Kapitalism, With Kim Kardashian

* * *

That is the premise, at least, of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, an app that is also a game that is also, now, a phenomenon. ("It might be our biggest game of the year," Niccolo de Masi, CEO of the app-maker Glu Mobile Inc., told Bloomberg.) 

The game is free to download and play; but it allows—and encourages—in-app purchases. You use real-world money to win at Kim World. Which has meant, among other things, that Kim Kardashian is becoming even more explicitly what a reality star always will be, underneath it all: an entrepreneur. While she has long ranked among the highest-paid of the reality ("reality") stars—her estimated net worth, as of this June, was $45 million—the game is on track to earn $200 million, with Kim's 45-percent cut coming in at $90 million. So you can accuse Kim Kardashian of vanity or vapidity or any manner of metaphor, but, if you do, she will laugh all the way to the bank. And then, probably, use the ATM mirror to reapply her mascara. 

But back to the game. In it, Kim is a cartoon. So are you. You play a character who works in an L.A. clothing boutique, but who is—obviously—destined for greater things than working in an L.A. clothing boutique. (This is obvious because the character you play is cute, and be-stiletto-ed, and small-waisted-and-big-everything-elsed, and in form very much like Kim Kardashian.)

In very short order, your boutique—So Chic, it is called—is visited by … Kim Kardashian. Which is not just a cool thing, but a useful thing. It is An Opportunity, and you are meant to take advantage of it. (Taking advantage is a big theme of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.) You are given two options: stay open late and help Kim get an outfit for a party she's attending … or refuse her. (The game, however, will not actually let you refuse. Striving, in this moral universe, means always saying yes.) 

So things continue apace. Your relationship with Kim grows. (Like everything else in the game, however, Kim is merely a means to end, and that end is Fame.) Kim, being magnanimous, invites you to a photo shoot; you go to said photo shoot; you go, afterward, to a party. And to more parties. And to more parties, each of escalating awesomeness. In each setting, you are given a set of tasks to complete and also a series of binary options: either take Kim's call or don't; either spend money on new clothes or wear something old; either flirt with a fellow named Dirk or network with him. The game has three primary currencies (Kurrencies?): energy (which comes in the form of little lightning bolts), money, and K-stars, which are basically a combination of the two others, and which sociologists might prefer to call "capital." You can expend K-stars on "charm." Which you can in turn deploy to help you to climb, socially, from the E list to the A list.

And that is the point of the game.

There is a brute logic to all of this. There is also an economic essentialism to all of this. Every possible move in the game that is Kim Kardashian: Hollywood represents a strategic violation of the categorical imperative: The whole point is to use anything available to you—goods, money, other people—as means to your own self-furtherment. This is capitalism, essentially, stripped of its remaining niceties and applied to the unique vapidity of Hollywood social life. 

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the game that Ayn Rand might have written, had Ayn Rand lived in the age of the smartphone and been a fan of bodycon skirts. It is what happens when objectification gives way to objectivism. "This game is so freakin stupid," iTunes customer Dmon555 complained, before giving it a 5-star rating.

In the Android store, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is sold under the category of "Adventure." And this is where Kim really gets the last laugh. Because the adventure being undertaken is, essentially, to become Kim Kardashian. It is to mimic her life—the striving, the posing, the stubborn conviction that fame is its own reward. And it is also, outside of the game's ecosystem, to help Kim Kardashian to realize her own quest to become Kim Kardashian. The game equates Kardashian with Hollywood itself; it might as well have thought more grandly. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has made its way to Stephen Colbert. And to federal agencies, with the EPA mistakenly tweeting about the game. And to the House of Representatives, where John Dingell, D-MI, was recently compelled to declare, "I have no idea who/what a Kardashian is." 

The thing is: He does now.    

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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