drink,” “take a break” and “right like that.”) Of course, you can pay to replenish. Or you can wait for energy points to come back on their own. (It takes about four minutes for each unit of energy to regenerate or about two hours for a full recharge.) There’s always the option of burning time as you wait by dressing your character like an animatronic paper doll, but even that is risky: The best virtual outfits and hairstyles eventually require actual dollars. Ultimately, the only way to play without spending money (or spending more money than you’ve already spent) is to start and stop the game a thousand times a day for these little rounds of micro play. It’s a dirty habit, like cigarettes. On the other hand, who’d have thought that an animated Kardashian was the one who would finally teach me patience and self-discipline?
To my boyfriend’s chagrin, I’ve been addicted to Kim Kardashian for a few weeks now. I was never much of a fan of her IRL (that’s “in real life”), and I’m still not really, but there’s something about Kim’s cartoon incarnation that’s oh-so-soothing. At last, the prom queen wants to be my friend and I’m finally getting to live out my dreams of being the hopelessly nerdy girl chosen for a high school movie makeover. Plus I’m realizing my adult fantasies of effortless fame and fortune and of being able to eat anything I want, never work out and still fit in a size 0. To wit, cartoon Kim Kardashian is my spirit animal.
Before you judge my indulgences too harshly, you should note that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. The game has reached blockbuster status. It’s currently in the top-10 highest grossing iPhone apps and is projected to earn $200 million this year (says everybody on the Internet).
But I do have one quirk that sets me apart from my fellow players: I’ve probably come closer than most others—at least in terms of physical proximity—to the fantasy portrayed in Kardashian’s app. That’s because I used to report for celebrity gossip magazines. The gig had me interviewing Kim so many times that she’d nod in recognition when she saw me facing her on the red carpet. And we both could look out at the throngs of adoring nobodies on the other side of that velvet rope from the same-ish perspective. If those people couldn’t be her, they’d be me as a second choice because I was “in.” And I knew this because they often shouted such sentiments in my direction.
Whenever I talked to Kim, I was always impressed by her ability to give these golden quotes that offered absolutely zero insight into her inner self yet were certain to make headlines. Most other celebrities would either clam up and refuse to speak or they would go in the opposite direction and drone on about inanities or, worst of all, they’d simply recite the rehearsed publicist-penned answers. Only Kim was able to spout these perfectly newsworthy nothings. The example that most sticks in my memory was her enthusiastic admission to being a “Belieber.” This was several years ago, so pop star Justin Bieber was even younger than he is today. The whole celebrity crush thing made for great copy, but the proposition was ridiculous. There was simply no way that this self-possessed businesswoman, then in her late 20s, had a crush on a teenager. It was patently absurd, but it also worked. This was not a women pondering pedophilia. This was a master of the media in action—blessed with the ability to talk about zippo and get the whole world to listen. It could have been a plot point in her game. And now, several years later, it kinda is. Video-game Kim recommends dating celebrities in order to become more famous.
There’s a scene in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood where you—a celebrity-in-training—celebrate your birthday at a Vegas nightclub, and cartoon Kim is there to cheer you on. I have been to the real-life version of that scene. Except it was Kim’s party and not mine. And she was not there for me in any way, except as a subject. Nonetheless, I have (sort of) borne firsthand witness to the real and true inspiration for this game. And I can tell you after seeing it with my very own eyes (from a kinda creepy observational distance) that it’s more fun to play at becoming the next Kim Kardashian than it is to be the actual Kim Kardashian doing those very same fame things in, you know, real life. Although the same does not extend to our comparative bank accounts.
Speaking of money, according to Forbes, Kim is set to earn $85 million from basically just lending her name and sometimes voice to this game (oh, and maybe picking out a few virtual outfits).
Yes, it’s infuriating.
And here’s more: The Kim Kardashian game isn’t even all that original. Before it existed, there was a strikingly similar game put out by the same company (Glu Games) called Stardom: Hollywood. It features the same colorful animation style, some of the same characters and a similar plot (become famous!). The biggest differences are that Stardom is slightly harder (players have to memorize lines), and it’s grittier and more satirical. There is a character in Stardom, for example, who resembles sleaze photographer Terry Richardson. And when your avatar starts the game on Skid Row, it looks like Skid Row.
That this near-identical game was not a hit on the scale of its descendent proves what nobody really wants to accept: Taking a product, sprucing it up, dumbing it down and slapping the Kardashian name on it will make it popular. Which, in one of those serpent-eating-its-own-tail moments, is what we’re all playing to achieve.