You already know that everyone and her sister and her aunt and her mother is playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the mobile game which has reportedly brought in hundreds of millions in revenue and was released in a desktop version this week. What you may not know is that her brother and uncle and dad are playing, too.
Though Kim K. is built around the pursuit of traditionally feminine activities – clothes, dating, modeling – men can be just as taken with it as women. I got my first inkling of this when I told two different male friends that I was trying to pinpoint what was so fascinating about the game, and gave them a little précis of how it worked. Their reactions were more or less identical: “Huh. Weird. Sounds a little boring. I'm downloading it right now.”
This got me curious: what about this modeling-and-celebrity game appealed so urgently to men? I emailed and chatted with eight guys – most straight, some gay, most in their 20s and 30s (ranging from E-list to A-list in the game's rankings) about why they played Kim K.
The game doesn't market itself specifically to women – you can play as either sex, dating either sex. Mark, a 29-year-old poet and teacher, says he played a woman in the game (named Mark) specifically because he's a man: “I have always been interested in bucking expectations with gender roles -- I'm a chubby white guy with a beard, but I've also done drag, sung Madonna at karaoke nights, etc.”
Andrew, one of the friends I introduced to the game, made the same choice for the opposite reason: the male gaze. “I expected to spend a lot of time looking at my avatar on screen,” he said, “and I like looking at women more than at men.”
Greg Seals, a 22-year-old writer, played as a guy and started out designing his character to dress like him, but “somehow it devolved into this douchey-looking L.A. guy who is probably closeted, works out at Equinox way too much, and would be mean to me in real life. In essence, I've created a monster.”
But though the casting is gender-blind, the plot, such as it is, is arranged around posing for pictures, changing your clothes, and going on dates (though often just to be seen with someone who has more social capital than you). These are, of course, issues of interest to the population at large; yes, for the most part we aren't models, but most of us engage in romance and almost all of us wear clothes. But these subjects, the clothing especially, are often pigeonholed as being primarily women's concerns. This alone should guarantee that Kim K. is seen as a “girl” pastime – the game is very, very into clothes, alerting you when you attain each level that you have new outfits available. One of the big enticements to spend real-people money is “K-stars,” silver coins that can be exchanged for new clothes, shoes, or hair. The new duds can be very, very tempting.
That’s true for the men as well. Far from writing Kim K. off as some kind of ladies' dress-up game, most of the guys I talked to mentioned the costuming as a draw. In their regular lives, men (especially straight men, like the majority of my correspondents) are rarely rewarded for fashion skills, and they're socialized early on to devalue most sartorial concerns as “girly.” Some of them, at least, are grateful for a context like Kim K. that brings dress-up back to the fore.
Don't believe me? You should meet writer and recruiter Kevin Fanning's character Kloaca (“It was the first word with the 'K' sound that came to my mind. I realized later that a cloaca isn't what I thought it was, and that the name was actually kind of gross, but it was too late to do anything about it”). Kevin changes her outfits at least once a day, “usually pants and tees for the day and dresses for the evening. I'm aware that this is insane.” Clothes aren't a big concern of Kevin's in real life, but they're his primary goal in the game; he puts Kloaca through her modeling paces just so he can “make that paper” to buy better outfits.
But you don't have to be that attentive to your fashionable Tamagotchi to appreciate Kim K.'s offerings. When I asked Mark what he thought of the available outfits, he sighed, “Ugh. The best. I need the friggin' space pants ASAP.” (Mark's character is an A-lister who has climbed all the way to #1 in the fame rankings, so he sees more clothing choices than punters like me; I don't even know what “space pants” are.)
Matt, 39, who's playing as a man, is disappointed that his outfit choices aren't more diverse: “I think it suffers the same thing that male fashion does generally, in that there is only so far you can go with some sort of trousers and shirt.” Greg had similar issues: “I was hoping that if I played as a guy I could wear some of the crazy outfits, masks, and Givenchy Kanye wears.”
Most of the fellas agree that this game kind of sucks as a game, although game developer Matt called the gameplay “decent enough.” And yet, even when you're bored, it's somehow hard to walk away. As Greg put it, “All you're doing is sitting there and mindlessly tapping the screen. There's not even any strategy, really. But there's something so addicting about every time I get one of the 'feed updates' and watch my fan count go up and my ranking rise. I don't want to know what that means about me as a human.”
“The game is pretty much the shallowest thing I've ever encountered and yet I can't really help myself,” agreed Alex, 25, who says he got hooked after his girlfriend downloaded the game onto his phone while he slept.
In other words, men play Kim K. because they like the dress-up, because there's something appealing about the fantasy of a meteoric rise to fame, and because it's addictive in spite of the dull gameplay. These are the same reasons I play it. Men are not immune to the appeal of beautiful objects, charmed lives, and pretending to be a rich, beloved semi-princess. They're just not usually encouraged to value those things. Kim K. provides a space for dudes to engage in pursuits typically sidelined as feminine, whether those pursuits are valuable or vacant.
And that's part of the point. Fantasy games like Kim K. allow you to try on the trappings of another person – someone whose looks, goals, achievements, even gender may be very different from yours – in a simple and protected way. “It's a safe sandbox for vanity role play,” said Justin, the other friend I introduced to the game. (It's amazing, really, that both of them are still talking to me.) In this, he says, it's not that different from other computer games where you play a customizable character: “Up to your teenage years, you get to play a lot with identity as expressed in your clothing, but later in life you lose that freedom. Video games give you a safe space to tinker with that – you can be a man, you can be a woman, you can be a space alien or an orc, and you can wear the clothes that express that persona.” What appeals to men about Kim K. is, ultimately, the same thing that appeals to women: the ability to play, superficially, symbolically, with identity and self-presentation. Men and women who build a character in a game like Kim K. aren't looking for real insight, but it's no coincidence that dress-up is the biggest draw.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood isn't intended to let men know what women's lives are like. It's not intended to let us mundane people know what celebrities' lives are like, either. But for a little while, it does let you try on their clothes.