Jupiter is a Failed Star because It Didn’t Want It Hard Enough

I finally adopted the cat in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. It took twenty Kim coins—one of three purchasable in-game currencies that I can use to buy clothing, accessories, furniture or goodwill from NPCs.

I didn’t actually pay real money for these coins, the primary reason being that I’m broke, and the game’s alternate coin-gathering method of downloading sponsored apps wasn’t being very responsive. So I worked for those coins. I tapped my way through photoshoots and mastered the catwalk. Whenever I ran out of energy—a blue lightning bolt constituting probably the most important in-game currency, since without it you can’t do much—I would fly coast to coast scrounging for energy in bushes, behind fire hydrants, et cetera. All the while I’m on the A-list, mired in a celebrity feud, and jetsetting around completing modeling contracts.

Tap to spend energy, spend energy to make money, spend money to go around looking for energy—and eventually you do enough of this to level up and earn a few Kim coins. It’s kind of a grind: I could’ve used those coins to charm directors or fashion photographers to raise my profile, but I wanted that cat. It’s the first “purchasable” animal you encounter in the game, perched outside your Downtown LA apartment indifferently next to a bird, blinking innocently and licking its paw in an eternal loop. The 20 coins would let me adopt the cat, taking its relatively static image off the street and dropping it into my apartment. All the other animals that I encountered before fulfilling my goal were sort of treated like part of the decor. I could purchase a couch and a dog for my Miami beach house and they would come out to about the same thing. The upshot would be, much like with the cat, that in between cooldowns I could tap the dogs to receive XP, money and energy. But still, the framing of the cat seemed more compassionate to me, even if that’s kind of irrational. So that’s what I focused my energy on.

It isn’t because I think the game is so vapid or materialistic that I looked for meaning in something that rung hollow. I don’t think that pinning these criticisms on the game or on its namesake is particularly helpful. Neither is doomsaying about how Kim Kardashian is ruining games. There is nothing—nothing—in this game that’s somehow more objectionable than what you’ll find in most other F2P RPGs, or, for that matter, in most videogames acting as simulations of work. In fact, while the game most definitely does its best to cajole you into spending real money, the presence of currency-earning alternatives and the low barrier to access makes it less exploitative than many other mobile games reliant on in-app purchases. It’s not like, say, King’s Bubble Witch Saga, which not only imposes frustrating cooldowns on deliberately addictive mechanics, it also conceals an absurd difficulty spike that only reveals itself a fair bit of the way into the game.

Arguing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is somehow the worst offender here is not only farcical, it also can’t really be separated from the assumed inadequacy of feminine-coded labour and leisure. So my problem isn’t that it’s worse than, say, the abusive time demands of your garden-variety MMO. It’s definitely not worse than the greedy content-gating to engineer DLC sales in games that usually warrant undue respect from gamers. But I also can’t say with a straight face that it’s better, that it doesn’t force me to engage with a socioeconomic ideology that doesn’t totally deplete me in other games. It’s something I want to be able to just put aside, but I can’t.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood offers me a power fantasy. It’s not of the “huge lats and huger guns that are totally not stand-ins for phalluses” variety. It’s one that’s actually pretty grounded in reality: to become a public figure, to be beautiful and adored and glamorous and to command awe and respect with my very presence.

But this fantasy, as they all must, comes at a cost. I’m not grinding to murder indigenous alien life, but everything I do is work. That becomes obvious right away, since almost literally everything I do costs energy, even dating. This is also exacerbated by the time limits imposed on each mission, which create a sense of obligation toward completing them. I want to earn enough “stars” out of five before the timer runs out, ensuring I raise my profile with positive feedback. Buying energy would streamline this, but I chose the grind instead. Then again having to work harder the lower you are on funds is a pretty true-to-life design decision.

Even buying the right outfit is treated like part of my career, although it costs me in either Kim coins or money, not energy. (Incidentally, I made it a point to ascend to A-list wearing only black leggings and a black hoodie. Each NPC I tried dating asked me to dress up a little more, and each one I immediately broke up with. I know that’s petulant but dammit, this is my celebrity dream, and if I want to be a single cat lady in a sweatshirt and be a world-class model then I fucking will be.) As Gita Jackson points out in her Paste piece,

“Clearly, I do not want to live in this world, although it’s a nice diversion from the world in which I am not famous. For Mrs. Kardashian West, however, this isn’t a diversion. This is her reality. She doesn’t have a choice on whether or not she is scrutinized. 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 analyzed. This is reflected in the game, as well. I managed to escape the E-List by buying a nice outfit and thereby gaining more in-game fans. There is no visible metric for when or how this happens, and when I saw the notification, I was a little startled. Although the game makes sure you never forget that you’re always being watched, it doesn’t exactly spell out how closely.”

There’s something really insidious about this! The game is offering for me to become a “Kim Kardashian” and to transcend my lowly retail job. It also suggests that I’m becoming someone like her, but I’m not her and I never will be. I can reach #1 on the A-list, and I will still never really reach the invisible, manicured hand of Kim—a semaphore for the game’s internal logics—orchestrating everything from the background. Her door is always open to my avatar. I can walk in any time, but she’s only home when the game wants her to be, at triggered, scripted moments.

As friendly as her avatar is to mine, Kim Kardashian is not my friend. She’s not my enemy. I don’t know anything much about Kim, the human being. It’s certainly admirable that she managed to weave a multi-million dollar career out of a mortifying personal betrayal. She clearly has a keen business sense, as evinced by the return on the royalty deal she cut from her game, set to earn something like $200 million. All of this makes her a fine businesswoman and self-publicist. Commissioning Glu Games, the self-proclaimed “Leader in 3D Freemium Mobile Gaming” to use her image and some voice-acted bites on a game dedicated to letting players bask in her brand of fame is a testament to her abilities, no matter what embittered nerds with zero perspective on the games industry have to say about it.

But I’m reticent to ascribe much of what is in the actual game to Kim Kardashian or her life. It’s a sort of warped window into her world, maybe, but to what extent Kim Kardashian is speaking through this game I can’t actually say. I can say that the staff at Glu Games developed, wrote and illustrated this game based on whatever information they were given, and if any voice is speaking through it, it’s theirs first and foremost. This may explain some of the wry, even acerbic cruelty that bleeds through the dialogue. This may explain the underlying brutality of how fame is portrayed: that no one in this world is really your friend, that everyone is trying to get ahead and will use you to do it, and that it’s your job to use them right back. Maybe Kim Kardashian really does feel this way. There’s some evidence that she might. But she’s done so much to distance her critical voice from her public image—it’s rarely part of her strategy—that I would be very surprised if she were truly the one letting slip, here.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is also kind of a warped mirror. Because, again, this isn’t about her. This is about the player and the player’s fantasies of fame and fortune. In fact, Kim Kardashian herself barely actually features in the game. She gets the ball rolling, but for the most part she’s an absentee ruler. Her absenteeism conveniently matches her distance from the actual conversation about this media object her name is attached to. This game is one of many objects in her gallery of lifestyle and image marketing, but it’s been converted by the niche commentariat of videogames into a socio-political object in a very black-and-white sense.

On one hand, it’s a bad omen signalling the ruination of games—somehow managing to be worse than an industry in which war shooter developers colluding with the US military is another Tuesday. This is an industry where a labour culture of ongoing exploitation of creative and intellectual work for management and executive classes, not to mention the profoundly unethical outsourcing methods of hardware manufacturing, is just the cost of doing business. This is also an industry driven so much by passion and enthusiasm that those things are just kind of cravenly swept away from public discourse most of the time.

On the other hand—and I’m trying to be extremely cautious here—taking the contrarian stance that Kim Kardashian herself can be redeemed by a kind of all-that-is-good politics comes with its own set of problems. This is not least because she keeps having her own self, more than just the brand that she has based on herself, associated with a game in a way that seems to remove the actual developers in most of the conversation about it. But the scariest proposition for me is that these all-or-nothing situations mean that Kim Kardashian becomes a political icon that she wasn’t expressly trying to be. By making her image into some banner for a set of causes or singular identitarian advancements, we become stymied in talking about the conditions of her success and the fact that despite her personal struggles and tragedies, a woman with far less privilege than her would likely not have even been able to do what she did, her business savvy aside. We also become stymied in talking about her game as an experience that’s separate from her, since she becomes more notion than person—more notion than image, even, which is arguably even less tangible. The idea of Kim Kardashian becomes something we need to defend, and in doing so we do the work of turning her into an object, but on our terms and not hers.

But it isn’t just harmful for the icon. Setting up these paradigms based around specific figureheads means that we, collectively, focus our energy reconstituting hegemonies and the elitist notion of sacredness on certain “leaders” rather than on group gains. Or that somehow a gain for one oppressed person is necessarily a gain for all, in some abstract way. We gravitate to that success so that we can feel its radiating warmth and maybe capture some of it for ourselves. But from people who don’t feel that warmth, who may even get burned by it, we uncomfortably tend to turn our backs and tune out. Not that Kim Kardashian has ever done anything to hurt me, but I’ve seen it happen time and again: cults of personality tend to put so much stock in solidarity and the flawlessness of their figureheads that any person in those groups with a legitimate gripe is often bullied, silenced and eventually ostracized. I’ve even experienced this on local, personal levels. I’ve seen much worse things happen to friends while their abusers are defended. I’ve seen groups with all the “right” politics impose scripts that, ultimately, reinforce the very corrosive social hierarchies that they’re ostensibly fighting.

Take Yasmin Nair of Against Equality, which despite its provocative name is firmly on the left, discussing the neoliberal rhetoric of gay marriage in this interview with Michael Kinnucan of Hypocrite Reader:

“What Against Equality does, what a lot of left groups have not done, is interrogate the conditions of capitalism. Because if you get stuck on the notion of equality, ‘can gay people get married just the same as straight people can?’, you’re not really interrogating the conditions of neoliberalism which make marriage a compulsion, which reinforce the ways in which the state can use the family to mobilize capitalism. If you get stuck on the issue of whether men and women are earning equal amounts, or for example, whether men and women are equally represented on the board of some extremely problematic non-profit, for instance, you’re not interrogating the conditions of capitalism! You’re saying ‘hey yeah it’s all good, we’ve got six women and six men on this really fucked-up board of this extremely fucked-up anti-sex-trafficking non-profit.’ That’s not progress! That’s capitalism fucking it up all over again!

I’m not really passing a value judgement one way or the other on the sort of labour this game asks the player to perform, or to what degree it reflects the kind of work that constitutes Kim Kardashian’s career. All the same, Nair never really says that gay marriage is a bad thing, just that, as a cause, it politically elides a bunch of other issues which sort of get thrown under the bus because wealthy white queer people can obtain marriage benefits.

I guess what complicates this for me is that, yes, of course, I want to see women and other oppressed peoples succeeding, not just according to the limited scripts society lays out for them but in all walks of life. I want to see the productivity associated with those peoples destigmatized, or at least not foisted discriminatorily onto them. All the same, it’s very easy for narratives of success within the corridors of capitalism to soak up representational politics. Seeing only specific paradigms for success of oppressed people within capitalism can have the side-effect of reconfirming bootstrapping ideology, and of erasing inconvenient, unsexy victims of those social and psychological mechanisms. It also has a way of reducing people to specific political categories, with an assumed consensus which may not necessarily reflect reality. There’s nothing that stops a person existing along an oppressed identity matrix from also internalizing dominant attitudes about neoliberal achievement, and rationalizing their own success at the expense of others. It’s part of the “piece of the pie” mentality and it’s one of the more pernicious ways late capitalism has co-opted social justice language, diverting it from a more structural and relational political ethos and making sole individuals, rather than communities, responsible as role models for success.

I’m not railing against having personal role models either, at least not inherently. It’s natural to be inspired by seeing people like you positively contributing to culture in some way—and, vitally, getting recognition for it. I definitely derive a great deal of inspiration from certain women and queer folk in popular media who I think do interesting things. It’s hard not to get a catch in my throat and a vicarious thrill from seeing someone who I know to have struggled succeed, especially if it’s a struggle I understand. But I can’t let that cloud me when I’m trying to relate to something like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, to understand the conditions of it: that fame must come at the price of not only a personal life and of privacy, but of my very ability to trust and have real relationships with others. I must ask why everything in this world exists for material exchange, why everyone in my life is a pawn in a never-ending game of conquest. I must ask myself what the point is of power which only reproduces itself to such alienating effect. It’s actually very appropriate that the game’s aesthetics are in 2D, because to be a public figure means stretching oneself so thin that one becomes public property, and any sense of self must be heavily guarded against that.

It reminds me of when bell hooks questioned Beyoncé’s fame and her casting as a feminist icon. Controversially, hooks replied to Janet Mock during a discussion entitled “Are You Still a Slave?,” held at New York’s New School, on the matter of Beyoncé being inspirational to women. Hooks said, “I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist… especially in terms of the impact on young girls… I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos.”

I don’t fully agree with hooks on Beyoncé’s general comportment. I certainly wouldn’t call her a “terrorist” on the fragile senses of young girls. But what struck me as interesting about what she said involved questioning what the images of Beyoncé convey and how they’re internalized by a mass consumer audience. I’m not worried about the personal choices of Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian or any other high profile woman, but as Zolani Stewart tweeted with regard to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the bell hooks comment,

“When feminism becomes a mainstream concern, it seems people now have to re-evaluate the place of those who’ve made good off of the ‘system’. And a question of what place those people lie in echoes bell hooks again, about the question of ‘empowerment through pop culture.'”

In a scenario where I’m invited to step into some facsimile of that life, perhaps in a videogame, I have to ask whether what I’m doing empowers me to break past the limits set for me by society, and to make the most of my barriers, or if it’s asking me to only be content with what I’m given.

It’s actually a shame that so much of the conversation about this game got backed into a corner thanks to a heaping helping of gamer misogyny. We probably wouldn’t be talking about it if that hadn’t been the case, and if those biases hadn’t been framing the discussion from the get-go. But since we’re here, after playing it I can’t get away from it being firmly situated in certain strains of neoliberal thinking. I worry I’m being fed another moral about working hard, where that appeals to meeting very specific standards of beauty, comportment and public/private life balance. I worry about who benefits from me buying into that particular fantasy and how much agency as a woman I actually have. I have to wonder when the conditions around me are pandering to me with one hand while keeping me in my place with another.

And so I looked for little ways out of Glu’s cynical, albeit cleverly tongue-in-cheek, script. I took the high ground on the notorious Willow Pape feud when I thought the game wanted drama (turns out I was wrong on that one). I dressed down whenever it was possible. I saved all my Kim coins and instead of using them to charm my way into fame, I adopted a cat. I couldn’t do much with the cat when I had it. It’s assumed that “loving” it was portrayed as “tap on it every so often to get energy and cash.” When the conditions of a system give you so little to work with, you have to find your own corners of meaning. Mine wasn’t under the warm wing of a cartoon of Kim Kardashian, or in the wide halls of her oft-empty home. It wasn’t at the studio, or the club, or at my agent’s office. It wasn’t even in all of Glu’s snarky, at times riotous, dialogue. It was in a quiet little apartment with no furniture in Downtown LA, in a black hoodie, with a cat.