Hogwarts Legacy isn't out yet and already I am exhausted by its existence. It is easily the most divisive game of the year, but the way it has been discussed makes it extremely curious too. Often when games are divisive ahead of release, they fall into two camps. The first camp we can call the 'Buried Head' camp. The hype cycle is maintained by positivity, by excitement, by the desire to always consume something new. For games that fall into this camp, fans will ignore crunch, or union busting, or sexual harassment, or whatever behind the scenes issue causes this sense of division. They bury their heads.
The second camp might be called 'the Relishers'. This camp arises when a game leans into its own criticisms, usually by relying on problematic content of one sort or another in the game or marketing. The hype cycle here is spun by controversy, and the fact that other people, usually SJWs of some sort, object to the game only makes fans want to play it more. They relish it. Hogwarts Legacy is both, but mainly, it's neither.
We have some head burying. When The Game Awards lists it as one of 2023's Most Anticipated Games, sand is clogging up Geoff Keighley's ears, eyes, and other facial orifices. We also have some relishers. Whenever the game is discussed, anonymous troll accounts will gleefully declare that they are buying eight copies on day one, just to prove a point. But amongst the sand and the relish, Hogwarts Legacy has been unique.
A significant proportion of those planning on playing the game exist in the middle. They acknowledge the numerous issues with the game, and seem to resent their existence. They are playing the game despite, not because of, controversy, and while they wish it would all go away they consider themselves big enough people – good enough people – to face up to the issues. Not enough to give up the game, but enough to admit they are conflicted about it.
It is bizarre and exhausting to witness. You might be asking 'what are these so-called numerous issues?', to which I say 'don't demean us both, you know as well as I do'. The anti-Semitism present in the caricatures and the involvement of Troy Leavitt only add to the controversy, but transphobia sits at the heart of it all. As I have written about previously, Hogwarts Legacy is a game tainted by JK Rowling. Despite being the most beloved author of the modern era, Rowling currently dedicates her time almost exclusively to transphobia. A quick check of her Twitter profile (a hazmat suit is recommended) shows constant streams of gender critical literature and quote tweets designed to dogpile trans activists – mentions of Harry Potter or her significantly less successful adult novels are few and far between. Trans people existing is a common theme of villainy in her post-Potter work too.
JK Rowling is not just a transphobic person. She is the most famous and most socially acceptable transphobe in the world. She is not an unhinged right wing politician screeching about the Bible, nor a messy-haired Irish comedy writer crying that his wife has left him because of his trans obsession. She is a respected author, a congenial British national treasure, and (this major issue aside) famously liberal in her political views. She is the greatest figurehead the anti-trans movement in Britain has. It does not have the hearts and minds of the people, as several surveys show, but it does own the press. And while hearts and minds are staying firm, fists of the dissenters are being thrown – violence against trans people continues to rise.
Buying Hogwarts Legacy is not the same as punching a trans person in the face. It's easy to rationalise that this does no harm. JK Rowling is already rich, Harry Potter is already one of the biggest franchises in the world, and you're just one person. You personally boycotting it isn't going to tank the game, right? This is what those people in the middle think. They don't agree with JK Rowling, they don't enjoy the controversy around the game, but they just love Harry Potter. They want to play Harry Potter. They want it, so they're going to do it. That's all that matters.
Supporting trans people ultimately puts you on the right side of history. Even amidst the violence, trans acceptance is growing and the anti-trans movement is eating itself, as nice, congenial, previously liberal JK-lites find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with the right wing and misogynist company their ideology keeps. It's easy to do, it doesn't take much courage. You can say 'trans women are women', you can point and laugh at Graham Linehan, you can claim Sam Smith looks just as good as Harry Styles in their sparkly leotard. You can say it even if you don't believe it, because it doesn't cost you anything and it makes you look like a good person. It's easy. But not playing a Harry Potter game is hard.
It is hard, and I say this without sarcasm. There are people out there who have only read seven books in their life, and they all start with 'Harry Potter and the…'. I understand how foundational this series, either on the page or the silver screen, is to the nostalgia of many childhoods. I understand that being told not to do something, something easily within your means, that you will enjoy, and with no obvious ill-effects, is difficult to hear. And I'm not going to tell you not to play it. You've already heard that argument and made up your mind. I'm just here to say how this game grew to be so controversial.
Let's look at those people in the middle. They consider themselves allies. They support trans rights. Maybe they think trans women are women, maybe they think trans women are deluded men in dresses – either way, they say trans women are women because that's what nice, good people say. It's easy to support trans people when it's only the bad guys who hate us. This is the first time they have ever been asked to back up that allyship with any real action. They're not being asked to march in the street, they're not being asked to place themselves in danger. They're not even being asked for money. They're being asked not to play an open world triple-A video game, in a year where about 15 others will also come out. And they're going to fail that test. They might not bury their heads or relish buying it, but they will fail nonetheless.
Hogwarts Legacy is so controversial because it is the first time many people have been asked to prove they support trans people, and they have been found wanting. The detractors are loud, especially on the internet, but it has been the unprecedented pushback from people who so often found themselves in the right and yet now, by their own admission (through long winded statements of justification) find themselves in the wrong that has allowed Hogwarts Legacy to fester. It is no longer just another video game. But of course, it is. It will sell, it will be discussed for its graphics and its gameplay and its character customisation, and then we all move on. Those who bought it will go back to claiming they support trans people, and those who rallied against it will find a new, more important cause. But it will always be the moment when many people were asked to stand with trans people, and instead decided to step back.
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