Hogwarts Legacy Can’t Cast Aside Debate Over J.K. Rowling

The developer behind a highly anticipated video game set in the “Harry Potter” universe, but a century before the familiar story, was always going to have to confront the expectations of a zealous fandom.

There was the challenge of creating an engaging experience beyond the well-known tale of the Boy Who Lived, and the risk of disappointing fans by omitting beloved aspects of the wizarding world. (Sorry, no quidditch.)

But when the developer, Avalanche Software, began work several years ago on an immersive role-playing game set in Hogwarts, it may not have anticipated that perhaps the biggest challenge of all would stem from the series’s celebrated author.

The conversation among fans and gamers as Hogwarts Legacy approaches its official release date on Friday has been dominated not by talk about spell casting or Hippogriff taming, but by J.K. Rowling’s remarks on transgender issues.

Potter fans have been grappling with those comments for years, especially after Rowling published an extensive essay in 2020 in which she said a movement of transgender activists was “seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators.”

“I want trans women to be safe,” she wrote. “At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.”

Fans who considered Rowling’s views odious clashed with those who sympathized with them, while others argued that the artist could be separated from her art. Some pledged to cease spending money on the franchise, which includes a theatrical production and the “Fantastic Beasts” movies.

Hogwarts Legacy brought another dedicated community into the fold: gamers, a group not associated with soft-spokenness online.

In recent weeks, they have used social media to confront one another over issues of transgender rights. Some have pledged to boycott the game, while others have embraced it or defended their right to play it without claiming specific gender politics.

“The controversy is very loud,” said Alex Casilio, a YouTube creator who has followed Hogwarts Legacy throughout its yearslong development, though he questioned whether the debate would have a measurable impact on sales. “It’s a game that got very popular very fast, and most people aren’t into the controversy.”

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Days before its official release, Hogwarts Legacy became the single-player game with the highest number of concurrent viewers on the streaming site Twitch, according to the analytics site Streams Charts, beating titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Elden Ring.

Still, the disagreements over whether to engage with the newest entry in the wizarding world have sowed chaos on internet forums. On the game’s Reddit forum, the moderators reinstated restrictions on discussing Rowling, writing that allowing such conversation “quickly spirals into bigoted language towards LGBTQ+ individuals.” On an official Discord forum, a moderator pleaded with users to “pause on the JK topic.”

Like other role-playing games, Hogwarts Legacy allows players to shape their avatars’ appearance, intertwining issues of identity with the gameplay. And some players have drawn the conclusion that a new, nonplayable character is transgender, based on a line of dialogue in which the character — Sirona Ryan, who runs the Three Broomsticks pub — said it had taken her classmates a moment to “realize I was actually a witch, not a wizard.”

Set in the 1890s — a century before Harry’s story — the game allows players to become students at Hogwarts, where they can wear their house robes, navigate through the castle and practice spells.Credit…Warner Bros. Games

Avalanche — which is owned by Warner Bros., the studio behind the eight “Harry Potter” movies and the “Fantastic Beasts” series — has walked a fine line, establishing distance between Rowling and the game while acknowledging her centrality to the franchise.

Warner Bros. declined several times to set up an interview with the game’s developers. When asked direct questions about the creative process and Rowling’s contributions, it pointed to marketing materials.

“J.K. Rowling is not involved in the creation of the game, but as creator of the wizarding world and one of the world’s greatest storytellers, her extraordinary body of writing is the foundation of all projects in the wizarding world,” explains a list of frequently asked questions. “This is not a new story from J.K. Rowling, however we have collaborated closely with her team on all aspects of the game to ensure it remains in line with the magical experiences fans expect.”

It is unclear how much Rowling will financially benefit from the game; a spokesman for Rowling declined to comment on its reception. In December, after Jessie Earl, a transgender gaming commentator, tweeted that it was “harmful” to support Hogwarts Legacy, Rowling used the term “purethink” to criticize the argument.

In an interview with IGN, an entertainment website, Alan Tew, the game’s director, addressed questions about Rowling by saying, “When we bumped into those challenges, we went back and refocused on the stuff that we really care about.”

In a separate article about Sirona Ryan, the character players have concluded is transgender, a representative for the developer told IGN, “The team felt that it was very important to create a game that is representative of the rich and diverse world of Harry Potter as well as the groups of people who play games, which includes the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Set in the 1890s, the game allows players to become students at Hogwarts, where they can wear their house robes, navigate through the castle and practice spells.

Many details are pulled from Rowling’s texts (spells like Crucio, the torture curse, and Avada Kedavra, the killing curse, will be familiar), but some aspects of the lore are newly invented: Daedalian Keys, the game explains, have been conjured to protect locked cabinets at Hogwarts.

Several gaming publications and streamers have also been cautious discussing the game, making it clear that they have qualms about Rowling’s views. Several paragraphs into IGN’s positive review, which calls the spell-casting combat “stupefyingly good,” sits a disclaimer box that acknowledges the “elephant in the room.”

“As critics, our job is to answer the question of whether or not we find Hogwarts Legacy to be fun to play and why,” the disclaimer says. “Whether it’s ethical to play is a separate but still very important question.”

NME, a British pop culture website, gave Hogwarts Legacy three out of five stars and noted that its review was “not an endorsement of Rowling’s opinions or comments,” while linking to L.G.B.T.Q. charities.

And a duo called Girlfriend Reviews, who were criticized for streaming the game on Twitch, responded by emphasizing that they had not paid for it and were raising money for the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group for L.G.B.T.Q. young people.

Others in the gaming community have drawn a harder line.

“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,” Percy Ranson wrote for GamesHub, an Australian gaming news site, noting that they are transgender.

Rowling has continued to opine on transgender issues since her 2020 essay. Last month, she posted a tweet likening a meme in which a character holding a gun threatens a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, to an illustration of a 20th-century suffragist being tortured. She also rallied in opposition to Scottish legislation intending to make it easier for people to legally change their gender.

The author had no creative input in Hogwarts Legacy, according to Troy Leavitt, who said on Casilio’s channel last year that he was a lead designer and senior producer on the game for three years before leaving Avalanche in 2021. The studio had the latitude, he said, to pick and choose the aspects fans were most interested in.

“This isn’t a game about pushing agendas or anything,” said Leavitt, who declined an interview request. “This is a game about delivering to the fans that wizarding world experience that you always wanted to have when you were reading the books or watching the films. That’s it.”

Perhaps the game’s developers wish they had invented a charm to tame the internet.

“Every big ‘Harry Potter’ thing turns into an L.G.B.T.Q. conversation,” said Asher Chelder, who works on social media for MuggleNet, a Harry Potter fan site, and is transgender.

But this backlash has seemed heightened compared with the response to the release of the third “Fantastic Beasts” movie last year, said Chelder, who is looking forward to playing Hogwarts Legacy.

Despite some calls for a boycott of the franchise, “Beasts” — which credits Rowling as a screenplay writer — grossed more than $400 million globally. “Cursed Child,” the play Rowling is credited on, is running in six countries.

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