Even before the announcement, the word “boycott” was on the lips of many former fans. The reason for this, of course, concerns Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, whose repeated comments on transgender issues have been deemed offensive and harmful by LGBTQ + activists and organizations around the world.
In 2017, she “liked” a tweet that called trans women “men in a dress” (which her team called a “middle-aged moment”). Among other controversies, Rowling also compared hormone replacement therapy to “conversion therapy for young gay men” and wrote a lengthy blog post outlining her views on trans issues, accused of perpetuating harmful beliefs about trans people. Although Rowling has denied that her statements are transphobic, many disagree. She recently returned a prestigious human rights award after criticism from organizers, while an Australian bookstore pulled her work from its shelves. The release of his fifth novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Agitated blood, sparked additional controversy with his portrayal of a transvestite male serial killer. It’s no wonder that for many the Harry Potter franchise is tainted with association.
The idea of a pop culture boycott is tricky. In mass entertainment such as video games, there are few cases where boycotts have been carried out with success. Earlier this year, The Last of Us Part II was the subject of a right-wing boycott of its so-called progressivism, which has not dented its success; Detroit: beyond the human (2018) was developer Quantic Dream’s most successful release, despite threats of a boycott amid allegations of sexism and racism in the workplace. Gamers regularly threaten to boycott games produced by Electronic Arts due to unresolved user complaints, but their games (which include Fifa and The sims franchises) continue to sell tirelessly.
There are plenty of boycott-worthy games out there that manage to climb the bestseller charts without scrutiny. The actual content of Hogwarts Legacy is necessarily much less reprehensible than, say, militarist propaganda Call of Duty, or the caricatured but still repulsive misogyny of Grand Theft Auto.
What would a Hogwarts Legacy boycott actually achieve? Making games, maybe even more than making movies, is usually a deeply collaborative process. Hogwarts Legacy is not the result of Rowling’s literary prowess, but the result of thousands and thousands of hours of work by talented game designers, artists, writers and technicians. A report by Jason Schrier of Bloomberg in June suggested that the Avalanche Software development team harbored their own “anxiety” about Rowling’s comments. Warner Bros. itself issued a (rather vague) statement moving away from Rowling’s attitudes in June; a FAQ section for Hogwarts Legacy reveals that Rowling had no direct involvement in the creation of the game. However, it is reasonable to assume that Rowling will always profit from the sales of the game.
In the Bloomberg report, Felicia Grady, editor of the popular fan site MolduNet, said she believed Rowling’s trans comments “had some effect on the level of excitement” for the upcoming Harry Potter RPG. “We have seen comments from fans who are no longer interested in supporting Rowling or the brand financially,” she added.
Given Rowling’s existing wealth and the fact that Hogwarts Legacy is certain to sell extremely well (it’s just a matter of degrees), a possible boycott is unlikely to have tangible financial repercussions. It’s rather symbolic. Fans can’t give back the millions of Harry Potter books that have been sold over the decades, but now they are able to draw a line in the sand: remove any suggestions to somehow endorse Rowling’s views.
In Hogwarts Legacy, the gaming community faces an ethical litmus test – one of many in the months and years to come. Allegations of widespread abuse and harassment within the ranks of gaming giant Ubisoft made headlines earlier this year. With successful games such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Far Cry 6 expected in the coming months, they also received calls for a boycott. It remains to be seen if anything effective will materialize.
the Hogwarts Legacy revealing should have been a moment of wide-eyed excitement. If you had shown me the trailer, as a Potter loving child, it literally would have seemed like a dream come true. But Rowling’s legacy made it a moment of discomfort. Not for the first time, the desires of the players collide with their scruples. We can only hope that scruples will prevail eventually.