New Harry Potter game sparks boycott, divides fans over trans-inclusion
This week was set to be a time of celebration for fans of Harry Potter, with the release of the long-awaited and highly anticipated open world video game Hogwarts Legacy. But the game’s impending release on February 10 has re-opened fault lines between the franchise’s author, JK Rowling, and her fans, and divided the gaming community.
What’s the game about, and why is it a big deal?
Harry Potter fans have long clamoured for a fully developed role-playing game (RPG), and until now have largely had to contend themselves with the (admittedly enjoyable) Lego iterations. The first footage of gameplay from Hogwarts Legacy, from developer Avalanche and publisher Portkey, both of which are owned by Warner Bros, surfaced in 2018. In 2022, the game – for PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and Windows – was named the most anticipated of the year. Now, it’s finally here.
Set in the wizarding world 100 years before the events of the Harry Potter stories, the game allows players to create their own characters and do battle with the forces of evil in the familiar surrounds of Hogwarts, Hogsmeade and the forbidden forest.
Butterbeers and bitterness: The presence of trans character Sirona Ryan in the computer game Hogwarts Legacy has not been enough to allay concerns of some fans. Credit:Warner Bros/screengrab
What has JK Rowling said that’s made the game controversial?
To be fair, nothing. But the goblet of ire spawned by Rowling’s views on trans people (which, for the sake of simplicity, might be reduced to “trans women are not women”) has inevitably touched on its development.
In fact, Warner Bros was so concerned about the potential for a fan boycott that it issued a statement in September 2020 that made it clear the Scottish author “is not directly involved in the creation of the game”. It did add, however, that its world was absolutely founded in her “extraordinary body of writing”. It was a classic case of trying to have it both ways: the world you love, without the woman you feel has betrayed you.
What has this got to do with the actual game?
There are two ways the trans issue has been addressed in Hogwarts Legacy. First, and perhaps most significantly, players can create an avatar that is not bound by gender conventions. It is possible to select “female” body characteristics yet designate the character as a wizard, or match “male” elements to a character who is a witch. This effectively means a player can create a trans character.
Second, the game includes a non-player transgender character in its story segments called Sirona Ryan, who runs the Three Broomsticks tavern in Hogsmeade. They present as female, but appear to have been voiced by a cis-male actor.
So, that’s a win for the trans community?
Not so fast. The game hasn’t officially been released yet, so the reactions have mostly come from game reviewers, writers and developers – and they have been mixed, to say the least.
Games Radar reported the views of a couple of industry professionals – with admittedly tangential connections to the game – who derided the stab at inclusion as “performative bullshit”, and no more than an attempt to “pivot the conversation away from JK Rowling”.
Some users on popular gaming hub Discord have taken issue with the character and their characterisation. “Why is Sirona Ryan voiced by a cis man and has that name? It feels really offensive/disrespectful,” wrote one. (Sirona is the Celtic goddess of healing, associated with wells or springs, an apt name for the witch proprietor of a pub.)
For Melbourne-based games journalist Percy Ranson, there is simply no way to engage with the game without tacitly endorsing the views – and adding to the wealth – of Rowling, and that’s why they have declined to review it (while actually kind of doing so anyway).
Hogwarts Legacy is set in the Wizarding World universe, based on the Harry Potter novels. Credit: Warner Bros. GamesCredit:Warner Bros
“Hogwarts Legacy cannot and should not be judged solely on its own merits,” writes Ranson, who identifies as transgender. “If you purchase this game – if you praise its qualities and encourage others to ‘support the developers’ or ‘treat yourself to a guilty pleasure’ – you are making a choice that will harm the transgender community, whether you want to admit it or not.”
Does that mean the Potterverse and trans people can never make peace?
A good portion of fans and former fans of Harry Potter self-identify as outcasts and misfits. That includes trans people and trans allies. They once found in her work – which teems with outcasts and misfits – a safe haven. Many believe that space has now been tainted by her views, which have been labelled transphobic, and seen her labelled a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF).
Until and unless she disavows those views, for a good portion of those former fans, the Potterverse will remain forever off limits, no matter how much effort – token or otherwise – Warner Bros makes to heal the rift.
Does Warner Bros really care about all this?
You betcha. Late last year the company’s CEO David Zaslav said he hoped to make more Potter movies. Notably, he said he wanted to make them with Rowling (she shares ownership of the Potterverse with the studio). But the numbers suggest the profitability or otherwise of any future movies could be tied to resolving this issue.
The nine films made before Rowling made her views on trans rights public averaged around $US950 million each. The two since averaged around $500 million each. Warner Bros was so alarmed at the declining fortunes of the Fantastic Beasts franchise that it cancelled the final two films it had planned to make.
Rowling is so wealthy that the economics of a backdown might carry no weight at all. But for Warner Bros, it’s a challenge that demands far more than token action lest the value of its franchise vanish into thin air.
Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.
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