For content creators like Zach Letter, YouTube can be a kind of rags-to-riches story. Letter, who has been making content since 2011 and has a total following of more than 2 million across platforms, tells WIRED that he was nearly homeless around 2011. At the time, Letter was pulling double duty working full time as a millwright apprentice and also making YouTube content full time on the side. Suddenly, he says, the company he worked for laid everyone off—right after he’d taken out loans to purchase a vehicle and equipment for his job. This left him with large payments on equipment he couldn’t use, which quickly drained his savings.
Despite his best efforts job hunting, in three months he was broke. “I was scared. Every night I went to bed after working all day on YouTube, just praying that something would go my way," says Letter. Then, his YouTube channel started gaining popularity and generating a modest income. This came just in time, according to Letter, as he estimates that he was about five days away from being homeless, having only $38 to his name. The ad revenue that his YouTube channel generated—which amounted to $800 per month—helped keep him from insolvency. “Things continued to improve” from that point on for Letter, who counts himself lucky.
In December 2017, Letter took part in a player-created Sims 4 challenge on YouTube. The challenge, which goes by the moniker of the “homeless” or “rags-to-riches” challenge, sees players dress their Sims characters so that they appear homeless and then set out to acquire 5,000 Simoleons—enough in-game currency to build a modest multiroom house—without any shelter or a job, according to the challenge’s community page.
Letter says that challenges like this are fun “because it’s relatable to a life that many, including myself, have experienced. So to try and see how far you can make it in a lifespan in a way gives you hope for your life.”
At War With the Algorithm
The homeless challenge is just one of many that players have created. Others range from having one female Sim birth 100 children by 100 different partners to re-creating evolution and playing as a princess. Challenges remain a popular mainstay in the Sims YouTube community. Games can get repetitive and boring fairly quickly for those who often play, such as content creators, unless new content is added or community-developed mods are released. So-called gameplay challenges let players and creators accomplish this.
Tom, better known to his millions of subscribers and followers as “TheSpiffingBrit,” explains that challenges allow creators to have a strong and unique video concept to entice prospective viewers. Tom cites YouTube as a contributing factor to challenge culture, as its algorithms encourage creators eager for engagement and growth to try increasingly outlandish video ideas and challenges in an unending arms race for attention. YouTube sees over 500 hours of content uploaded per minute—and viewers watch in excess of a billion hours per day. Challenges that are controversial in nature tend to be more impactful “as audiences are left shocked and intrigued,” which results in higher click rates since prospective viewers want to find out more, says Tom. Click rates and viewer retention are important to creators especially, as they drive content monetization.
(YouTube did not respond to requests for comment or provide statistics on approximately how many “Rags-to-Riches” videos have been uploaded and how many people have viewed them by publication time.)
Gaming and Homelessness
Video games, by their very nature, cannot fully and accurately simulate the realities of homelessness, such as the threat of violence from other people who look down on those who are homeless, harassment by law enforcement, unhelpful shelter systems, and hostile architecture.
Over 567,000 people are homeless in America, according to a January 2020 report from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The report predates the coronavirus pandemic, which has since led to an increase in homelessness. In 2020, a study by Brendan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University, projected that the coronavirus could cause the number of homeless in America to increase by up to 45 percent. Under normal circumstances, there are not enough shelter beds to accommodate the number of homeless, let alone the new influx, especially given pandemic safety protocols. Those who are homeless often also lack access to medical care, increasing the likelihood of significant health problems and preventable deaths.
The Sims 4 does not include the ability for Sims to contract illnesses unless players buy various expansion packs. With expansions, Sims can catch a variety of ailments based loosely on real illnesses, such as hypothermia, the common cold, or “rabid rodent fever”—rabies. They can also contract outlandish ones such as “bloaty head,” which causes headaches and literal steam to come out of the Sims’ ears. These illnesses vary from merely cosmetic effects that affect a Sim’s mood to being fatal.
Some players who participate in the homeless challenge replicate seasons through the inclusion of the game's “Seasons” expansion, in which Sims can freeze to death if wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather conditions. Its use is not consistent but can add another element to playthroughs of the challenge. The weather is a major factor for real-world homelessness; hypothermia kills hundreds of homeless people annually in the United States alone. Most homeless deaths in America between 2010 and 2016 occurred while “in the conditions of cold stress” of varying intensity, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One. That same study noted that deaths caused by hypothermia were 13 times more frequent than in the general population.
The Sims is “fiction, not reality,” says Letter. He believes that challenges are fun because they are “relatable in some way to all viewers” but do not necessarily reflect reality or are accurate representations of issues faced.
YouTube creator BringTheParty, known to his fans as Josh—real name: Josh Caron—participated in the homeless challenge in June 2020. In the video, while creating his Sims character, Caron states that he wanted the Sims character to be “homeless as heck.” To help facilitate this, he gave them the loner trait, meaning that his Sims character is happiest alone. Caron says that he has not been homeless himself and that the challenge series on his channel is “an opportunity to escape reality.” The challenge, he says, is strictly entertainment and “shouldn’t be perceived as educational in any matter.” Caron cites the unrealistically fast construction in The Sims as one example of how the game lacks realism. Comparing The Sims to Minecraft, he says that challenges allow players to make their own fun in the open-ended game. He finds The Sims challenges fun because they cause players to think outside the box of their traditional playstyles.
As Letter and Caron stated, The Sims is not a game built to simulate real-world homelessness or the associated traumas with becoming or being homeless, or any potential mental illnesses one may face. Processing past traumas without access to mental health care or housing and facing the constant shame of homelessness isn't the same as playing as a shame-free avatar with zero past.
The homeless challenge and content produced around it is “disappointing,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the US-based nonprofit Alliance to End Homelessness. She agrees with Letter and Caron that the challenge is not an accurate representation of being homeless, stating that “homelessness is not a game”—rather, that it is an epidemic. In The Sims, waste management and amenities aren’t something players need to account for. When building a house, players don’t need to worry about accounting for the space or logistics that plumbing or electricity would require.
“The Sims is one big hyperbole,” YouTube creator Matt Shea, who also took part in the challenge, tells WIRED. As an example of this, he cites the fact that players can make large sums of Simoleons by doing simple things, such as picking up and selling rocks. In line with this hyperbolic nature, The Sims does not take into account the stigma around homelessness, or other factors such as the difficulty of finding shelter, employment, or health care. Instead of homelessness being a serious predicament, players have shame-free and trauma-free digital avatars with no past, and are generally able to start from nothing and earn enough to purchase all the necessities inside the neat package of a single video. In the case of Letter, a single 53-minute video showed a climb from zero Simoleons to having earned—and spent—thousands, mostly thanks to fishing. His Sim had a bed, trash can, lamp, toilet, woodworking table, and a bathtub on an empty lot—the game also does not care if Sims bathe in public. (In The Sims, plumbing is effectively magic; the game does not care where items are placed or take into account the logistics of real-world plumbing.)
Reality is complicated, and it’s difficult for games to touch on social issues with any sort of accuracy. As a result, game developers typically choose what level of realism they feel comfortable with in their fictional universe—and balance that against playability. Content creators and players can feel constricted by this and attempt to push the boundaries and expand upon the limitations set on games by their developers.
“Digital content is more prevalent now than it has ever been,” Letter says, comparing the current climate to the Gold Rush era. “Many people will try and work hard to find success, but only a select few will strike gold.”
Letter says that, since mid-2019, he has moved on from uploading regularly to YouTube. Continuing to pursue his love for video games, he is now trying his hand at video game development through his studio, Wonder Works—which is estimated to gross in excess of $8 million in 2021, according to a report by Bloomberg. Letters’ advice for aspiring YouTube creators is to “never give up. I know that's said over and over when you're down, but that's because it's being told to you by others that have persevered from similar situations.”
Now Letter will no longer have to worry about the YouTube algorithm grind. Wonder Works, which he founded with his wife, Megan, opened its doors for the first time to fully vaccinated staff on September 23.