A couple of weeks ago, I called up my 15-year-old sister. I wanted to ask her about a certain celebrity. "Hey... are you playing that Kim Kardashian game?"
"There's more than one?"
I could hear her suck her teeth through the phone, I could practically picture her rolling her eyes at me.
"You mean the Hollywood one? I was playing that WEEKS AGO."
"Oh, uh. Are you still playing it?"
"Yeah, I guess. It's kind of annoying because it makes you run out of energy really quickly..."
"Do you wanna hang out and watch the show maybe? You can tell me about the game?"
She sounded suspicious of my intentions, but she said yes. Partially, the entire thing was a ploy for me to gain some insight as to what R E A L T E E N S think of the game. But truthfully, part of it was that I'd been playing the game for weeks and was still a fucking E-Lister. Another truth: I was surprised to hear my sister criticise the game like that. The way people talk about these games online, you get this warped perception of the game's audience. You stop considering them as people, and instead think of them more like mindless, easily seduced zombies who don't know any better. That's why they must be playing games like this and spending money on them, right?
I asked my sister to play the game in front of me and tell me about it. Maybe I'd learn something I couldn't by playing it on my own, I figured. So she pulled out her white iPhone — which she informed me was brand new — and she showed me her character. She made sure to tell me about the specific things the character was wearing — the heels, the make-up, the jewelry — much in the same way someone might show you their character in Diablo or World or Warcraft.
For the last two weeks, it has seemed like everyone is talking about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Even our non-video-game sister sites have had been writing about it. Jezebel thinks it's hilarious. Gawker is fascinated by it. I ended up downloading it, since my friends couldn't seem to stop Tweeting about it or posting pictures of it online.
A typical Kim Kardashian: Hollywood screen looks a little like this:
Go to a party! Do a photoshoot! Go on a date! Travel the world! Kim Kardashian lets you do lots of things in the name of becoming an A-list celebrity. It's a vapid goal that is easy to criticise, until I remember how self-aware I am about things like how many Twitter followers I have, or my constant concern over being a widely-read author.
There are a lot of different interpretations of Hollywood. Some people say its design is sinister, and that the developers don't even try to hide the fact the game is a skinner box that can suck all your money away. Another interpretation: the game's design is intentional, and is meant to communicate the alienation and boredom that come with being a celebrity. (OK, maybe that one's a stretch.)
But, eh. I'm not interested in most "intellectual" interpretations of the game. They seem completely divorced from the actual people who are enjoying playing it. I don't like the knee-jerk idea that anything popular has nothing of merit. And I'm definitely not interested in anyone who puts this game down simply because it's attached to Kim Kardashian.
That's how I ended up calling my sister a couple of weeks ago.
In 2011, my family relocated to Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco. The move meant different things for me and for my sister; I was home from college for the summer, and she was thirteen, still living at the whim of the adults in her life.
At the time I was angry that, between college and the new house, I no longer had a place that felt like "home." I refused to really unpack during the summer, or do much to acknowledge the space as my own. In my mind, Richmond was a place you wound up if you fell asleep on the BART train on the way to Berkeley or something, not a place where anyone would want to grow old.
My sister didn't like it either, but what could she do, really? She was thirteen. She had to live wherever her parents wanted her to. So, she made the best of it and plastered her room with One Direction and Justin Bieber posters, and she spent most of her time playing games on her phone, games that I didn't have the reflexes for.
It was a slow summer, but I remember it vividly because of my sister. There's nothing weirder than walking down the street with your sister, only to have some sleaze catcall her and realise, oh, yeah, she has breasts now, huh? But, more than that — it was like she became a real person in the years I was off in college. I didn't actually know who that person was, though.
It seemed like everything she was interested in was so...inconsequential. When I got back from college, the first thing she did was rub in my face the fact she had the newest iPhone, the newest Jordans. When we went out, she seemed to spend a lot of time texting, or taking pictures of herself and putting them on Instagram. And any time I tried talking to her about those things, there was always this feeling that she was humouring me. Whatever I was interested in was something she had already read about online a week beforehand. (A week is a year in teen time!) Mostly, though, she was silent, and I was left wondering what in the world went on in her head.
Looking back, I think I was pretty unfair to her.
After I called my sister for our Kardashian-date, we ended up watching a few episodes of Kim's reality show. I'd never seen it before and I was curious. I was surprised by how entertaining it was — it's not, like, the most intellectual thing in the world, but the producers sure know how to play up the drama. Mostly, though, I was fascinated by Kim Kardashian. She seemed to be everywhere, and yet I knew so little about as a person. It's not that I think anyone can actually get a sense of a celebrity through a TV screen, but they still put on specific acts, personalities. With Kim, it was different. The show is about her and yet, based on the episodes I watched, she remained an enigma.
"Do you know why she got famous?" I asked my sister.
"The sex tape..."
"And you don't care?"
It was an awful question. I don't know what I was expecting — my sister is probably more web-savvy than I am, of course she fucking knows why Kim Kardashian got famous. I think, on some level, I was expecting it to be something like a gotcha — this woman you look up to, do you know what she did? As if we weren't watching a show about how she didn't let the sex tape ruin her, as if the game couldn't be interpreted as a testament to the fact that Kim Kardashian, even while living the life, technically never stops working.
Everyone likes to assert that Kardashian is "famous for being famous." But as Samantha Allen writes over at The Daily Dot, "It's not that Kardashian doesn't work; it's that her work is not recognised as legitimate within a sexist world that sees feminine culture and lifestyle as frivolous pursuits undeserving of any serious attention."
"She doesn't have a choice on whether or not she is scrutinized," Gita Jackson writes over at Paste. "She had a choice when her sex tape was released — be forever known as a woman who had a sex tape, or try and take control of that situation. She no longer gets to have "off the clock." When Mrs. Kardashian West wakes up, she is working. When she goes grocery shopping, she is working. When she is with her family, she is working. Every word she speaks and outfit she puts on and decision she makes must be made in respect to the fact that it will be recorded and analysed."
"I mean...I think she's a nice person," my sister says. "I like her. I think she would have gotten famous anyway."
"UGH. THIRSTY-ARSE BOYS ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO GET AT YOU IN THIS GAME. I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOOOU," my sister yelled as she skipped some dude's dialogue without reading it in the game. I couldn't help but laugh. This was a girl that, up until this point, I was convinced was actually boy-crazy.
"So if you tap on things in the background, sometimes they give you money," she explained as she dug through a trashcan in the game for extra coins. I thought about how games like BioShock: Infinite and Fallout have more in common with the Kim Kardashian game than people realise.
She went on to show me her apartment, and all the other things she earned in the game without actually spending any money. She also chided me for still being an E-lister — she was an A-Lister with millions of fans. I felt weirdly emasculated about the whole thing. Then she stopped and looked up at me.
"I don't think I want to be famous or anything. I'm just having fun with this game. I saw a story about how this YouTuber broke down after he got too many followers. I think I'm fine being a nobody...but I do have three thousand followers on Instagram," she said.
"Never change," I chuckled.
You don't have to dig far into the reviews tab of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood in the app store to find something written by Katherine Pollock. Katherine Polluck is twelve years old. This is her review:
Before I read that review, the mere concept of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood made me roll my eyes. A mobile game about a celebrity? About Kim Kardashian, of all celebrities? Yeah, ok. I'm sure that will be a great game and not just a total cash-in.
But after reading Katherine's review, I recalled that most folk on social media writing positively about the game — be it on Instagram or Twitter — seemed to be young girls. Middle-school girls. High school girls. Based on a Twitter and Instagram survey, it looked like they'd been playing Hollywood way before the rest of the world found out about it.
Society works hard to tell girls that their interests are stupid, vapid, and not worthy of respect. You want to be Arya Stark, not Sansa Stark, young women are told, even though in truth, both girls know what it means to be strong.
A mobile game about celebrity, a game that invites people to play dress-up and attend to photoshoots and parties? Forget it. The argument stops being about whether the game is fun (it is!) or empowering, and becomes about whether Hollywood is a game in the first place. Or, we talk about how manipulative it is, how it's designed to get you to spend money. We've been here before: It's The Sims, it's FarmVille, it's Candy Crush Saga. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is everything wrong with modern gaming, and you can download it for free on the app store.
While the adults of the internet argue about the merits of Kim Kardashian and her game, teen girls everywhere continue to gleefully tap on their screens, unaware of our debates and our thinkpieces. They're too busy having fun.
Pictures: Sam Woolley, Getty