What to Read Next

The Psychology Behind Why Kim Kardashian’s Game Is So Addictive

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech
August 7, 2014

The Psychology Behind Why Kim Kardashian’s Game Is So Addictive

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech
August 7, 2014
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

(Kim Kardashian: Hollywood)

In the world of cable TV, keeping up with the Kardashians is a passive exercise, done easily while painting your toenails or vacuuming the living room.

But in the digital world of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood — a free-to download mobile app released last month for Android and iOS — staying within the Kardashians’ social circle requires constant attention to your wardrobe, social standing, romantic life, media presence, and accumulation of wealth.

The game is structured to keep you furiously tapping your screen (and into your bank account) in order to earn virtual cash, energy, and special Kardashian branded K stars that are used to “charm” people, to help you rise from E-lister to A-lister (just like Kim!).

The app’s release, and subsequent mega-success, has come paired with horrifying stories of overspending and addiction. Social networks overflow with tales of falling into a Kardashian K-hole. Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey recently wrote a harrowing tale of how she unknowingly spent almost $500 on in-app purchases so she could rise to highly coveted A-list heights, only to finally realize “that I simply do not have enough money — real or virtual — to keep up with the Kardashians, no matter how much those marketing geniuses try to drain every penny out of my wallet.”

And even best-selling author Ayelet Waldman took to social media to complain that her (likely mortified) 11-year-old son was pushed to tears when he accidentally spent $120 on the game in two days. “This game is designed to prey on children,” she wrote. “It’s pure evil.”

Post from Ayelet Waldman
Post from Ayelet Waldman

This all might sound like some ridiculous niche fad, but within the first five days of its release, the game earned more than $1.6 million in revenue for its parent company, Glu Mobile, according to The New York Times. And those profits don’t seem to be waning. Mobile analytics site App Annie shows that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is currently the fourth-highest grossing app in the iTunes Store.

There’s no question that the creators of the Kim Kardashian app hath wrought a game that’s almost impossible to put down. And to do so, they’ve exploited (knowingly or unknowingly) some of the basic psychological precepts that cause addiction in the first place.

Psychologist Simon Moore, who specializes in gaming at Innovation Bubble, a psychological insights consultant group, says the seduction to spend starts with the graphics of the game.

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Curiously, there are no required trips to the gym in the Kim Kardashian app. (Kim Kardashian: Hollywood)

“Psychologically we are predominantly visual creatures,” Moore told Yahoo Tech. “We are in fact predators — our eyes are on the front of our faces — as a result, our brain gives a lot of attention to visual stimuli.” According to Moore, the rounded-out avatars are meant to max out our sensors. “The exaggerated make and shake of the female body: large eyes, amazing hair, are all things designed to be attractive and engaging visually.”

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Check out my amazing hair flip. 

As for the general look and feel of the app’s backdrop? Those are “designed to make us feel warm and happy but not overly excited. Excitement as an emotion is very short-lived and intense, and results in a ‘come down.’ Better to create happy and pleased emotions. These can be experienced for longer time periods.” 

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood


Ahh, the soothing decor of downtown Miami.

Animation
Moore also notes that one of the game’s main tasks — physically tapping a point on a screen until a bundle of currency pops out — acts as a vehicle of instant gratification that keeps players coming back for more. 

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Stacks of cash flying everywhere!

“It’s the most fundamental law of psychological conditioning,” Moore said. “The quicker we get a reward for an action, the more likely we will remember and repeat it.”

Structure
That logic works in reverse as well. The app forces people to wait for their resources to replenish, which is why they are so inclined to make in-app purchases. “The longer we have to wait for something it becomes a punishment,” he said. “Humans are lazy and impatient, so games play on this impatience and unwillingness to wait.”

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Lighting bolts (or energy) replenish every five minutes, which feels like an eternity when you just want to get a photo shoot over with.

This technique is not unique to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Blockbuster games like Candy Crush Saga and TwoDots use the same wait-or-pay technique to encourage in-app purchases. In turn, they’ve generated astounding profits and sprouted their own special kind of addicts, too. 

Pacing
Newbies to the game are automatically hooked into an ecosystem based on a concept called investment theory. “The longer you wait for a bus that doesn’t show, the stronger the argument you need to persuade you to leave the bus stop, as you’ve already invested so much time and energy into it,” Moore said. In the Kim Kardashian game, “they allow you to progress quickly to start to build up your investment perception, and then it starts to get harder. At this point you can leave the game. But that might make you look silly. Why did you start it in the first place?”

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood tweeted with the word 'NOOOOOO'
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood tweeted with the word 'NOOOOOO'

RuthCurry is not impressed. (Twitter)

Its setup also scratches at a technique called loss aversion, according to Moore. “People are more concerned about losing what they have collected than gathering new things. In this game, if we don’t continue playing or upgrading our characters, then we cannot access other parts of the game. We start to ‘lose’ what we have already invested in.”

Peer pressure

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Anything for a K star.

Players are rewarded with hard-to-get K stars for linking their Facebook accounts to the app and interacting with their friends. But being able to see everyone’s progress on the social ladder in comparison to yours automatically changes the dynamic of the activity. “Games are really clever by suggesting that you can wait 10 minutes to get a reward, but by then your friends could be well ahead if you in the game,” he explained. “It’s a double-whammy: conditioning with social conformity and fear of peer ostracism.”

Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Screenshot of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

My friends aren’t that famous, which, frankly, is embarrassing.

All the minutiae of the Kim Kardashian game’s design add up to something that game addition expert Julie Nguyen says is a dangerous combination. According to Nguyen, early neuroscience studies find that gamers tend to get stimulated in the same pleasure areas of the brain that a drug addict would. 

“Like any addiction, it’s an escape,” Nguyen told Yahoo Tech. “In Kim Kardashian’s case, it allows you to go into this glamorous life. The more I spend, the more I’m glamorous in the game.”

But one thing’s for sure: There’s nothing glamorous about spending the same amount on a digital pair of Louboutins as you would in real life.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.