Kim Kardashian West let her biggest fans go to her daughter North’s third birthday party this month. Those who follow her on Snapchat and Instagram were treated to pictures and video of kids and adult guests dressed up like mermaids for the undersea-themed event. Outlets like Instyle and TMZ covered the festivities voraciously. But if diehard Kim lovers really wanted to feel involved in her daughter’s special day, they had to play her video game. In the days leading up to the party, Kardashian West’s enormously successful mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood ran a special event right around the time of the party, allowing players to help plan North’s birthday party, right down to the decor. Even for someone whose fame relies on radical transparency, gamifying it in near-real time feels strangely groundbreaking.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is celebrating a birthday as well. Two years ago, the game hit the App Store and went on to become a viral hit. Its gameplay, which hinges on amassing the money, clothes, and notoriety that would make you a celebrity in the Kardashians’ world, was and still is addictive. But its real mission is to create a window into what life is like for Kardashian West herself — in a more immersive, interactive way than even her family’s long-running reality TV franchise is equipped to. With help from the game’s creative team, she paints a cartoonified picture of what it’s like to be in her inner circle. In effect, she’s turned a video game into a kind of personal blog — something no one else had thought to do, much less pull off.
"I like to make everything seem as real as possible and make the player [feel] like they’re really stepping into my life," Kardashian West told The Verge. "Whether if it’s things that I’m filming or photo shoots, we try to give them all of the experiences."
Hollywood was designed by game developer Glu Mobile. When CEO Niccolo de Masi first approached Kardashian West in late 2012, the company was looking for a best-selling follow-up to its Stardom game series. It was an immediate fit. "They got me," says Kardashian West. By the time contracts were signed in mid-2013, she and de Masi had developed a working relationship where they’d exchange frequent text messages and emails to perfect the game’s overall direction. She’s integrally involved in the game’s development to this day. It’s her life, after all.
"Even though it is living my life," she says, "every detail, [from] how the character in the video game looks, to the clothes that the character wears, to the words the character says to the voice overs, I have to do it. I have to send over references, I have to approve everything."
That attention to the particulars is crucial, because Kim Kardashian: Hollywood isn’t just about being famous. It’s about living like a Kardashian in the moment. When your audience has been living vicariously through you and your family for nearly ten years on TV, in magazines, and on social media, the next logical step is to turn the experience into a playable virtual world.
There’s a unique immediacy to the game. If Kardashian West is vacationing in Iceland or signs a deal with Karl Lagerfeld, Glu adds more content to reflect the changes in her life. All this is quicker to produce than a season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, so players are able to follow along with Kim during the big moments of her life as they're happening.
"I view this game as the first transmedia entertainment property where you can effectively follow Kim on your own schedule," says de Masi. "You don’t have to wait until a TV show on Sunday. You can follow her on social media, you can follow her in print, you can follow her on TV, but the game allows you to effectively interact with her world whenever you want for as long as you want."
Fans of Kardashian West already do this. Her followers experience tweets and snaps like she’s a close friend of theirs. Her life is an open book, and the draw from the beginning has been to turn her every move into content that feels both aspirational and relatable. She’s taken what’s essentially lifestyle blogging to a whole new level. At first that meant having a presence on other people’s platforms, whether it was Instagram or E! With Hollywood. Now she’s created a platform of her own where her fans can feel like they're involved in her life.
Celebrities have been endorsing video games for decades. One could read Kim Kardashian: Hollywood as the latest entry in a genealogy that includes Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, and The Beatles: Rock Band. But none of those games provided access to the celebrity’s real life as they lived it. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker would’ve been an entirely different game if it somehow let the player fight off gangsters and overeager paparazzi on their way to the final boss.
But is that kind of success available to everyone, or just Kim Kardashian? "It’s the age of the self," she says. "You can be successful by being yourself. I think that takes a lot of hard work." But even hard work can’t necessarily bring the kind of success she has seen with her game. Case in point: Glu released Britney Spears: American Dream last month, using a similar approach they took with Hollywood. Structurally, it's indistinguishable from Hollywood: the player embarks on a journey to become the next great pop star, with Spears as their closest ally. But it hasn’t been nearly the success that Hollywood is.
That might be because there isn’t a sense that the player is becoming like Spears or is even privy to what her life is like. Musicians don’t need to give their whole selves — their travel plans or their thoughts on makeup — to their audiences on a regular basis. A game centered around a multi-platform, everything-and-nothing celebrity like Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, relies on the sheer presence of its subject. So it's not surprising that American Dream swiftly fell to #468 out of the top grossing gaming apps in the US, according to App Annie, while Hollywood is sitting comfortably at #34 even after two years.
"I definitely push the limits."
Given its success, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood might be the future for how fans interact with a certain kind of celebrity. Kardashian West managed to turn a video game into an interactive chronicle of her life and lifestyle, and fans keep coming back to it. Getting people to want to be like her takes time and effort. She seems uniquely talented at that.
"I definitely push the limits," she says, "because every product that I do I want to use it, wear it, play it. I want it to be perfect. It’s not as easy as someone would assume."