Viewers who swear in Squirrel’s Twitch chat are purged. “The Home of Simulation”, Twitch’s biggest stream for simulation games like Farming Simulator 17 or Euro Truck Simulator 2, is PG, intended for a Twitch’s lesser-known mature audience. It’s a gaming channel far removed from the sort of youthful irreverence that is commonplace on the streaming service.
The slower-paced simulation games Squirrel plays, which range from Construction Simulator to Bus Simulator, cater to Twitch’s older minority. His stream welcomes viewers who may find trick shots and shrill yelling a little juvenile.
“That’s what I offer,” he told me over the phone. British, and in his mid-40s, Squirrel has made a brand out of streaming games that many consider “boring”. The appeal of watching a streamer harvest corn or discuss the particulars of sawmills might not be obvious, but if you’re patient, you can celebrate with Squirrel when he finally upgrades his tractor.
Squirrel used to stream shooters like Call of Duty back in 2011 when he had a day job in IT. He thought it was what gamers did on YouTube. In 2012, when Euro Truck Simulator was released, he found himself oddly compelled by the idea of hauling cargo from Rome to Prague in a digital truck. After grinding on shooters, Squirrel welcomed Euro Truck Simulator’s realistic, slow-paced gameplay. It was just him, in a truck, on a road, describing the scenery to a couple of hundred strangers online.
“I just drove the truck and talked,” Squirrel told me. “People said it was a bit like sitting next to me in the cab for the ride. They enjoyed my company and could just put it on and do some homework or whatever.”
To his surprise, Squirrel’s shooter-loving audience didn’t unsubscribe en masse. In fact, many bought the game themselves and watched his channel as they played through it, commenting on his preferred truck or haul route. The trucking simulator is still the most featured game on his channel. Every Sunday, Squirrel streams Euro Truck Simulator for five hours on his “Sunday Night Truckin'” show, which attracts an average of 2000 regular viewers.
Squirrel started streaming Farming Simulator 17 shortly after its October 25 release. Farming Simulator 17 is, in fact, the ninth top selling game on Steam right now. In it, players harvest corn or soybeans. They care for chickens. They upgrade trailers and plow fields. It is painstakingly realistic, relying on metre-by-metre measurements of platforms, and things of that sort. So when the eight top-selling Steam games preceding Farming Sim 17 offer slaying dragons, building civilisations and playing soccer with a race car, the game’s popularity can feel like a glitch.
Instant pay-off is what keeps gamers hooked. You are not alone if you think endless hours of simulated ploughing sounds very dull.
But, like with Euro Truck Simulator, viewers flocked to watch Squirrel do it. On livestream, Squirrel calmly drags a plow across a field in Farming Simulator 17. For 10 minutes, he scrapes the ground. “What ploughing does is turn the soil over, which rakes it and will improve the productivity and yield by 10 per cent,” Squirrel explained to over 5000 viewers. They discuss the ins and outs ploughing amongst themselves. The stream lasted nine hours.
A few weeks ago, he started with low-spec equipment and the default map. Then he started logging. His viewers were hooked. His view count spiked a couple of thousand heads. When a few animals came to his farm, Squirrel had to cultivate bedding and food. Then, the farm management aspect of the game kicked in. He says that, for his viewers, it’s all about the long-game:
“If you stick around, there’s a lot more to the channel. It’s true that there’s grinding to do, but you’re trying to build up money, buy bigger tractors, bigger logging equipment. Everybody wants to see the better machinery and how quickly it can take down a field,” Squirrel explained.
Younger viewers, especially ones accustomed to more adrenaline-fuelled streams like Counter-Strike: GO or Call of Duty, might not have the patience to watch Squirrel’s farm expand over the period of a few weeks. The largest chunk of his fans are 25 to 34, significantly older than the typical Twitch viewer, who is 21. Eighteen per cent are 35 to 44 and nearly 10 per cent are older than 45. Squirrel isn’t shocked. A lot of kids from the ’70s who grew up with coin-operated arcade machines still play games, he explained: “Simulation is definitely something people turn to when they age.” (On Squirrel’s channel, you mind find an ad for golf rather than a next-gen gaming laptop, against a dubstep track.)
Squirrel told me that, aside from requiring patience, there’s another reason why his channel attracts older viewers: With age comes regrets, and simulators can mimic missed experiences for older generations. Flight simulation, which is both widely popular and highly technical, is an escapist pursuit for several of Squirrel’s viewers. Ex-pilots who can’t fly any more, disabled aviation heads and folks who simply took another path in life enjoy operating flight machinery virtually, Squirrel says. “It takes hours of training to even get the [virtual plane] off the ground properly,” he says. “I show people how to do this. Simulation is one of those things that lets you do things that you can’t do in real life.”
Older folks who missed their chance to fly can re-experience Squirrel doing it virtually.
It’s not just adults, though, who tune in for Squirrel’s show. Squirrel is proud of his under-10 audience – the main reason why his chat stays PG. Parents watch his Sunday Night Truckin’ show with their children, as if it was any old television program. He has a daughter himself and doesn’t want her exposed to the kind of language that floods your typical Twitch chat.
“I have a responsibility to put on a classy show and not be like anyone else,” Squirrel says. “Parents can leave their kids watching my stream. They’re safe to do so. You can’t always do that on the internet.”