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He’s pro-labor, has a strong stance on trans rights, wants to implement a wealth tax and limit government surveillance, and knows climate change is a global emergency. The only thing disqualifying Ace Watkins as a presidential candidate is that he doesn’t exist.
“People think Ace is a real person,” Jeremy Kaplowitz tells me, “and some people think he’s a stock photo, so there’s no in-between.”
Like Watkins, Kaplowitz is many things: editor-in-chief of satirical video game site Hard Drive, employee of the city of New York, and “campaign manager” (scare quotes his) for Ace Watkins’s presidential campaign. As for Watkins, his many identities include Gamer (capitalization his), candidate for the United States presidency, and satirical Twitter account written by the editors and contributors at Hard Drive.
While not technically a “real” “person,” Ace Watkins is portrayed by actual human being and comedian Phil Jamesson, always clad in a suit and with his lustrous hair tied back in a hybrid bun/ponytail that more closely resembles the hairstyle of the Founding Fathers than that of, say, Jay Inslee.
But Ace has outlasted Governor Inslee in the 2020 Dempcratic primary, as well as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Governor John Hickenlooper, and fellow not-quite-real candidate and former Senator Mike Gravel, among others. Like the Zoomer-powered Gravel candidacy and the similarly implausible Williamson and Yang campaigns, Watkins has justified his continued presence not through polling or fundraising, but by tapping into a highly engaged online audience — an audience who believes he’s funny enough to earn their attention, and might actually represent their values.
To learn more about this non-candidate candidate, I talked to the Hard Drive team who created Ace, AKA @gamerpres2020, and continue to run his “campaign” through tweets, speeches, public appearances and video content.
From T-Shirts to Twitter
Like any political success story, Ace Watkins is the product of perseverance through failure. Specifically, Hard Drive‘s failure to sell t-shirts. “We were like, what if we make a t-shirt that says ‘A gamer for president‘?” said Kaplowitz, “And we sold it and no one bought it.”
Nevertheless, Hard Drive‘s editors persisted. “For some reason we doubled down, like ‘what if we hire someone to just play it,’ maybe [the shirt] needs a face. So we were like, all right, let’s make a little campaign video, we’ll sell some shirts. It’ll be a fun little advertisement. Maybe we’ll get this Twitter account. If we’re lucky, we’ll get like 5,000 followers… and then on day one it got like 40,000 followers and we were like, ‘Fuck, I guess we’re now an Ace Watkins group.'”
It’s fitting that a failed t-shirt design begat Ace Watkins, according to Hard Drive founder Matt Saincome, because a failed project is what begat Hard Drive‘s entire existence. Saincome and fellow Hard Times and Hard Drive co-founder Mike Amory created a conspiracy theory website called Truth Bang, “And we could not get a single person to read it,” says Saincome. “It was just absolutely tanking.”
“The whole idea behind the website was that it was one conspiracy theorist guy who was publishing all of these articles. When people share a Hard Times or Hard Drive article, they’re saying ‘Hey, I get the joke. I’m a part of this community.’ And no one wanted to do that with Truth Bang.”
Despite the site’s inability to find an audience, Saincome liked the work being produced by Kaplowitz, then one of Truth Bang‘s contributors. After shuttering Truth Bang in favor of starting anew with Hard Drive, Saincome knew he wanted Kaplowitz at the reigns of the fledgling site. Saincome continued to give the publication’s editors ample room to experiment as Hard Drive found success, and so he signed off on the team launching the Ace Watkins campaign.
Good Guy Ace
The day the Hard Drive team launched the Ace Watkins campaign, one of Ace’s very first posts — a tweet about socializing Adobe Creative Suite — went viral, though not everyone was interacting with the post as a joke.
“Lefty Twitter picked it up and it got like a hundred thousand likes just like on the first day,” Kaplowitz explains. “That’s when we realized we can toe the line [with] good ideas, but filtered through video games.”
Kaplowitz readily acknowledges that most everyone who works with Hard Drive and Hard Times leans to the left politically, and that naturally filters into Ace Watkins’s tweets — which, save for a few speeches, is the only record of the Ace Watkins political platform. (To prepare for public appearances as Ace Watkins at events like New York Comic-Con, Phil Jamesson read every Ace Watkins tweet ever posted.) If Ace’s progressive tendencies began as the incidental result of left-leaning writers, the Hard Drive editors have since actively written and presented Ace as a progressive candidate.
“So much of gaming culture is right wing and alt-right, even though they’re a kind of a minority,” Kaplowitz says of the feedback they get from their audience. “Everyone’s always like, ‘Oh man, Gamer President. What are you going to do? Gonna say the N word or something?’ No, we’re going to actually go in the complete opposite direction and cater to the majority of video game players who are normal or left wing. And we don’t have that many voices.”
To get a sense of just how few left-leaning — or even just sort of boisterously tolerant — personalities there are in gaming culture, look no further than Ace Watkins’s Twitter account: Of the 49 accounts he follows, most are either Hard Drive writers or politicians running in 2020. Fighting game competitor SonicFox and YouTuber Hbomberguy seem to be the only gamers that Watkins follows, and may be the two most high-profile personalities that align with the beliefs Watkins espouses.
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Bernie Would Have Won (The Victory Royale)
“When you say gamer nowadays, people think of the dangerous incel all this sort of stuff. And I think that Ace is connecting with people who consider themselves to be gamers, or just to enjoy video games, but aren’t necessarily wrapped up in extremely toxic online communities,” Saincome tells me.
“We like this as a cleaner representation of what gaming should be. It’s funny, but it’s not extremely toxic.”
“Also we can’t just be like, Phil, we’re going to use your face,” Kaplowitz adds, “and by the way we’re going to be monsters. You’re ruined after this.”
It’s a reasonable consideration. “I got recognized five times on Saturday, and two of them knew me as Ace,” Jamesson tells me over email. “It’s fun! After seeing what we’ve been able to do with the character, I’m proud of the path that he’s taking. On some level, an inclusive gaming persona is hard to find on the internet, and I’m thrilled to be a part of providing that sort of “off-ramp” in the radicalization engine.”
With Ace Watkins having accrued more Twitter followers than even Hard Drive itself, it’s obvious they’ve tapped into something larger than just slapping a political spin on video game jokes, and the editorial team has big plans for both the campaign and the Ace Watkins character as the nation hurtles towards the 2020 election season. (There’s already a Corsair storyline taking place among Watkins’s usual tweets.)
At the end of each interview with the team behind Ace Watkins, I ask if they would personally vote for Ace Watkins. With some caveats, and with some hesitation, most say they would. (An emblematic example from Hard Drive editor Kevin Flynn: “Would I? Yes. Should I? No.”) But Ace Watkins himself, Phil Jamesson, says he wouldn’t be casting his vote for the Gamer President.
“The place I got recognized five times? It was a Bernie Sanders rally.”