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How the Harry Potter video game became an ethical minefield

Hogwarts Legacy is one of the most anticipated video games of all time. Whether or not you play it is a question of morality.

A still from the video game Hogwarts Legacy shows a Hogwarts student holding a wand as old man Ollivander looks on.
Inside Ollivander’s wand shop.
Warner Bros.
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

On February 10, Warner Bros. released the video game Hogwarts Legacy, an open-world role-playing game (RPG) set 100 years before the events of Harry Potter. So far, reviews have been solid: The game is by no means groundbreaking, relying heavily on the conventions long perfected by other RPG fantasy franchises like The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed, and The Legend of Zelda, where players control one main person who explores a world full of other characters who can either present them with quests or act as obstacles to defeat.

But whether it is a good, a bad, or even a solidly fine video game is not really what people are talking about when they talk about Hogwarts Legacy. Since the first rumblings of its existence, all the way back in 2017, to its official announcement in 2020, the game has sparked intense fury and speculation over how it would distance itself — or not — from the hateful rhetoric of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Rowling has, over the past several years, proudly aligned herself with trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or TERFism, which maintains that trans women are actually men who seek to invade women-only spaces and oppress them further. This logic has no basis in reality, and as Katelyn Burns previously noted for Vox, TERFism effectively functions as a hate group targeting one of society’s most vulnerable communities.

Much of Harry Potter’s enormous fan base has spent the intervening years reeling from the realization that its beloved author could harbor such abhorrent views, particularly one whose books explicitly championed progressive values (so much so that terms from the series became synonymous with the anti-Trump “resistance”). But the attention on Rowling’s beliefs about trans people has also reignited conversations around her portrayal of other marginalized groups within the book series. Namely, her tendency to call nonwhite characters stereotypical and offensive names, the most egregious being Cho Chang, whose name is actually two last names of completely separate ethnic origins, and the Black character Kingsley Shacklebolt. She also frequently uses antisemetic dog whistles in her depictions of the greedy, “hook-nosed” goblins who work at the wizard bank.

All of this has made Hogwarts Legacy, one of the most anticipated video games of all time, into a deeply fraught topic. For many fans, the fact that Rowling will profit from the purchases of Hogwarts Legacy is reason enough to boycott it. “If anyone makes a new Harry Potter anything, it will clearly broadcast the message that Rowling’s views aren’t abhorrent. That you can demonize trans people as mentally ill sexual predators and still continue to have a voice, a career, tremendous social influence,” wrote my colleague Aja Romano, after rumors that Warner Bros. was working on a Harry Potter TV show.

Now that there is in fact a new Harry Potter property, professional video game streamers, games websites, and fans have publicly clashed over their approaches to playing and reviewing it. Some argue that whether or not fans purchase the game, Rowling will continue to be a billionaire, so it shouldn’t matter. Potterheads have waited decades for the ability to explore Hogwarts castle themselves, their logic goes, so what difference will a portion of their $59.99 make to someone with a virtually limitless bank account, even if it ends up funding anti-trans hate groups?

On the other side, many trans people and allies argue that the desire to play a video game and the desire to exist freely as a trans person are hardly comparable. “You’re afraid about people being mad about you playing Hogwarts Legacy and supporting the transphobic JK Rowling. I’m afraid of being murdered for being trans. We are not the same,” tweeted writer Alejandra Caraballo.

What seems to be the underlying question, however, is this: Does my choice to play or not to play Hogwarts Legacy make me a bad person or a good person?

Hogwarts Legacy has tried to sidestep the Rowling issue but hasn’t necessarily succeeded

Since 2020, Warner Bros. has attempted to distance itself from Rowling, stating repeatedly that the author was not “directly involved” with the development of the game. Her creative agency, however, “did work with the developers on creative decisions throughout the project,” according to Bloomberg.

It should also be mentioned that Rowling is not the only controversial part of Hogwarts Legacy. In 2021, its lead developer, Troy Leavitt, resigned after videos surfaced of him defending men who had been accused of sexual harassment and Gamergate, the 2014 harassment campaign against women in the games industry. One of its voice actors is Greg Ellis, who publicly supports Rowling and made many anti-Amber Heard videos on his YouTube, where he regularly rails against feminism, cancel culture, and wokeness. Others have criticized Hogwarts Legacys decision to focus the main plot on the goblin wars, further impressing upon the veiled antisemitism of the tropes they represent.

Warner Bros. has stressed that it attempted to make the game as diverse as possible. Speaking to IGN, director Alan Tew said, “We know our fans fell in love with the Wizarding World, and we believe they fell in love with it for the right reasons. We know that’s a diverse audience. For us, it’s making sure that the audience, who always dreamed of having this game, had the opportunity to feel welcomed back. That they have a home here and that it’s a good place to tell their story.” Within hours of beginning the main storyline, players will meet characters from Korea, Uganda, and India, as well as a female archeologist who refers to her wife. Players can also ostensibly play as trans characters; the game offers the ability to choose one’s voice, body shape, and whether they want to be referred to as a “witch” or a “wizard” in separate sliders.

A still from Hogwarts Legacy showing Sirona Ryan behind the bar at the Three Broomsticks.
Sirona Ryan, the Harry Potter universe’s possibly first trans character.
Harry Potter Fandom Wiki

There is also a character who is (almost) explicitly transgender: Sirona Ryan is the owner of the Hogsmeade pub the Three Broomsticks, and in one scene says the line, “He recognized me instantly. Which is more than I can say for some of my own classmates. Took them a second to realize I was actually a witch, not a wizard.” While it could be assumed that her inclusion was a direct rejection of Rowling’s beliefs, sources familiar with the game’s development have said that the move was “performative bullshit,” and that the character was only added after the initial backlash to the game.

The online reaction to the character, however, has focused mostly on her name — specifically that it seemed to mirror Rowling’s stereotypical naming conventions by beginning with “sir.” “I think the trans community can accept the first trans character in harry potter being named Sirona Ryan if they introduce the first TERF character and name her Dee Vorced,” tweeted @JUNlPER, a podcaster and prominent trans Twitter user named June (she avoids using her last name to prevent doxxing and harassment). “It feels like a lot of this [discourse] is manufactured, because there’s a lot of right-wing TERFs who are like, ‘Wow, look how good this [game] is selling, sticking it to trans people!’ Which is, of course, provoking trans people. It’s just so obviously targeted culture war discourse,” June told me.

Another aspect of the game that contradicts Rowling’s moral logic is that in Hogwarts Legacy, players are free to use one of the three “Unforgivable Curses” — the killing curse, the torture curse, and the spell that allows you to control other people’s actions — without punishment. In the books, casting any one of them results in a lifetime sentence in Azkaban, which is a prison where very often your soul gets sucked out, but as lead designer Kelly Rowland told Games Radar, the decision “comes from a place of non-judgment by the game creators. If you want to be evil, be evil.”

In any other video game, this would seem like a pretty reasonable choice; many of the most popular games, after all, encourage players to murder one another. But in Harry Potter, a book series whose moral code is so central to the story, and where the “evil” people are essentially eugenicists (they believe that wizards should only be of “pure blood” and that wizardkind should be free to subjugate and enslave non-magic people), it feels not only extra icky but like a major break from the franchise’s ethos.

The rest of the game, though, is pretty much what you’d expect: You walk around the castle and the grounds, you learn spells from professors, you befriend your classmates, you find out that you possess a rare bit of magic that becomes the key to defeating the evil goblin rebellion. It’s exactly the Harry Potter video game fans have been hoping for for decades — just in a far more fraught context.

How “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” became part of Hogwarts Legacy’s legacy

There’s a phrase that has become commonly used in situations where a lot of people want to buy something they know they shouldn’t: “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” The phrase’s origins are murky; its earliest internet appearance was a 2013 meme of Clippy, the sentient paperclip on Microsoft Word, but author Malcolm Harris attributes the idea to a 2010 YouTube video of Marxist theorist Slavoj Zizek. The idea is that under a capitalist system in which laborers do not own the means of production, there is no such thing as buying or consuming something that is inherently fair trade, so we should endeavor to reduce harm when possible. But, Harris notes, the line is more often used today to mean its inverse: that there is no unethical consumption under capitalism, therefore nobody should feel bad about the things they buy because it’s all bad anyway.

You can imagine how this sort of copypasta can be used to justify the purchase of Hogwarts Legacy. “Sorry guys but I am forced to buy this game twice and also any DLC released, as well as the new movie and scarves and of course the boxed set in Ravenpuff colors and for recurring entrance to the themed parks and,” tweeted one person, sarcastically.

The “no ethical consumption under capitalism” defense is also almost always a pretense for the real reason someone might willingly give money to a proud transphobe: They just really, really want to play the game, and the consequences of this choice will always be invisible to them.

“On some level, all of us buys something that supports an evil person, right?” says June. “By me using Twitter, I’m supporting Elon Musk in some way, and he’s transphobic.” There is a difference, though, when people who buy the game then need to be told that what they are doing is still virtuous because they personally disagree with Rowling’s beliefs. “Here’s my take on it: Feel free to buy it, but don’t try to get ‘good ally’ points for saying, ‘I really dislike J.K. Rowling, so can you still pat me on the back?’”

Consider the many viral tweets that attempt to work out this logic: “If you buy #HogwartsLegacy because you’re excited to play it, you aren’t transphobic. If you boycott the game, you’re not a bad person. If you call someone transphobic for buying the game, you’re an asshole. If you say you’re buying to ’piss off the libs’ you’re an asshole too.” One person compared the decision to play to the Trolley Problem. The popular games website IGN inserted a lengthy parenthetical regarding Rowling in their otherwise glowing review of the game, seemingly as a way to separate the game from its context — a tempting exercise, but ultimately an illusion.

A still from Hogwarts Legacy shows a student riding a hippogriff over a lake.
A still from Hogwarts Legacy.
Warner Bros.

This is the unspoken undercurrent of nearly all Hogwarts Legacy discourse: the misguided need to be considered a good person even if you buy the game. In some ways, this makes sense; in American culture, where spending money is essentially our greatest form of power, of course we equate consumer choices with morality. And in an economic environment where the value of a dollar is declining alongside the power of working families, it’s easier to unleash our frustrations on each other than it is to try and dismantle the system. Hence, endless infighting among fans who might have extremely similar views at their core.

“Especially in the trans community, there’s a lot of lashing out because there’s a helplessness. When you don’t have any real power at all, people tend to lash out at each other and at people who are, on some level, allies,” June explains. She recently raised $60,000 for the Trevor Project by streaming a video game created by a trans person, writing, “The world has gotten bad and scary for trans people recently and I hope that people become better to each other. Try not to become as vicious to each other and ostensible allies as transphobes are to us. We need everyone we can get to keep fighting back.”

It’s fitting that Hogwarts Legacy has incited so many heightened, emotionally fraught reactions. The Harry Potter universe is one in which there are Death Eaters and the resistance and very little in between, one where 11-year-old students are sorted into houses based on their characters before they’ve really developed them. It is nearly synonymous with an entire generation, the millennials whose worldviews were formed based on the choices Rowling made.

The problem is, the regular world isn’t Harry Potter. By playing or not playing the game, no one is going to brand you with the Dark Mark or induct you into the Order of the Phoenix. As the game’s lead designer said, “If you want to be evil, be evil.” Just don’t expect anyone to congratulate you for it.

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