Kim Kardashian’s Seventh Circle of Hollywood

The secret eternal cost (and divine reward) of Free-to-Play games.

By Al Vanderklipp, Northwest Michigan University

Despite barely qualifying as a video game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a mobile app and a runaway success: The free-to-play title has amassed over $100,000,000 in profits from optional purchases since its release in 2014.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood begins with a cheerful video message from the woman herself. “Hi gorgeous!” Kim mutters, “I hope this Valentine’s day is filled with lots of love…”'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I roll my eyes cynically. Typical free-to-play nonsense, flattery and reward without having to work for it, a Skinner Box that gets you hooked and then starts to charge you when the treats stop coming.

What could possibly be so great about this game, built on a model that exploits the feeble-minded casual gamer? No, I remind myself, I promised I’d be objective… I take a deep breath and open my mind.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

After an extremely concise exposition, the game begins. I am a randomized character, a bright-pink asian hunk in slim black jeans and moccasins, who has just moved to LA and has landed a job at a clothing store called “So Chic.”

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

My new boss, an equally gorgeous man, asks me right off the bat to straighten the shirt on a mannequin. Since this is MY Hollywood fantasy, my first instinct is to tell the boss to go to hell, walk out and put my astonishing new sunburned body to work in a big-budget, softcore porno, but since my only dialogue option is “okay,” I begrudgingly agree to fix the display model.

As I adjust the revealing white blouse, a stack of bills and some kind of gold medallion from inside the garment drop to the floor; I hastily scoop the treasures off the floor before my boss notices. I get excited. Could it be that working retail is more lucrative than I imagined?

Satisfied with my work ethic and unaware of my newfound secret wealth, the boss leaves for the night, tasking me with closing. On my first day- and the fool didn’t even ask for my name! I can take anything I want!

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

More money and gold medals drop to the floor as I fold clothes, and the same thing happens as I shut down the register. Already, the novelty of being rich is wearing thin.

I start to imagine how people back home might begin treat me differently, how former classmates and acquaintances will come out of the woodwork to ask for help paying for medical expenses and tuition and screened-in porches. I’ve been in LA for mere minutes and I’m already estranged from my home.

With my head down and a heavy heart, I lock up the store, and walk down the busy LA sidewalk. Almost immediately, I bump into Kim Kardashian.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

She says she needs help, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, and since I’m not really surprised to see her (since she called me “gorgeous” in the intro video, I assumed we were already on a first-name basis) I select “just closing…” More useless bundles of money spill from the dialogue box and onto the sidewalk.

Kim explains that she’s ripped her shirt, and she needs to buy a new one before an important meeting. I agree to reopen for a few minutes, and glittering silver stars tumble to the ground.

Neither of us acknowledges the pool of riches surrounding our feet; it’s not even worth the effort to bend down and pick it up. Though Kim’s motivation in striking up a conversation might have been purely selfish, it’s nice to speak with another millionaire.

We enter the shop and Kim picks out a dress, a stretchy red garment that surely costs thousands. She stares me dead in the eyes and dares me to charge her.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

She never explicitly threatens violence, but something in her stance makes my armpits damp. Nervously, I realize I have no other choice but to give the dress away. I can cover the costs with my own funds, but I feel uneasy regardless.

What kind of power game is she playing? Is she getting off on this? I hand over her “purchase,” eager to be rid of her. The air in So Chic seems thick, heavy. I swallow hard. Kim doesn’t move.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

It’s like she senses my unease. She smirks and invites me out to a photo shoot at Metropolitan Magazine. “I’d love that!” I say. I’d say anything at this point, just for a moment alone.

I was warned about the psycho-sexual games that these Hollywood elite-types play on one another, and the turns they can take for the worse. Now that I’ve found myself among them, I must do my best to adapt.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I return home to my apartment and search for an outfit that I think is appropriate for this type of event, something not soaked in fear-sweat.

Several shirts and pants are only available for K-Coins, rare currency only available for those willing to spend real-life money, but I don’t have time to enter in my credit card information! The shoot could start any minute!

As I rifle through the wardrobe, thousands of in-game dollar bills fly out of my dresser and scatter all over the floor of my new apartment. I don’t even notice them anymore.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I pick out a thick, stylishly retro denim jacket. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel compelled to impress Kim. The moment I put it on, she calls- almost like she’s been watching me. But, that’s impossible, right? I just moved in. There’s no way she could have known…

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

Foolishly, I exit the building and head toward the bus stop, not thinking of how it will look to these people that I arrived on public transportation.

Kim’s fashion photographer, Garret St. Clair, grins and snaps hundreds of pictures of me as I depart from the filthy vehicle. Smugly, he asks for my name.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

Ashamed of my low-class method of transport and in fear of damaging my burgeoning reputation, I give him the first fake moniker that comes to my head.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

Kim appears from the shadows and the two of them inform me that I am the subject of their next photo shoot. There’s something teasing in her tone when she says she likes my style, something deeply cruel.

The dark sarcasm is too much. Before the shoot can even begin, I make a run for the door with tears in my eyes, and find myself on the sunny streets of Beverly Hills, my breath hitching in my throat. I look for a place to hide, and I try everywhere.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

The bus stop, the trendy coffee shop, the trendy mausoleum, every door in Beverly Hills is locked. It seems the only open building is Met Magazine. Other people, mere shadows in the background, completely ignore my existence; I’ve never felt so small. Does Kim really have this kind of power in this town?

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I find myself wishing I had never left home in the first place. I fall into a state of deep, melancholic homesickness for only a few moments. Why did I choose to leave the comforts of home behind?

No, really, why? I literally can’t remember. It slowly dawns on me that the last thing I can remember, my earliest memory, is those words on a black screen…

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

A memory from only hours ago. My entire backstory, my entire life before my Hollywood fantasy began, is summed up in those two sentences. The homesickness is real, but I can’t seem to put a place to feeling.

I don’t remember ever learning to read, my first kiss, holidays, family. For all I know, my name really is Chip Winkler. My head is reeling.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I try every building on the block again, but to no avail. Resignedly, I re-enter the Met Mag offices. Garrett and Kim are still there, waiting for me. Didn’t even try to chase me. Why would they? I had nowhere to run. I go through the humiliating motions of the shoot, and more expensive-looking trinkets fall to the floor.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

I consider using the sharp-edged blue star as a weapon, but I realize there’s probably no point. This isn’t my Hollywood rags-to-riches fantasy anymore- it probably never was. This is Kim’s world, and I’m just her plaything. I can’t harm her any more than a toy can harm a child.

Kim and Garrett grin together, and invite me to a party that evening. They’ve been through this before, maybe thousands of times, but they seem to relish every second. I agree to attend. Mercifully, my iPhone’s battery dies, and the screen goes dark.

–           –           –

I put the phone down. My hands are shaking. I look out the window; it’s dark. How long have I been playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood? Hours? Days? Memories of my life come flooding back, real people, places, moments.

Tears fill my eyes and spill down my cheeks. I am filled with gratitude for my stupid little existence. But my work isn’t finished; I dry my eyes, stick my phone on the charger, and reboot the app.

'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood'—Successful App or Apocalyptic Herald?

Grinning, I purchase enough K Coins to afford every unlockable outfit for my character, and then some. $99.99 seems a small price to pay for a little perspective. Thanks, Kim, you’ve earned every penny.