Sim Kardashian: Dopamine, Gork, and More Rewards for Being Consumed by the Most Important Game in the World
I recently moved to Hollywood and started a new job at a clothing boutique. When I arrived at work on my first day, my new boss, Luther Alexander, told me he had to leave for an appointment in Beverly Hills and asked me to stay late and close up. It seemed weird that he would trust someone who’d worked there for only 30 seconds with a job like this, but I was new in town — maybe things in Hollywood moved faster than they do in other places. I straightened some stacks of jeans and counted out the register, and before long I was outside, ready to lock the doors. And that was when I saw her: Kim Kardashian. She had some sort of wardrobe emergency happening and wanted to know if the store was closed.
I still wonder what would have happened if I’d said “Yes” — if I’d told her I didn’t feel comfortable making an exception to the rules on my first day without clearing it with Luther? Was it possible for me to just go home and forget all about this encounter? Could I have stayed on at the boutique for a few years, learned what Luther had to teach me about retail, maybe taken a couple of business courses at a community college, and eventually opened a shop of my own, selling the work of local designers? Was it possible for me to change my destiny, or is my life on rails? I suppose I’ll never know. Kim and I went back inside the store. She needed something to wear to a photo shoot, something quick. Two super-cute dresses caught her eye. I told her she’d look good in silver. Nothing was the same after that.
I am a pop culture writer in America and a renowned Kardashiologist and the lucky beneficiary of an economic system that does not require me to do hard physical work to feed and clothe my family, so on a Tuesday afternoon I began playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
I held off on doing this for weeks, even as the game became a $200 million runaway hit and the inescapable subject of a thousand whimsical think pieces like the one I am now writing. My tolerance for Kardashian-related bullshit is pretty much limitless. David Foster Wallace said he subscribed to Cosmopolitan because reading the same sex quiz every month was soothing to his nervous system; I feel the same way about watching the Ks wander in and out of each other’s houses, having fake conversations and eating salads. But I’ve learned from experience after experience that mobile games should not and cannot be a part of my life. The cycle is always the same, whether it’s Doodle Jump or Angry Birds or Bejeweled or 2048 or Candy Crush Saga: I download “out of curiosity,” and within half a day I’m sneaking off to the bathroom to feed the monkey and spending actual real-world money on extra DoodleBonks and selling my daughter’s toys on the sidewalk and (eventually) deleting the app from my phone, sick and ashamed.
These games are addictive because they exploit basic weaknesses of the human brain. If we perform a task and get a reward, even a meaningless one, our brains release dopamine; if we perform that task but get the reward only intermittently, our brains release more dopamine when we do get the reward. At least I think that’s how it works; I started reading a Guardian article about it and then went to check my Twitter mentions and got distracted.
The really insidious thing about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is that, at least at first, it doesn’t make you feel like a lab rat self-administering a liquid cocaine solution until it dies of malnutrition. You wander around whimsical side-scrolling re-creations of downtown L.A. and Beverly Hills and Hollywood; you tap the screen to perform simple tasks and money falls on the ground and you pick it up. Sometimes you run into Kim Kardashian, who is always excited to see you and says things like “You clearly have a talent … maybe one day you’ll have your own show too!” The non-Kim non-player characters are either knowing parodies of archetypal Hollywood figures — like the hard-charging publicist who says, “Who needs therapy when blasting someone online makes me feel better than all the CBT and SSRIs in the world could?” — or interchangeably attractive bros and baes who all dress like Kitson mannequins but have contextually nonsensical jobs like “agrologist” or “playwright” or “politician.” Early on, playing the game is like being a balloon in a gentle breeze, a boat drifting lazily downstream. You’re aware that you don’t really control your fate, that the choices the game gives you are illusory, but hey, look, free fake money on the ground!
I spend the first few hours trying to do things to confuse the game. My character is a full-lipped redhead. I name myself Shiva the Destroyer so everyone in the game will have to say it to me. This never stops being funny. “Shiva the Destroyer! I’m glad I ran into you!” When I finish my first photo shoot I’m supposed to go meet somebody at a bar called the Brew Palms, but instead I decide to stand in the studio for a while and see what happens. I sigh. I put my hand on my hip and touch my hair. I inspect my cuticles. (This is exactly what I did during the photo shoot itself; for a redhead named Shiva the Destroyer, I am not a very expressive person.) A loop of ambient photo-shoot noise plays on and on in the background. It’s like an Andy Warhol movie.
Later at the Brew Palms I order a drink from Tyler, the bartender. I notice that just ordering the drink gets me a little doot-doot-doot digital fanfare and some kind of meow-meow bean that brings me closer to leveling up. Is this the Kardashian-game equivalent of Cartman killing boars day after day in World of Warcraft? Could I sit here day after day in the same bar, buying drink after drink, and eventually climb the ladder by doing so? It worked in New York in my twenties! Forty minutes pass like a fugue. This is how a dystopia starts.
Every time you load the game it gives you a new tip on how to play better. “Getting new clothing, cars, and homes can increase your star power for love and work.” “Pets are great for bonus rewards and energy.” If this game were a person it would be a horrible sociopath.
By midnight on my first day I have a to-do list in the game that’s as complicated as the one I have in life. I have to go do a runway show and a shoot for an ad campaign and meet with publicist Maria Holmes, who is interested in representing me even though I’m still not even a D-list celebrity. Oh, and my new BFF Kim Kardashian has set me up on a date with a guy named Mitchell. He’s a writer, Kim says, and “not one of those nerdy sitcom writers, either. You’ll love him!” (When I meet Mitchell he’s wearing a white suit and gold chains, which is the same thing I wear every day to my job as a writer.)
I feel overwhelmed. I need to go someplace, get my head together. I scroll through Beverly Hills until I wind up back at Kim’s mansion. I go inside. She’s not there anymore so I walk around and pretend that it’s mine.
Because I am a person writing a humorous first-person article about playing the Kardashian game, I am required to point out that the experience of playing the Kardashian game simulates what it must be like to be a Kardashian, in that you are suddenly rocketed to fame for no real reason and compensated handsomely for performing simple tasks like “Check makeup” and “Grab a drink” and “React to backdrop image.” But as a Kardashiologist I understand this game’s relationship to the real-life Kardashians on a deeper level.
Although she recorded voice-overs for her avatar (“Bible — I love that on you!”), it’s unclear how involved Kim Kardashian was with the conceptualization of this game. But the gameplay itself is an extension of the compensatory mythology of hard work that the Ks have created around their body of industrious nonwork. About once per Keeping Up With the Kardashians episode, you will hear one of the Ks use the word “work” to describe activities (having their photograph taken, drinking iced coffee while walking around a potential retail space, looking at pictures of bathing suits and saying “super cute”) that no one who actually works at a job, even an easy job, would refer to as such. I love the Kardashians and I believe they’ve sustained themselves as famous people through resourcefulness and even personal sacrifice, but them saying the word “work” is always, always funny to me. They need to come up with another word to describe what they do, like “gork.” A hypothetical Khloe quote from a world where this is the case: “I’ve just really been trying to focus on gork.”
So the Kardashian game isn’t just about providing you and me with the opportunity to vicariously live the life of a professional celebrity. It’s propaganda designed to remind us at every turn that the life of a professional celebrity isn’t easy. That it takes gork. The most important resource in the Kardashian game isn’t fake money or the sparkly “K” stars you accumulate for successfully completing a mission; it’s “energy,” represented by little Gatorade-blue lightning bolts. Every task you do in a professional context in the game takes energy, even “Grab a drink,” which, strictly speaking, isn’t even a task. When you run out of energy — and there are enough tasks to be completed per photo shoot or personal appearance that you inevitably do — you can either acquire more lightning bolts from the in-game Star Shop (by watching a short video advertising another mobile-app game, or by spending your actual American real-world money) or wait for your energy level to gradually replenish itself.
I am an idiot but I am not a stupid idiot; I promised myself when I started doing this that I wouldn’t spend any actual money financing my fake career as a Sim-celebrity, and so far I’ve kept that promise. But what you find out pretty quickly is that if you try to play using only your natural game-granted supply of lightning bolts, the Kardashian game is no fun at all. It’s actually really frustrating. You can go off and do something else — either in the game, or in real life, even outside in the sun, if that’s what you’re into — but you have to remember to log back in and complete each challenge within the time limit allotted. I find this out pretty quickly when I leave a few jobs unfinished for lack of energy, forget to circle back and finish them, and wake up the next day to learn that both my first runway-show appearance and my spread for a local ad campaign have been called “Meh” by haters in my in-game social-media feed.
I’ve read through the various tip sheets online about how to cheat the game. Changing the clock on my phone seems like a recipe for real-life disaster, as do the various files you can download to goose your stats. All the other tips seem irrelevant to someone in my position, although many of them are fascinating, like koans from some materialism-based anti-Zen faith: “The more homes you buy, the more furniture you can purchase, which means a faster rise to the A-list.”
“You’re too tired,” the game tells me, over and over. It’s a huge bummer. Maybe it’s the July heat or the side effects of a long gorkday that involved too much coffee and not enough water, but by the end of Wednesday afternoon, as I strain to complete even one job with my meager energy allotment, I’m starting to feel depleted myself. It’s as if Shiva the Destroyer and I are somehow connected, like Elliott and E.T.; by the time my wife gets home from her job I’m actually feeling a little light-headed. I tell her what’s happening.
“Maybe you should film yourself getting rammed from behind by Ray J,” she says, sliding a chicken into the oven. “Would that give you more energy?”
She has taken a dim view of this project from the beginning. I explain to her that this isn’t that kind of game.
Later, we sit on the couch and try to jolt Shiva the Destroyer out of her funk. “Why do you look like Run Lola Run?” my wife asks. “And why are you wearing that dress?” I click on the wardrobe icon. We shuffle through the options available and pick out a more Kim-like dress that has only one sleeve. It’s not perfect — “Donatella Versace would have ripped that other sleeve right off,” my wife says — but I feel a little more glamorous. It doesn’t help my energy levels, though — when I meet with a designer at Panino, a Beverly Hills wine bar, I’m so tired I can’t even respond to her question about boots. At this rate I’m never going to claw my way up to the D-list, no matter how many Miami parties Kim invites me to.
I realize that by showing me how difficult it is to function in the Kardashians’ world without any energy, the game is giving me a glimpse of what it’s like to be a very specific Kardashian. I start to say this to my wife and she gets there before I can. “You’re Rob!” she crows. Rob, the Kardashian who’s grown fat and listless and depressed over the last few seasons. Rob, the Kardashian who starts dumb projects that go nowhere. Rob, the Kardashian nobody likes because he can’t do anything. I have been making fun of Rob for years and now I’ve become him. This game is stupid and diabolical at the same time.
I’m convinced I really do have heatstroke. My wife tells me I’ll feel better if I take a shower. She’s probably right. I go into the bathroom. In a minute I’m standing there naked with the water running but I can’t help it: Before I get in I grab my phone off the counter and check my stats. My energy level has crept back up to a paltry five lightning bolts and Shiva the Destroyer’s cell phone is ringing. My agent Simon has lined up a “local spread opportunity” for me at PopGlam. I say yes. Gork, gork, gork.
Of course I broke down eventually. I kracked, I kaved, I kompromised my kode. It was bound to happen; in a sense, it was probably meant to happen. On Saturday night I slipped into the StarShop and spent 40 U.S. dollars on 460 K-stars, a package whose contents are cleverly depicted in the StarShop menu as overflowing out of a Louis Vuitton–ish purse. (If you buy 1,250 stars for $100 — “Best Value!” — there’s a picture of stars in a Louis trunk.) The transaction was seamless — one click, one password entry, and an email alerting me that $40 had been charged to my iTunes account. Maybe Kim really is the Steve Jobs of something, the way Kanye always insists she is.
Now I was free. I could go where I wanted, say yes to anything. L.A.’s only paparazzo recognized me outside a fashion show. I bought a house in Miami, right next to the Dash store. Kim came to my birthday party in Vegas. I was welcomed like a queen in Calabasas. And whenever my energy flagged I dipped into my Louis purse and spent a few more K-shekels on a few more lightning bolts. It was easy, and so the game was fun again. I suppose the conclusion I should draw from this experience — what Andy Rooney would have taken away, if he’d spent — is that of course this game only really works if you’re willing to bend the rules and buy your way into various VIP rooms and artificially enhance your God-given assets, because it’s a toy-size model of the same endlessly susceptible system by which actual Kardashians become famous.
But I don’t really see it that way. If we can assume that Kim, however involved she was or wasn’t in the actual design and programming of this game, is nonetheless its auteur in the “I approve this message” sense, what message is she approving? I see this game’s very existence as Kim’s acknowledgement that her own career as a professional celebrity has always itself been a game, and that while it’s possible to take advantage of certain weaknesses in the rules in order to advance in that game, moving forward still comes down at the end of the day to drudgery and diligence. It’s not what we think of as work but it’s as hard as work. It is no easier being cheesy than it is being Yeezus. The great lie of celebrity in America is “This could be you”; Kim is someone who proves it’s not necessarily a lie, provided you’re willing to make a job out of it. You can buy your way in — what is a sex-tape leak, if not the real-world equivalent of paying money for a bag of magic fame-stars? — but you still have to find your own way up the rest of the ladder. And as we climb, Kim is always there, in chirpy avatar form, telling us we’re worth it, telling us our dresses look super cute. I believe her. I am Shiva the Destroyer and I am thinking about adopting a virtual cat.