As political satire took off in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, the Twitter account of one "Ace Watkins" claimed to be a candidate for gamers--a joke that's found its audience.
Every four years, Americans head to the voting booth to cast their ballots for the next President of the United States. Typically, voters lean Republican or Democrat, but this time around, voters will have a new party to choose from--the Gamer party.
You might have seen that choice manifested online with the Gamer party's preferred candidate for president: Ace Watkins. The Watkins candidacy is mostly a presence on social media, using its Twitter and Facebook accounts to make promises to deal with gamer-centric national issues. "During this crisis, the president must use the Defense Production Act to ensure that every Americ. (sic) has access to a Nintendo Switch," the Watkins Twitter account recently posted.
Obviously, the Watkins candidacy is a joke--there's no such thing as a Gamer party and Ace Watkins himself is a character, played by actor and comedian Phil Jamesson. But it's a gag that has surprising legs, thanks to the efforts of the team behind it.
The Ace Watkins for President campaign all started in 2018 when a group of editors from the satire website Hard Drive decided to have a little bit of fun on social media. "We needed a 'gamer president' to fix various gamer-related woes," Jeremy Kaplowitz, the editor-in-chief at Hard Drive and one of the driving forces behind the Ace Watkins persona, told GameSpot in an email interview.
"At New York City Comic-Con that year, I made a video asking people to sign a petition to make gamers a protected class in the workplace, in November I wrote a hard Drive article [It's Time for a Gamer President], and in March we launched a shirt," Kaplowitz explained.
After their successful petition at NYCC, the team knew that they had struck a nerve in the community, and continued to build on the idea of a "gamer president." The Hard Drive editors tried to put together a few t-shirts to continue to promote the idea, but they quickly found that the shirts weren't a hit and something seemed to be missing. "We didn't have any real structure for a long time--we would just tweet out ideas when we thought of them," Kaplowitz said.
Creating The Character
Despite the idea seeming to slow down, the folks at Hard Drive really felt like they'd struck a nerve with the gaming community and were determined not to let the idea die. Eventually, the team realized what was missing--they needed a face for the "gamer president."
"The other Hard Drive editors--Andy Holt, Kevin Flynn, and at the time, Mike Amory--and I wrote up a bio and we reached out to comedian Phil Jamesson to play the character because we really like his videos and thought he would be a good fit," Kaplowitz said.
Jamesson was friends with Hard Drive editor Kevin Flynn and caught the eye of the rest of the team. As soon as everyone saw some of Jamesson's YouTube videos, he quickly became the "obvious choice" to play the role of Ace Watkins.
I'm glad that Ace is providing another, more inclusive, path for gamers looking for a place to fit in."
"The content lined up perfectly with my interest," Jamesson said. "Being very into both games and politics myself, I had to say yes, and I'm glad I did."
With a Twitter account set up and an actor willing to play Ace Watkins, everything had finally come together, and now it was time to see if the gaming community would rally behind the Ace Watkins for President 2020 campaign.
"We made the account, thinking it would get 3-5k followers and that would be that," Kaplowitz said. "But by the next day, we had 40,000, and it has just been going up from there. So now we're having a blast expanding the character and the world, seeing how big we can make it." Today, the official Ace Watkins Twitter account has over 200,000 followers.
This is when things really started to take off. Maybe timing had something to do with it, but Kaplowitz believes getting Jamesson to play the role of Ace Watkins is what really sealed the deal. "I think having a name and a face to the sort of jokes we were already doing really helped sell them and made it a lot more fun to expand his world."
Kaplowitz attributes a lot of the success of Ace Watkins to Jamesson, who Kaplowitz said is always incredibly prepared when appearing publicly as Ace. "I think, before we went to New York Comic Con, he actually read and memorized nearly every Ace Watkins tweet, to make sure he was prepared to answer questions using Ace's real 'policies.' He's really great at not breaking character when we're talking to people and it's truly so impressive."
Kaplowitz said he truly believes that there is "no way Ace Watkins' character would have been popular if we had chosen someone else."
"I run the lines, over and over, ad nauseum," Jamesson confirmed. "Our 'rallies' use a stump speech in which almost every line is a joke, and a good one. It'd be a horrible shame if I missed one, and I'd feel personally responsible… I need to live up to the image of a presidential candidate for the comedy to work, and part of that is having a polished speaking style."
While Jamesson loves having some fun while portraying Ace Watkins, he also believes he has an important job to fulfill.
"It's typically been the case that gamers are often viewed as a group of toxic, hateful people," Jamesson explained. "Of course, almost all people who play games aren't like that, they just haven't been represented in pop culture. I'm glad that Ace is providing another, more inclusive, path for gamers looking for a place to fit in."
"The vast majority of people who play games do it to have fun. But for a very long time, there has been a problem with online hatred in gaming," he said. "There is an archetype of a person who thinks it's okay to use racial or homophobic slurs because 'it's the internet....' I think that one of the reasons Ace is such a well-liked character is that while he is passionate about video games and unimpeachably knowledgeable about them, he doesn't say that you have to be. And he doesn't say that you have to be anything else, either. Having a place to enthusiastically appreciate games without running into the online radicalization engine has traditionally been tough to do, but Ace offers that."
The Next Phase For Ace
As the Ace Watkins for President campaign began to grow, so did the team. Despite starting out as a main character and team of writers, the brains behind Watkins began to add new characters, like a campaign manager, campaign strategist, communications director, and head of security.
Kaplowitz has taken on the role of campaign manager, while Hard Drive editors Kevin Flynn and Andy Holt have joined the public team as the campaign strategist and West Coast strategist, respectively. Hard Drive writer Jolie Darrow is playing the role of Ash Watkins, Ace's sister and former head of security turned communications director.
With a core team in place, Kaplowitz said Hard Drive had big plans for Ace's campaign before the coronavirus effectively shut down the country. The team actually made an appearance at PAX East, which took place just before E3, Gamescom, and virtually every other game show in 2020 was suspended or canceled.
"We had plans to do a lot more live shows," Kaplowitz said. While all the upcoming gaming events in 2020 have been canceled or moved online due to the worldwide pandemic, the team is still hoping they can make some more appearances before the election this November. "We want to do more live shows like PAX East and more videos like the one we did at New York City Comic-Con. We filmed a cool little thing in New Hampshire for the primary and I hope that eventually sees the light of day." However, with the current state of COVID-19, it seems unlikely the team will be able to host any more campaign rallies.
Even though everything is shut down, the team isn't giving up on Ace, and instead refocused on launching a podcast, the Ace Watkins Presidential Hour. Released in January 2020, the podcast is essentially "an advanced version of the Twitter account," Kaplowitz explained.
"We all have our characters that we play and let influence what we're saying, but at the end of the day, we're just filtering jokes about politics through the language of gaming or we're filtering jokes about gaming through the language of politics," he said.
"Now that we have the podcast, we have to meet once a week to discuss ideas anyway and that has been helpful, especially with regards to making the character work more in [a] longform project."
With the 2020 U.S. presidential election only a few short months away, it may seem like Watkins days are numbered. However, Kaplowitz said that the team is tossing around a few ideas for how they can keep Ace around post-2020, but said he didn't "want to spoil" what the team was up to.
Playstation 4 controllers will be functional on the PS5, but not for PS5 games. We already get enough of this kind of confusing "coverage" from our healthcare system. We don't need it in our video games.— Ace Watkins (@GamerPres2020) August 3, 2020
"We have been kicking around some ideas for how the Ace Watkins character can continue into the future or end in a compelling way," Kaplowitz said. "I don't really want to delve too much into what those plans are…but we're definitely thinking of ways we can keep Ace around after November and we hope to be able to if we have a good reason to do so."
Kaplowitz also indicated that the team was open to introducing new characters to the campaign team, since the podcast gives them a unique opportunity to explore different personas. "We had a lot of ideas for characters that could come onto the podcast just before the quarantine began, so hopefully we can find a way to bring them on in a limited capacity now that we're all stuck at home," he said.
The team was reluctant to share what kind of characters they were planning to bring on in the future, but noted a lot of it would depend on how they "clicked" with Ace. "There's so much room to expand his team and see how they click with Ace, especially because Phil is such a good actor," Kaplowitz noted. "I would love to eventually have a whole world of staff helping the campaign to put Ace in the White House!"
Despite keeping future plans close to home, Kaplowitz did confirm that there are plans to introduce Ace's running mate in the near future. Further, while Jamesson was hesitant to say much about the possible running mate, he did share that "Player 2" would be "thoroughly playtested" before joining the campaign.
While it remains to be seen what the future holds for the Ace Watkins team post-2020, there are no plans to slow things down leading up to November. If you enjoy a healthy mix of gaming and politics, you can follow Ace on Twitter or check out the podcast for plenty of gaming-themed political puns.