It’s a big week for the Harry Potter world with the release of Hogwarts Legacy, a console game expected to be one of the biggest of the year, or indeed any year. Unlike movies, music, and television, games are still somewhat disparaged and under-covered in proportion to just how big they really are.
The video game industry is worth around US$180 billion worldwide – that’s considerably more than the film industry. Last year’s widely awarded game of the year, Elden Ring, sold over 13 million copies and brought in some $7 billion revenue to the parent company Bandai Namco. Last year’s highest grossing movie, Avatar: the Way of Water, brought in a mere $2.1 billion.
(It’s worth noting that Elden Ring is an extremely difficult and strange game so its extraordinary success is more remarkable than you think. It’s also not the highest selling game of last year. That was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II which is less interesting than Elden Ring. Your correspondent has played an embarrassing amount of Elden Ring so couldn’t help but reference it.)
All of this is to say a multiplatform triple-A game release the size of Hogwarts Legacy is a big deal and it’s brought the Potterverse back into our ever-volatile media discourse.
And in the Year of Our Lord 2023 Harry Potter discourse is inextricably linked to discourse around creator J.K. Rowling. For the uninitiated – and God bless you if you are – Rowling has become a reviled figure in many progressive circles because of her views on gender. It’s a sign of the mania around gender issues that it’s a little bit difficult to pin down exactly what is so offensive about her views, but it seems to boil down to her opposing a gender self-ID bill because she believes women’s spaces need to be protected.
There’s a comprehensive, if hostile, rundown of it all here. What sticks out to me is how, to any normal not-terminally online person, disproportionate it all is.
J.K. Rowling is the extremely rich and successful author of the most popular books of the last 50 years or so. But that’s all she is. Yes, she’s famous, so she can get her words in newspapers or whatever, but she’s not a politician or policy-maker, she doesn’t have a media platform of her own. She’s just a novelist. Yet after reading some of the backlash she’s received, you’d think that she is all-powerful warlock in one of her books. It’s bizarre.
Then of course, there’s her stated views. Sex is real and matters. Trans people can identify and live however they want, but sex is real and it matters and when it comes to material policies, that takes precedence. These were all normal views five minutes ago. In fact, they’re probably still very normal.
But Rowling is being held up as the avatar of transphobia, responsible for suicides and assaults and all manner of evil things.
But again, remember who she is: a novelist. That’s it.
The primary rebuke here is that to many she’s more than that; she’s a voice of influence. She’s someone millions look up to because of the wonderful world she’s created, so her views are harmful to vulnerable people. Leave aside the “harms” point, and just note the chain of logic. I don’t mean to be too insensitive, but if an author’s politics can have such a profound effect on you, that’s a “you” problem.
In any case, what this means for Hogwarts Legacy is that there are lengthy struggle sessions going on about whether or not gaming publications should review the game, whether it’s moral to play the game, and if you choose to play the game, does that make you a bad person.
This review in major publication IGN is representative. The game gets a good review, but there’s a giant disclaimer box about J.K. Rowling in the middle of it, which says:
As critics, our job is to answer the question of whether or not we find Hogwarts Legacy to be fun to play and why; whether it’s ethical to play is a separate but still very important question.
The whole thing is deeply strange and it is evidence of an important cultural problem. That is: how many people have elevated Things they Like into Who they Are.
Harry Potter fans have, for 20+ years, been renowned for their passion and dedication. Many have built whole identities around wishing they could go to Hogwarts. People identify as being in Hufflepuff or some other house; they start quidditch leagues; and they have big online communities. For most people, this is totally fine and harmless — it’s not that different to being a sports fan.
But in some cases, love of Harry Potter has grown into something much more, and so when Rowling, in their view, transgresses on something important, that’s an attack on them. It is, in a very real way, an attack on their childhood.
Because we have lost the sense of people as separate from politics, all Rowling’s work is now tarred with her “transphobic” views. And, now we have spent decades in education talking about ethical consumption and infusing every action with social justice implications, buying a product she is only tangentially associated with is an act of great evil.
This is not how it’s meant to be. We should be allowed to coexist with different views on issues; we should be able to discuss things; and we should let people play a game or read a book without making it a moral test.
But more importantly, people are not the things they like. We need to encourage people — especially young people – to cultivate a self-sustaining personality that is independent of politics or pop culture. It’s not healthy to make everything political. It’s not normal to be incapable of separating someone’s views on one narrow issue from their work. It’s bad for society to work that way, and it’s bad for people themselves to live that way.
So buy the game, read the book. Or don’t. It’s up to you. Either way, we can still be friends tomorrow.