Kallie was tall, with short brown hair and a penchant for wearing flowing dresses. She had just arrived in Los Angeles with nothing to show for herself but an empty apartment, a greasy landlord that constantly demanded rent, and a simple dream: to become an A-list celebrity in her new hometown. Kallie was also my avatar in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (hence why I chose the “K” name), a new iPhone game from developer Glu Mobile that is slated to earn up to $200 million a year, thanks to the power of its titular celebrity to draw players into the game with her image.
The premise is simple. Players take the role of an L.A. ingénue who starts off as a clothing store clerk but quickly meets a virtual Kim Kardashian, gets an agent, and sets off on the ladder to stardom. That ladder is climbed by participating in modeling gigs, aspirational dating (the game allows you to choose between pursuing men and women), and plenty of schmoozing. It’s more like a mildly interactive choose-your-own adventure book than a first-person shooter. Players can change their outfits, acquire furniture, move into new homes, and even get a cat. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a celebrity simulator without the hassles of real-life public scrutiny.
If you put enough effort and/or money into the game, it allows you to turn yourself into a replica of Kardashian, complete with virtual wealth, fame, and mansions.
As I played, Kallie took public buses back and forth to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. She booked modeling gigs, and I had to poke small action buttons to make her pose, change outfits, or take a profile shot. Things seemed to be going well. But suddenly, the game ground to a halt. Each time I pressed an action button I used up lightning bolts that I could only obtain more of by waiting until a timer counted down another five minutes. I was faced with a choice: Should I wait the allotted time or pay anywhere from $5 to $60 in real U.S. money for packages of in-game lightning bolts, cash, or K-stars (Jezebel writer Tracie Egan Morrissey spent a staggering $494), all of which could be used to smooth my path to fame?
Games that manipulate players into trading real-life money for virtual goods, as I’ve described before, aren’t particularly new, but Kim Kardashian: Hollywood represents a new twist—it’s a celebrity-driven virtual economy. By lending her image and imprimatur to the game, Kardashian is taking home 45 percent of the profit every time a player buys anything in her digital world. And players are buying in earnest (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water division’s official Twitter account even mistakenly tweeted an alert from the game). Kardashian could stand to make $85 million from the game this year, almost three times the $28 million she earned from her various income streams in 2013.
We pay not because the game is great, but because we want to participate in Kardashian’s narrative—her brand, made up of her potent combination of media visibility, influencer access, and compelling narrative quality—and to do so, we have to shell out. It’s an effective strategy. The Kardashian game isn’t alone in using a celebrity to spice up a cultural product, whether the celebrity was aware of it or not.
UNLIKE KIM KARDASHIAN, ELLEN Page didn’t know she was going to be in a video game. But when The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic zombie survival game created by Naughty Dog, was released in June 2013, the actress got a surprise. In the game, the protagonist, a weathered man named Joel, has to escort a young woman named Ellie across the ruined United States, dodging deadly zombies and hostile humans alike. Ellie, a mousy young woman with brown hair, happened to look just like Ellen.
The Last of Us. (Photo: Naughty Dog)
Page was already booked to act as the star character of Beyond: Two Souls, a science-fiction video game by developer Quantic Dream. But she had no such deal with Naughty Dog. “They ripped off my likeness,” Page wrote last year on Reddit in reaction to the game. “It was not appreciated.” The developers were likely attempting to piggyback on Page’s brand and her ability to create a memorable look and character to market the game, though they clearly didn’t try to get the actress in on the profits as Kardashian’s partners did.
Naughty Dog’s developers changed the character to look less like Page, and the actress didn’t sue the company, but not all creators are so lucky. The French author Grégoire Delacourt’s best-selling novel La Première Chose qu’On Regarde (The First Thing We Look At) features a young model who is described as looking exactly like Scarlett Johansson—in fact, readers don’t discover she’s not Johansson until 60 pages into the book.
Johansson wasn’t pleased, and in May, she sued Delacourt and his publisher for $68,000. The actress’ lawyer, Vincent Toledano, argued that the novel is a “violation and fraudulent and illegal exploitation of her name, her reputation and her image”—in other words, her brand. The author was stunned. “I was hoping that she might send me flowers because this book is, in a way, a declaration of love,” he told the Daily Mail.
Kardashian could stand to make $85 million from the game this year, almost three times the $28 million she earned from her various income streams in 2013.
While Johansson might be accused of litigious overreach into the world of fiction, the book also took advantage of what makes Johansson compelling (“She is an archetypal beauty of our times, very human with a touching fragility,” Delacourt said) to form its appeal—indeed, it has sold over 100,000 copies in France. In July, the court agreed with Johansson on just one of her demands, and the publishers were forced to remove language about fictional affairs. She was awarded a paltry $6,800, far less than the author made by appropriating her.
KIM KARDASHIAN: HOLLYWOOD ISN’Tsolely interesting because of its star, but that’s a big part of it. The game doesn’t have much in the way of mechanics. The brief thrill of having Kim as your mentor wears off extremely quickly, or at least it did for me, though the strangeness of having her cartoon effigy appear on command on your iPhone stays remarkably fresh.
If you put enough effort and/or money into the game, it allows you to turn yourself into a replica of Kardashian, complete with virtual wealth, fame, and mansions. It’s this aspirational quality that ultimately makes the game a draw. Players are given the opportunity not just to participate in a celebrity brand, but to create a miniature one on their own.
Kallie picked up a new house, a boyfriend, and celebrity contacts. She promoted vodka, flew to Miami, went to the hottest clubs (they all looked exactly the same). After a few days, alerts would pop up on my phone telling me that my energy was finally renewed without me having to pay anything, and that my fashion shoot was launching, but I increasingly ignored them.
Beyond superficial celebrity, Kardashian’s brand has nothing compelling about it—maybe that’s why it was so easy to give up on. Even virtual celebrity requires daily maintenance. “I’m addicted, but spending too much,” as one review of the app put it. “I would like it if there were more opportunities to just hang out and not do much.”