My name is Brooke, and I touch fire hydrants for money because it’s the only thing I can do. I was an E-List Los Angeles shop girl nobody, until I comped Kim Kardashian a dress for an event—it was an emergency!—and she hooked me up with her manager, Simon. Now I’m moving up in the world, on my way to the A-List, or at least I will be, if I can finish this photo shoot while holding on to enough energy and cash to make it to the next appearance Simon books for me. Unfortunately, just changing my clothes and drinking some water has completely exhausted my energy reserves. I am tired and broke. My boss is mad at me for leaving the store, so I can’t go back to the boutique. I don’t remember where my apartment is. So I’m stuck in Beverly Hills, standing outside the offices of Metropolitan Magazine, tapping random objects. Money here literally grows on trees, and also from fire hydrants, newspaper stands, bike racks, suitcases, and the occasional bird. Touch them and stacks of dollar bills and the occasional bolt of energy bounce along the sidewalk until you scurry after them and pick them up. This is Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood.
Despite Brooke’s dilemma, the gameplay of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is not complicated. After selecting and dressing their avatars, players are assigned a series of tasks by Simon, Kim or other in-game “handlers.” Completing tasks gives the player rewards, which unlock achievements (“barfly,” “love,” “big spender,” “the look”). As rewards accumulate and the player levels up, he or she gets access to different locations and improved assets, like cuter clothes and hairstyles, some of which grant the player gaming bonuses. This is all reminiscent of a role-playing game my high school boyfriend enjoyed rhyming with Curmudgeons and Cragons. Completing tasks requires energy, which slowly recharges in real time, so there’s a lot of aimless waiting around involved. However, since energy and clothing can both be purchased with the alternate in-game currency of K-stars, a player can skip a lot of downtime by using K-stars, which cost… wait for it… actual US dollars.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood can be downloaded and played to completion for free, but since K-stars are generated very slowly, and the most desirable clothes and most powerful networking connects require large amounts of exclusively K-star currency, it’s the truly strong-willed and patient player who resists the temptation to purchase them. TL, DR? Money makes the game a lot more fun, just like real life. Say what you will about Kim Kardashian, but combining aspects of the deeply nerdy first-person roleplaying game genre with the most boring, tedious elements of real life and coming up with a multimillion dollar revenue engine on track to clear over $200 million this year alone is quite an achievement (“professional,” maybe?).
And people have said a lot, most of it negative, about Kim Kardashian and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Forbes reports the game is boring and “far worse than any game where you can chainsaw an alien’s head off,” ethically speaking. After her son was “tricked” into spending $120 on the game, writer Ayelet Waldman went on a social media tirade, calling the game “evil and vile” and declaring “a pox on those vile scumbag Kardashian pigs and their app designers.” While changing outfits and tapping little coins as they tumble merrily across a screen might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, it’s certainly a stretch to call such a pursuit evil in a world where Call of Duty exists, or even vapid when Candy Crush and 2048 are also bestsellers. Who’s opining publically about Candy Crush’s promotion of excessive sugar consumption and usurious in-game purchasing mechanism, or 2048’s abetment of dangerously obsessive-compulsive tendencies? Are they the same folks claiming Kim Kardashian: Hollywood encourages shallow, materialistic behavior? Is it anyone at all?
The genius of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the transformation of consumerism itself into a commodity that can be bought and sold. A player can buy not only luxury goods, but the potential—measured in K-stars—to buy luxury goods. In real life, I’ve never bought anything for myself that wasn’t on sale. But in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, I can buy the ability to treat myself to a pair of killer heels, at a fraction of the real-life cost. Hate on, haters: I’ve spent $30 on Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, I’m on the A-list, and Brooke looks great.
For criticisms of Kim herself, one need only wade into the thousands of comments on any celebrity news website or Kardashian’s own Instagram account. The same themes crop up again and again. She’s a whore, she’s a waste of a human being, she’s famous for being famous, or famous for nothing, or why is she famous, again? Certainly, many others have rocketed to fame for being in the right place at the right time, or having famous friends, or doing something stupid in public, either accidentally or on purpose. Why is Ryan Seacrest famous? Why is Andy Cohen? Johnny Knoxville? But there’s something about Kim Kardashian and her fame, something specific, and specifically female, that make us uncomfortable.
People complain Kardashian is famous for being famous, but it’s more true to say she’s famous for being a hardworking and savvy businesswoman. Kim Kardashian—and maybe Kim Kardashian alone—has figured out how to make a fortune on the countless hours of emotional labor most women are expected to perform for free: smiling, looking pretty, being accommodating, being charming, being a good hostess. These are the skills a celebrity appearance entails. Anyone who’s performed them knows in their bones these activities are actual labor, and I encourage those who disagree to spend three hours sitting absolutely still in makeup chair and consider further. If wearing fully-styled hair and makeup at all times were actually effortless, a lot more people would do it, and I’d quit my job and buy stock in false eyelashes. Kim Kardashian is what getting paid for “women’s” work looks like.
Another recurring criticism of Kim Kardashian is that she’s “fake.” This extends from the amount of makeup she wears and whether or not she’s had plastic surgery to doubts about the “reality” of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the authenticity of her brief marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries. When I watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians (which I now have, for well over 70 hours), I recognize those standard reality television beats, including, but not limited to: conversations staged to spell out for an audience emotions and thoughts that occur diffusely and slowly in real time off-screen, an artificial living situation (where does Kim live during seasons 1 and 2? seriously, I want to know), the “job” that is not really a job (will the real manager of DASH Calabasas please stand up?). I also see a girl who works incredibly hard and truly cares about her family, and a woman who loves easily and whole-heartedly. I see someone who, like me, grew up in a culture that churns out articles with names like “12 Quick Steps to Being a Natural Beauty” as if there is no contradiction there, and someone who was taught, like many women (either explicitly or implicitly) that beauty is the most efficacious way to get approval and to access money and power. Kim Kardashian, like many little girls, was bombarded with stories about beautiful princesses and fairytale weddings from birth. So shame on her, for taking this narrative at face value, and for attempting to live a life following this script, and every cultural cue she’s ever been given. Shame on her, because shaming or blaming the real culprit— patriarchal expectations and institutions— is just too feminist and scary.
Our culture pressures women to be available, to look good, to smile and laugh and make conversation, to marry and have babies, and Kim Kardashian has given it exactly what it wants. We asked for it, and we bought it, so who’s the really shallow part of this transaction? Don’t hate the player, hate the game.