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.