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Why is Hogwarts Legacy, a Harry Potter video game, so controversial?

A look back at the real-life context that has made this big release so problematic

Two Hogwarts students flying over water on hippogriffs in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Hogwarts Legacy, on the face of it, should have been pure wish fulfillment for millions of fans who have been enchanted by the lore of Harry Potter’s world over the past 25 years. In the video game, launching next week, players will live the life of mystery and adventure that comes with being a student at pop culture’s foremost school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Still, Hogwarts Legacy and the Harry Potter franchise trouble many fans, for reasons outside of the video game’s story or context. Why is that? We’ll now go further behind the Wizarding World’s curtains to explain this controversy.

What is Hogwarts Legacy?

First announced at PlayStation’s State of Play event in September 2020, Hogwarts Legacy is an open-world, action-RPG adventure in which the player enrolls in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The player-character is user-generated; however, they are a fifth-year student, so they’ll begin the game with some advanced magical aptitude.

J.K. Rowling wears a navy blue evening gown with a sheer cape attached at a red carpet event for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
J.K. Rowling at the world premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore in London, March 2022.
Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Why is this game controversial?

Mainly because of the public stances that author and series creator J.K. Rowling has chosen to take regarding gender identity, going back to 2018. Her views came into full display in the summer of 2020. At the time, Scotland (Rowling is a resident of Edinburgh, writing most of the Harry Potter series there) was considering changing its laws to allow individuals to change the gender assigned on their birth certificates without a medical diagnosis.

After a couple of years of coy social media gestures and replies on the subject, on June 10, 2020, Rowling published a confrontational 3,600-word essay on her personal website spelling out her views on gender identity, her skepticism of transgender-inclusive laws and policies, and “the new trans activism.” Rowling invoked her own survival of domestic abuse and sexual assault, while also raising a discredited hypothetical about male sexual predators being allowed into restrooms for girls and women as long as they identify as one.

Since that June 2020 editorial, Rowling has continued to engage with the subject of transgender identity, from the same point of view. Her crime novel Troubled Blood, also published in 2020 under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith, tells the story of a serial killer who dresses as a woman when he carries out his murders. LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations condemned it and Rowling’s other writings as harmful or suborning the harm and discrimination of transgender persons, although some of Rowling’s celebrity colleagues publicly came to her defense.

an owl perched on a cart full of suitcases in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Is J.K. Rowling developing Hogwarts Legacy?

Reportedly not. Immediately after Hogwarts Legacy’s worldwide reveal in September 2020, publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment posted an FAQ that distanced the project from Rowling. Hogwarts Legacy “is not a new story from J.K. Rowling,” WBIE said, adding that Rowling “is not directly involved in the creation of the game.” Obviously, however, it is built on the Harry Potter canon and concepts that Rowling has developed since the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997.

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment put its Utah-based studio, Avalanche Software, on Hogwarts Legacy. WBIE acquired Avalanche in 2017, the same year Warner Bros. set up the Portkey Games publishing label that oversees WB’s license to Harry Potter works.

All this said, Rowling inevitably benefits from the publication and sale of Hogwarts Legacy, whether that’s in the form of royalties, a specific payment to adapt this work, the ongoing contract with Warner Bros., or simply the publicity and attention to her work. Warner Bros. acquired a license to Rowling’s “Wizarding World” franchise in 1997, and has since used it to produce and distribute 11 films (eight Harry Potter novel adaptations, three in in the Fantastic Beasts storyline).

Does anything in Hogwarts Legacy reflect J.K. Rowling’s views?

Presumably, no, although broader criticisms of the Harry Potter canon cast it as patriarchal and regressive compared with views of modern society. Significantly, Hogwarts Legacy’s character-creation options will allow players voice, clothing, and body shape options that aren’t related to or interconnected with other gender presentation. In 2021, Bloomberg reported that development on Hogwarts Legacy had begun before Rowling’s anti-transgender statements and public positions emerged, leaving many developers at Avalanche “sad and frustrated” at dealing with the aftermath and fans’ anger.

Since Hogwarts Legacy’s announcement, Avalanche Games and WBIE have seemed cognizant of the controversy Rowling has created and have been quick to separate it from this game. Six months after the game was announced, the lead designer, Troy Leavitt, left Avalanche Software after it came to light that he had far-right views, including support for the Gamergate online hate campaign.

What is J.K. Rowling’s response to fans’ criticism?

Rowling has noticed not just the backlash regarding her work in general, but Hogwarts Legacy in specific, and she still engages with it whether or not the criticism is addressed to her. For example:

To which Rowling replied:

Additionally, Rowling convened a public “gender wars” lunch of likeminded women — called TERFs by their critics (for “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) one year ago. Her opinions were also cited when U.S. Senate Republicans blocked the passage of an LGBTQ equality rights bill in 2022.

So this is not a matter of a creator ignoring or even tacitly acknowledging her critics. Although Hogwarts Legacy is developed separately, Rowling considers it an extension of her work. And that’s why so many have second thoughts about participating in it.

Hogwarts Legacy launches on Feb. 10 for PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X; April 4 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; and July 25 for Nintendo Switch.

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