A drawing of Hard Drive's gamer presidential candidate, Ace Watkins.
Illustration courtesy of The Hard Times
Games

The 'Hard Drive' Became The Onion of Video Games by Being 'Unapologetically Left-Wing'

How 'Hard Drive' manages to celebrate and skewer gaming culture, while supporting unionization and LGBTQ rights at the same time.
March 26, 2020, 2:22pm

“Bernie Sanders Calls on Nintendo to Release Animal Crossing Early” declares a wish-it-were-true headline from the tech and gaming-focused satirical website Hard Drive. “Gamers of all classes, both social and character, shouldn’t be forced to wait any longer for an adorable little game that is ready now,” said Senator Sanders, according to the article. On Twitter, the story was eventually retweeted more than 12,000 times and liked 55,500 times.

“Articles that people share are the ones that make them say ‘oh my god, that’s me,’” said Hard Drive editor-in-chief Jeremy Kaplowitz in a recent interview with VICE Games, “and right now, everyone is thinking about the quarantine and the virus.”

Satire is hard, which is why most people fail when they attempt it. At its best, satire is cathartic truth telling, processing complex emotions through the lens of comedy.

One reason comedy is hard is because it’s easier to punch down instead of up. See: Any number of comedians constantly complaining about how “political correctness” has ruined their ability to tell a joke. What makes Hard Drive unique, especially in the meme-driven economy of video game culture, is how its comedy goes out of the way to still punch up.

“It has been important to us to be unapologetically leftwing when we get into politics or social issues at all,” said Kaplowitz. “If we’re not going to make a site about how much gamers suck, we’re also not going to make a site that caters to the people those jokes are about.”

It’s how you end up with headlines like “Amidst Panic, Naughty Dog Allows Employees to Sleep at Home” next to “President Trump Honored to Throw Out the First Slur at Call of Duty Tournament” and “Gamer Who Hasn’t Had a Glass of Water in a Week Says He Gets Physically Ill Seeing Game at 30 FPS.” It’s comedy with a surprising ideological throughline.

“We made an effort right from the beginning to avoid jokes about that stereotype,” said Kaplowitz. “We wanted to make sure people knew that this was supposed to be a funny website for people who like nerd culture and wanted good, smart jokes about the topic.”

For a long time, the most popular article on Hard Drive was “Nintendo Confirms Waluigi is Uncircumsized for Some Reason,” published only a few months after it launched. It was recently dethroned by “JK Rowling Announces You, The Reader, Were Gay All Along.”

Their approach is also how you get a website that sarcastically describes itself as “ethical gaming journalism,” a riff on GamerGate’s vapid attempt to spin legitimacy into a hate group, authentically apologizing when the incorrect pronouns are used. A tweet re-sharing a piece about the renowned fighting game player SonicFox was written before SonicFox came out as nonbinary. An old version of the article referenced SonicFox as “he/him,” not “they/them.”

“This is an old article,” read a tweet after people, including SonicFox, criticized the article’s language. “We have updated the pronouns. Thank you to those who pointed it out.”

“Oh yeah you got to appease the people with phony outrage,” said someone in response to the apology.

“Whenever we talk about the big gaming controversy of the day, we try to have a take that we think is correct,” said Kaplowitz. “We’re a video game comedy website on the side of LGBTQ+ gamers, developers trying to unionize, those affected by GamerGate, etc.”

“It has been important to us to be unapologetically leftwing when we get into politics or social issues at all."

Kaplowitz said the site doesn’t see much pushback from the uglier communities in games, despite their political positions, and often sees their content shared in alt-right subreddits.

“I guess everyone appreciates a good Mario joke,” he said.

Hard Drive is a spin-off of The Hard Times, pitched as The Onion for millennials.

“If The Onion's everyman had a wife, a job, and a lawn to mow,” said The Hard Times co-founder Matt Saincome, “ The Hard Times everyman was going to have a band, shitty roommate, and depression.”

The Hard Times was supposed to be a zine, an amateur magazine only read by Saincome and his friends, before he teamed up with comedian Bill Conway and it became a website. It was the right choice; more than a million people read The Hard Times in its first month.

Saincome, like many adults his age, grew up with video games, and the moment The Hard Times proved viable, he wanted to start a dedicated video game publication. Other comedy niches—combat sports, conspiracy theories, a few others—were toyed with and all failed.

The one that finally connected with people was Hard Drive.

The most popular creation of Hard Drive is Ace Watkins, aka “the only Gamer running for President.” The Twitter account for Ace Watkins, who recently said he’s friends with Joe Biden on Switch and hasn’t “seen him log on in weeks,” has more followers than Hard Drive.

The idea started as a shitpost by Kaplowitz, an experiment without an end. Other pieces were tangentially connected to it, including a Comic-Con video asking people if gamers should be a protected class, and an “opinion piece” about needing a gamer president.

“Who better to defend the plight of the conservative than a Gamer President?” reads the op-ed. “Taxes are the microtransactions of government, and no one understands the plight [of] the small (a.k.a. indie) business owner than gamers.”

At the time, this Gamer President didn’t have a name, but once they landed on Ace Watkins, they tried to capitalize by launching a t-shirt. Except, uh, no one bought the shirt. Dejected, they decided to make a throwaway Twitter account for Ace Watkins. In a single day, the account got more than 40,000 followers and the joke took on an unexpected life of its own.

“We need single player healthcare,” reads a recent and infuriatingly clever tweet.

But comedy, by definition, is a high-wire act. Even an outwardly progressive publication like Hard Drive is trying to find the line between offensive and edgy—and sometimes screw up.

“It’s hard to remember which ones people didn’t like because usually they just don’t do very well on the site,” said Kaplowitz. “I searched “@harddrive ‘this ain’t it’’ and came up with some examples: Facebook Tells Shooter He Could Reach More People If He Boosts Post For $50 and It’s Time to Cast a Black Stan Lee, which ran the day Stan Lee died.”

“I think as long as we are aware of who the target is and can stand by that idea, it’s OK to sometimes run jokes that not everyone likes,” they added. “That’s generally the line for us: who are we ultimately making fun of with this joke? Is this a person we think deserves to be made fun of?”

Part of what makes Hard Drive unique from other satirical websites such as The Onion is the bylines attached to stories are completely real. They also present themselves front and center to audiences, recording podcasts and running a Patreon to make the financing work.

Like running any website in 2020, the math is hard. It’s especially hard for a comedy website, because you’re trained to share the pithy headline and never, ever click the link.

“Reviews, quizzes, and lists are all more popular than regular articles, for example,” said Kaplowitz. “I think—and maybe this is really just a hope—that the only real way to get people to your site is to consistently run high quality articles. All of our headlines are a complete joke with a set-up and punchline; we never run something where you need to click the link to get the joke.”

Given how dark the weeks and months ahead might be, we’ll take all the laughs we can get.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).