Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

What do you picture when you think about fame? Spotlights, a champagne swimming pool, fishnet tights produced in artisanal huts in Palm Springs? Does the act of "working" appear in your mental image? If your answer is no, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood would like to change that.

Surely by now you have heard of this game. It is everywhere. People play it earnestly and ironically. Whether or not they are "enjoying" it is a trickier question. The game is like heroin, insofar as it is definitely a satisfying experience while you're playing it but it's difficult to articulate why afterwards. I played for roughly six hours altogether; it felt like 10,000. I achieved high B-list status by the end. I spent an unjustifiable amount of cash doing so, around $70. I also took a lot of breaks.

It turns out that the narcotic effect of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood serves to deliver an underlying message, though. Unlike Candy Crush, this is a game with some philosophical content. Even those who have only passing familiarity with life on the Kardashian scene can quickly see that the game means to teach you something.

What is a "Kim Kardashian," according to this game?

In the game, "Kim Kardashian" is not merely a human being but a fairy-tale god-sister-friend-oracle. Your purpose in playing the game is to pursue fame, and she is there to support you on your vision quest. She calls you and wants you to meet her places, but she never texts. You are too important to her to text. But you are not important enough to have her phone number, so you spend a lot of time standing around, wondering if she'll call.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

When she does surface, Kim behaves much as you'd expect a divine being to do. She never seems to get jealous or duplicitous or underminery. There is clearly plenty of empty fame to go around, in her opinion!

But unlike a deity, she is also open-minded and reluctant to pass judgment on others. "It's a big decision," she simply says, when I am summoned to her house to get advice on doing a nude photoshoot, though she'll vouch for the photographer.

What are "you," in the context of this game?

You are an avatar whose external appearance is merely an illusion. You may choose to go from raven-haired to blonde, from green-eyed to purple-eyed, in an instant. The one constant about you is that you wish to be famous. Who wouldn't want that?

Over the course of several hours, days, weeks, everything you do will be organized in pursuit of this quest. Take a job in retail, selling clothing? The money can be used to buy a new wardrobe. Date a writer? The points allow you to level up in love. Buy a drink? Good news, it increases your "barfly" quotient. All of this marginally relevant activity propels you upwards, here.

How does the game define the "meaning of life"?

Life's journey takes you through a series of lists denoted by the letters of the alphabet. The object of your existence is get on a list better than the one you are currently on.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

The best way to do that is to work harder than a 10-year-old from the London slums prior to the advent of labor regulations. If there is either rest or joy to be had, it is for others. For you, there is only toil.

And work, no matter the form it takes—appearances, photo shoots, folding clothes in oddly-named boutiques—is a deadening series of repetitive tasks. These tasks have various names, yes—"mingle," "favorite songs," "fold shirts"—but in each case all you have to do is tap your finger rapidly on a single button. The life of a factory worker could hardly be more dull than this, not that you'll see any manual laborers in this game. That sort of "work" happens offscreen.

To make things worse, at several appearances you will be all alone in the VIP lounge with no one to talk to. Perhaps this is a feature rather than a bug, meant to make players contemplate the anomie of the modern nightclub. Or late capitalism, either/or.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

In any event the drudgery of doing all this is clearly intentional. Kim Kardashian is a person who is allegedly "famous for doing nothing." After playing this game for an hour you see that even in this reduced form, she did a great deal to get "where she is."

Are all men created equal in this game?

In spite of the list rankings, this is a game deeply committed to egalitarianism. Your rise to the A-list comes solely as a result of your personal achievement. You can fall back through personal error, but there is no nepotism or favor-trading in the rank sense of it. Even your contacts tend to come through quasi-legitimate "networking."

As far as other people are concerned, little distinction is made between the professions. A writer is seen as an equally attractive companion to a venture capitalist, or a "home economist." Nor is appearance any obstacle to being taken seriously. Politicians have blue hair. Writers dress in the tailored, spotless whites of Miami Vice characters.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

Stardom and love, in other words, are equally democratic. At least for the well-dressed.

And what of the subjugation of women?

Kim, it seems, is fond of sisterhood. You will be docked a great many fans, for example, should you imply to a journalist that you are feuding with a fellow starlet.

Hints also abound that she is against heteronormativity; you are invited, sometimes, to flirt with female interlocutors.

That does not make its gender politics flawless. Much of the delight many seem to take in the Kardashian game comes from the sheer variety of outfit changes. There are Beauty Myth implications attached to them, of course. I did not play as a man, but I can testify that the women's clothing is dreadfully expensive. A mysterious hoop-skirt/black mesh shirt combination will run you $3000, without accessories. Early in the game you can buy an apartment for $1000, to give you a notion of scale.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Spirit of Capitalism

Thankfully, no one in this game ever tells you that you often look like a fucking fool in these outfits. There is a tiny bit of liberation in that.

But does the game endorse capitalism, on the whole?

Over the course of playing the game, I lived in a constant state of real poverty. But that poverty was not a poverty of material things. As long as you are not a clotheshound, and I was not, you will constantly find yourself cash-rich, actually. You can own real estate and furniture and small businesses and cars without completely cleaning yourself out.

But the cash you earn does not purchase much of real value in your quest for fame—i.e., in pursuit of the meaning of your life. The true locus of value is a second currency, denominated in stars. Stars let you buy energy; energy lets you work more; working more buys you more fame.

This is all a beautiful endorsement of the Protestant work ethic until you come up against one bare fact: in order to get anything like a reasonable number of stars you need to pay real-world dollars to the iTunes store. You simply can't earn them by game play. That's where the $70 went, to buy stars so I could keep playing enough to deliver you this piece; without it I literally couldn't work long or hard enough to make any observations without constant star (read: USD) infusions.

And without stars to buy energy — or even some of the funner outfits — the game is a dud. Energy replenishes over time but while you wait you are like a teenager at a mall after closing time. You can move from restaurant to magazine office to crappy Vegas club, but the exploration brings you nothing really; most people want to be "charmed" with stars before they'll speak to you. You can't even adopt the goddamned stray cat that sometimes appears on the street, it costs stars too. I couldn't afford it, and it wandered away

Which, come to think of it, makes the game a powerful comment on the essential futility of class mobility. So perhaps it's anti-capitalist after all.

[Image by Tara Jacoby]