Why I’m not buying the Harry Potter game

After Sony sent my heart into space by opening its PlayStation 5 Showcase with two of my most anticipated games in Final Fantasy 16 and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the company brought me crashing back down to Earth with the reveal of Hogwarts Legacy. The game had been leaked online a few years ago, so its existence wasn’t a surprise, but seeing it officially announced, knowing the debates that would follow, still felt like a gut punch. With this game announcement putting Harry Potter back in the headlines, I knew that would cast an even brighter spotlight on J.K. Rowling and her harmful, transphobic views.

Like a thunderclap after lightning in a storm, it still gave me a shock, even though it was expected. Trans people are used to this sensation; we feel it every time we binge our favorite ’90s TV shows and stumble across that one transphobic episode we’d forgotten about.

J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, has proudly declared and displayed her transphobic views numerous times. It would take too long to describe Rowling’s full history of transphobia, but a good place to start would be her own blog post about this issue, followed by this debunking of several of the false claims and inaccuracies in said blog post. Apparently, her transphobic views are also on display in her new book, in which a man dresses up as a woman to kill other women. Variations of this trope have already appeared in Silence of the Lambs and Dressed to Kill, so this transphobia isn’t even original.

Rowling has been criticized for these views in the past, so perhaps that’s why Warner Bros. said in an FAQ about the game that she is “not directly involved” in Hogwarts Legacy. Harry Potter is Rowling’s creation, however, so she stands to benefit financially from the game. Whether that’s a one-time licensing fee that she’s already pocketed or something linked to sales percentages, we don’t know, but as Rowling is the owner and creator of Harry Potter, it is impossible for this game to exist without her agreement. There’s also the possibility that the game would lead to a boost in sales of Harry Potter books and merchandise, which, again, would generate income for Rowling.

On Dec. 12, 2019, J.K. Rowling accepted the Ripple of Hope award from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization. This past August, the author returned the award after the group denounced her transphobic views.
Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Rowling is already incredibly rich, and the money she makes from Harry Potter books or paraphernalia doesn’t particularly bother me. The issue is relevance: Anything that keeps Harry Potter relevant keeps her relevant. Rowling is not just “a transphobe” — she’s the transphobe-in-chief, the respectable face of hate, the celebrity representative of transphobia. As the author of Harry Potter, she’s one of the most well-known public figures in the world. Anything that keeps her in the press also keeps her transphobia in the press, and leads to further distress for trans people. It’s not just the money but the influence that money buys, the stature that her fame and relevance generates, and the fact that her reach does more harm than her bank balance.

When Rowling tweets, it’s headline news. There are dozens of news stories from the past year about her tweets, whether it’s her linking to her own transphobic blog post, her pretending to forget the word “women” exists, or her accidentally unleashing a transphobic, profanity-laden rant on a child who had sent her a drawing. Few people, even those with significantly more money than Rowling, have this reach. Her reach extends around the world, and affects conversations about public policy; a Republican senator from Oklahoma quoted her directly in voting down a bill on LGBTQ+ rights in June.

So what does all this mean for the game? Is it unethical to buy it? There was nothing transphobic in the trailer, which made Hogwarts Legacy look like a whimsical and jaunty, if somewhat uninspired, open-world role-playing game.

Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

However, I will not be buying the game, no matter its approach to representation. Hogwarts Legacy and Rowling are too closely intertwined, and there are too many other great video games out there for me to give my time to one as compromised as this one. But I’ve also been asked by a couple of people about whether they would be “allowed” to play the game, given Rowling’s history. I wouldn’t presume to speak for all trans people, or to even tell my friends what they are or aren’t allowed to do. In the wise words of The Simpsons’ Reverend Lovejoy, I say, “Short answer, ‘yes’ with an ‘if.’ Long answer, ‘no’ with a ‘but.’”

Regardless of how Warner Bros. may try to distance itself from Rowling, Hogwarts Legacy will directly or indirectly generate money for her, as well as extend her fame and influence, all of which she can use to further propagate hate against trans people. I feel that you would directly aid that by buying the game, but you might also feel that by not buying the game, you’re unlikely to make a difference.

In the big picture, you probably won’t. One sale, even 100 sales, will not make a dent. Rather, this is a decision that could make a difference in a lot of smaller, more personally powerful ways. If you decide to be open about your decision and reasoning, trans people will see where you stand on this issue and may adjust their opinion of you accordingly. By contrast, hyping the game up, sharing screenshots, or talking about it without considering this larger context are all behaviors that could be harmful on a more micro level, as your trans friends see you throw in for Rowling while they sit on the sidelines.

Remember that many trans people loved Harry Potter and its escapism, and have had that cruelly ripped away from them by the woman who originated it. Also, consider why you cannot go without the game, when leaving it on the shelf is a small but significant act of solidarity. Hogwarts was not created by Hatsune Miku, and it didn’t come from space. It was created by J.K. Rowling, and if you’re desperate to return to her creation in Hogwarts Legacy, you cannot hand-wave that feeling of need away.

Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

As Harry Potter fans debate on social media about whether to buy Hogwarts Legacy, I’ve seen a trinity of bad takes. The first is the idea that the announcement of the game was “bad timing.” While it does come hot on the heels of the release of Rowling’s new transphobic book, the unveiling of Hogwarts Legacy does not feel like bad timing. Rowling was transphobic six months ago, and she will be transphobic six months from now. It’s not so much bad timing as bad optics. You getting excited right now looks bad because her hatred is in the headlines this week. But I promise you, whenever this game got revealed, your excitement would always feel bad for trans people, like me, who are harmed by Rowling’s views.

The next bad take I’ve seen is a two-fer: “I feel sorry for the devs” and “I’d boycott it, but it’s not fair to the devs.” If you feel sorry for the developers, that’s great and all, but they already got paid. Yes, they might also get a bonus if the game sells well, and yes, a flop on their CV might make their next career move more difficult. And with a game of this scope, there are also likely many disadvantaged minorities, including trans people, working on the project. If you buy literally every game from a major studio because you feel such an obligation to the developers, go ahead and buy Hogwarts Legacy too — but if you don’t, you can’t use that as an excuse this time around.

Furthermore, people who say “I’d boycott the game, but …” fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of a boycott. When Papa John’s founder John Schnatter used a racial slur, it led to a mass boycott and, eventually, his resignation. That wasn’t because participants in the boycott thought everyone at the company was racist, but rather, they wanted to take a stand against Schnatter. Of course, with pizza, you can just go to Domino’s or Pizza Hut instead. There is no alternative to the wizard game: You either go without, or you decide you want it more than you care about taking a stand.

Unlike the situation with Papa John’s, there is not currently a mass movement to boycott this game. Instead, the trailer for Hogwarts Legacy has the highest view count of all the trailers featured in the PS5 showcase. Harry Potter is a massive franchise, meaning the game is primed to sell in huge numbers. And it’s rare for a boycott to gain enough traction to bring down a company or a project of this scope. In this case, the decision to “boycott” the game would be a more personal action, one designed to show solidarity and make (in this case, trans) people feel supported.

Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

This leads to the final and perhaps most cruel of the bad take trilogy: “No one outside Twitter cares.” This argument is typically used by people to justify buying the game, relegating trans trauma to Twitter drama. This is infuriating, mainly because it’s not true. Rowling has thrown her fame and influence behind an increasingly loud movement against trans rights that affects trans people in real life every day. Just this week, the U.K. government decided to scrap trans-positive reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, despite a 70% approval rating on the policy. Transgender-related hate crimes also rose 81% in Britain last year, with trans people becoming one of the most vulnerable minorities, even as our visibility rises.

Hateful views on trans people should not be equated with some low-stakes spicy Twitter take like “the gunplay in The Last of Us Part 2 is uninspired.” This is about whether trans people deserve to have rights. The spirit of this statement, however, that “no one cares,” is probably depressingly true. It’s not so much that “no one” cares as that those claiming this don’t care, and they won’t be listening to anybody who thinks otherwise. This rush to defend Hogwarts Legacy, to analyze Rowling’s transphobia in a cold, disaffected way as a negligible factor in sales figures, ignoring the harm it causes trans people, may be symptomatic of enough people not caring that the sales will likely not take a large hit.

If you’re making this argument, ask yourself: Do trans people matter to me?

As the game draws closer, we will see more people making more excuses. That they and their circle don’t get involved in “Twitter drama”; that they regard transphobia as “Twitter drama”; and that a game that is indelibly linked to the world’s leading transphobe constitutes for them little more than a sideshow, an experiment, a fascinating sociological study into the impact of social justice politics on game sales. That they have disregarded the damage trans people face on the daily as nothing more than some viral tweets that they forget as soon as they read them.

But for me, this is not an intellectual exercise.

I will not be buying Hogwarts Legacy — not because I think my own decision to boycott it will bring Rowling’s empire of transphobia crashing down around her, but because I need to take a stand. Not buying a video game is such an easy instance of direct action to take. I know other trans people will stand with me, and I know some allies will stand with me. I also understand that some won’t.

If you decide to buy the game, I hope you do so with an understanding about the context of J.K. Rowling’s transphobia (not to mention the various racist tropes in her books). But remember: When asked whether you would stand with your trans friends or stand with her, all it took was an open-world RPG to lure you over. If you’ve ever announced your allyship by claiming that you’re no longer supporting J.K. Rowling, now’s the time to prove it.

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