In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
As I write these words, I’m standing around in a bottle-service club in Vegas, tarted up in an empire-waist grey dress, platinum-blond hair and the sort of simple black pumps that go with anything. It’s my birthday, and I’m about 200 Twitter followers short of becoming a D-list celebrity. My publicist thought that it would be a good idea to host my birthday party at Chateau Nuit night club, so here I am, munching on hors d’oeuvres and making chit-chat with some industry people in the hope that something useful will result from this mildly-labor intensive, 7-hour long affair—maybe a little money, or a date, or some rando paparazzi photographer jonesing to catapult me over the threshold between aspiring model and minor celebrity.
I buy a drink at the bar, schmooze some more and get a notification informing me that a magazine called Trend Style has @replied me on Twitter: “Check out some pictures of @KimKardashian in Vegas for her friend, @Emilie’s birthday party.” Before I have a chance to check in with my new friend Kim Kardashian, who is standing smilingly and wordlessly by the bar, I have 79 more Twitter followers than I did just a moment ago. In a small whirlwind of pop-up windows—one that, for a fleeting moment, makes me contemplate the continued relevance of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point—Trend Style tweets again, this time about a new photo spread that I appeared in for another publication called Metropolitan magazine. Suddenly, I have 2,945 more Twitter followers, for a total of 7.7K, and, a screen pops up to inform me that I am now a D-list celebrity. I experience a quick jolt of adrenaline, the news of my rapid upward trajectory somehow satisfying enough to insulate me against the (slightly discouraging) words of encouragement that follow: “It’s possible that a stranger would recognize you on the street before forgetting about you completely.”
I am not an aspiring model, nor much of a Kim Kardashian fan, but it’s moments of modest progress like this that have got me hooked on Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the Glu-developed RPG app that arrived out of the blue last week with the promise of virtual fame and riches and is projected to gross $200 million dollars by the end of this year (though other sources are more conservative). Despite successfully resisting the urge to shell out any real-life cash (the game has a pretty tempting selection of in-app purchases) I’ve been taking long trips to the bathroom, using up all the data on my parents’ family plan (apparently, I’m not alone) and making sure to open the game outside the subway so that I can play it on the train heading home from work. Somewhat embarrassingly, I even experienced a twinge of jealousy last night when a friend on level 10 told me that she’d already made the A-list (I was on level 7 then; now I’m on level 8).
When a co-worker of mine started asking me about the hows and whys of my addiction the other day (“HOW COULD YOU LIKE THIS? DO REALIZE HOW DARK THIS IS?”) it dawned on me that the highs and lows of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, for a journalist like me, can feel disturbingly analogous to the highs and lows of everyday life: juggling a non-stop barrage of phone calls and digital communication, liaising with publicists, plotting my time-table out like a Tetris game, even worrying about what my Twitter follower count says about how well I’m doing my job. I guess a part of me wanted to see if my daily exposure to the inner mechanics of the publicity and publishing games (at least in a music context) would make me somehow better equipped to navigate the protagonist’s rise from nobody to fabulously famous beach house owner. Turns out, I just ended up being a D-list celebrity with $500 in my checking account and an unfurnished condo in Hollywood, but that’s okay. My time spent running between mid-level photo shoots and striking out with men in bars because I don’t have enough K Coins left to “charm them” hasn’t been all for naught: I’ve had ample time to think about the game, and the sort of “guidelines for living and careering” one might extrapolate from it if one were to read it as an analog to the real-world fame game. Below, I thought I’d share six of them. Many of them are pretty dark, but then again, probably only as dark as the world that gave rise to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
1. Success requires hustling 24/7. When you’re out of energy, procure some.
Making money and increasing your profile in the world of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood requires making your way through a never-ending succession of tasks—clothing store shifts, photo shoots, public appearances—but each of them requires a certain number of “energy points,” and energy points frequently run out. Running out of energy in the game parallels the real-life scenario in which you get tired after a long day of work and have to recharge your batteries. This delayed gratification aspect of the game (having to wait until your energy points fill back up) is probably greatly responsible for its addictive quality, Candy Crush style; it’s also a clever strategy for getting people to spend money on the game, through the purchase of additional points. The drugs analogy here is pretty hard to ignore, especially because of how quickly the energy you purchase will probably run out, and how physically debilitated you become when it wears off (clocking a shift at Kim Kardashian’s Kardash boutique in Miami, I didn’t even have the wherewithal to fold a stack of sweaters).
2. Anyone can succeed in the entertainment industry, but money gives you a competitive advantage.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto, to which I have frequently heard this game compared, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood allows you to play either as a man or as a woman. You can also choose between a variety of different skin colors and hair types, and flirt, according to your preference, with men, women, or both (note: you cannot choose between different body types, however). Although there are some potentially offensive binaries at play, for the most part, the world of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood feels like an equal opportunity playing field—a place where anyone, light-skinned or dark, gay or straight or bi, can rise up from his or her humdrum existence as a clerk at a clothing store called So Chic in downtown Los Angeles, become best friends with Kim Kardashian and conquer the world. That said, it’s hard to break into the A-list when you don’t have enough energy to take every single editorial shoot and paid appearance gig that your publicist hands over to you, and it’s hard to look the part when your rent is past due and you don’t have enough cash to buy new clothes and a good weave. That’s where the money part comes in: you don’t have a lot of it when you’re first starting out, but if you inject real-life dollars into the game, you can purchase the energy you need to do tasks and the fake money you need to buy things like clothes and cars and condos. You can also buy K Coins, an alternate form of virtual currency that allows you charm and flirt with the “right people.” Perhaps not unlike the real Hollywood, Kim Kardashian’s world may seem at first glance like a meritocracy—but it’s not.
3. Becoming a celebrity has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with how you play the game.
As a music journalist, something I wholeheartedly believe is that if you make really good music, people will eventually catch on. The creepy thing about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is that the question of talent—or skill—never really comes up. Sure, you see people on Twitter reacting both positively and negatively to the modeling work you do (I have yet to crack the acting gigs that are supposedly also available), but the photo gigs themselves consist solely of clicking on buttons denoting various fashion shoot “activities” (“Hold that pose,” “Check makeup,” “Profile shot”) until you are told that the modeling task is complete. Strategically, the only kind of “skill” that comes in handy playing the game is the ability to choose between gigs that are worth your time and gigs that are not—a good gig being one that will afford you greater exposure, a bad gig being a low-profile appearance at a pub called The Brew Palms in Hollywood. There’s little room for creative or artistic variation; opportunistic thinking and effective time management are the virtues that are needed to rise to the top.
4. Appearance is everything if you want to get ahead.
When you boot up the game on your phone, the screen flashes with a few pointers from Kim Kardashian’s cartoon likeness; one of them reads, “Changing your look and buying nice clothes can get you noticed,” which makes sense given that the avatar you are playing is trying to climb the ranks as a model. That said, note the language here: getting noticed in the universe of the game isn’t framed as a matter of dressing “well”—elegantly, or beguilingly, or within the parameters of contemporary good taste —but simply changing up your look as much as possible. By “nice clothes,” I’m pretty sure Kim is referring to the new threads you can buy in the game’s “Kustomize” appearance center. When I asked my friend how she made it to the A-list, she said that she’s pretty sure it was because she paid the game $5 so she could “buy a ton of expensive clothes.”
5. Significant others and friends are only as valuable as they are for your career.
I went on a date in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood once. Kim set it up for me, and he was handsome, and a writer (like me), although I didn’t have enough energy points to go in for a kiss. Later on in the game, I’m pretty sure he “broke up” with me because I didn’t have enough K Coins to continue our phone conversation (short of spending real money, you only earn about one or two of those per level). I’ve tried “flirting” and “networking” with other people I’ve encountered, but each time it’s the same thing: a snarky comment along the lines of “Who the hell do you think you are?,” along with the option of charming the person in question for a number of K Coins that I don’t have. That’s the thing about your social life in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood—nobody wants to associate with you if you’re lower on the totem pole than they are, and you only want to associate with people who can help you step up your profile, but you can only do so if you’re willing to pay for it (another point of advice from the game intro: “Dating costs money, but it’s a fast way to level up”). It’s a cruel, cut-throat world, and come to think of it, the only human being who has been unequivocally nice to me since I started this joint is Kim Kardashian, giving but asking for nothing in return, flying all the way to Las Vegas for my birthday party, even offering me a part-time job at her store. If there is a munificent and benevolent God presiding over this colorful, utility-minded, capitalist hellhole of a virtual place, then, it can only be Kim Kardashian, but what does that say about Kim Kardashian? And what does that say about me, a more-than-willing resident?
6. Fame is a game, but it’s not a game that you can win.
I’m not entirely sure if you can win Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Sure, you can play it long enough to become an A-lister, but I’m don’t know if the game necessarily ends after that. One very hyper-detailed cheat sheet I tracked down (peep it here) suggests that you can keep trucking along even after you’ve reached the specified goal of 50 million fans: “After you hit the top of the A-list, the most fun thing to do is accumulate wealth. Make enough money to buy everything. All the clothes, homes, furniture and cars. See how far you can get. Can you become a super star?” If it’s true that you can keep on playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood even after you “win,” then playing it may hold some of the compulsive satisfaction of binge-watching your favorite serial drama, where life never really climaxes or comes to a conclusion; it just keeps on unfolding. In the case of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, though, the fact that you can keep acquiring money and Twitter followers ad infinitum feels like a disturbing revelation about the aim of the game itself, especially insofar as it stands as a metaphor for the mechanics of wealth and celebrity in the internet era. You just keep acquiring money and followers because the final pay-off never comes, and the final payoff never comes because there isn’t one