In many ways, Hogwarts Legacy was made for Mia Ives-Rublee. The role-playing video game is set in the magical Harry Potter universe that has captured screens, shops and souls for a quarter of a century – when the game is released on 10 February fans will be able to create their own characters to “attend” Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the first time. Ives-Rublee, 38, from Washington DC, has a long history with Potter. She went to the midnight premieres of four movies and queued for the midnight releases of three books. As an adoptee, she has always felt a special connection with the series’ orphaned protagonist, Harry Potter himself.
Plus, she has been a gamer since she was a child. “Having a disability, a lot of things that you get to experience are cut off,” says Ives-Rublee, who is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Centre for American Progress and was born with brittle bone disease. “Video games were one of the ways that I could experience things. I played Tony Hawk a ton because I got to experience what it would somewhat be like to skateboard.”
Yet despite the fact that Ives-Rublee “would love to play” Hogwarts Legacy, she cancelled her pre-order of the game in December.
Ives-Rublee is one of numerous people boycotting Hogwarts Legacy because of the actions of Harry Potter’s creator, JK Rowling. Since 2019 Rowling has allied herself with controversial figures in the “gender-critical” movement and has frequently made contentious statements about transgender people and their rights. In 2020 Rowling said that people being “shunted towards” gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy amounted to “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people”. In 2022 she wrote that trans women might “retain male patterns of criminality”, adding: “It is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence.”
Rowling has said she is concerned for the safety of cis women and children, particularly in toilets, changing rooms, prisons and shelters, which she believes trans activists would “throw open” to predatory men. In a 2020 essay listing five reasons she is “worried” about trans activism, Rowling wrote that as a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault, she refuses to “bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators”. Rowling’s essay was quoted in the United States Senate by a senator blocking a vote on the Equality Act, an LGBT+ civil rights bill.
“I was just like, I can’t continue to ignore this,” says Ives-Rublee, who cancelled her Hogwarts Legacy order after Rowling tweeted “Merry Terfmas” in mid-December 2022 (“Terf” stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”; Rowling has previously called the term “an attempt to silence women”). “It was just another wake-up call and reminder that I need to be true to my moral compass,” Ives-Rublee says. “I’m not telling other people not to buy the game, but what I’m saying is that I’m not going to use my money to support this type of behaviour.”
In January Sebastian Croft, one of the voice actors in the game, tweeted about his involvement: “I was cast in this project over three years ago, back when all Harry Potter was to me was the magical world I grew up with. This was long before I was aware of JK Rowling’s views. I believe wholeheartedly that trans women are women and trans men are men.” That same month the gaming forum ResetEra banned all mentions of Hogwarts Legacy. The website The Gamer has also decided against reviewing the game and writing guides for it, even though this will, it said, result in “revenue loss”.
While Rowling was not directly involved in the development of Hogwarts Legacy, she is likely to earn significant royalties from its sales. When asked on Twitter in October 2022 how she sleeps at night knowing numerous people are turning away from Potter, Rowling replied: “I read my most recent royalty cheques and find the pain goes away pretty quickly.” Those who oppose her views have concerns about how Rowling might use the money. In April 2022, for example, Rowling donated to the crowdfunder of Allison Bailey, a barrister, who sued the LGBT+ charity Stonewall and her chambers for discriminating against her gender-critical beliefs. (Bailey lost her case against Stonewall, but won part of her case against her chambers.) Many Harry Potter fans have therefore chosen to withhold their money as a way of withdrawing their support – in response, some people on social media claim to be buying the new game primarily to back Rowling.
Yet because there is not one co-ordinated boycott of Hogwarts Legacy, gamers and Potter fans have been left to make up their own minds, with arguments ensuing online. Siobhan Jarmson, 29, a trans woman from Shetland, decided to buy Hogwarts Legacy but “offset” the £60 purchase through a £120 donation to the transgender youth charity Mermaids.
Though Jarmson chose not to boycott the game, she was still worried when she first heard about it. “I knew that people would get in an uproar over it,” she says. “Transphobes would shout at trans people. Trans people would get angry at normies buying the game. People who don’t know much about trans people, but love Harry Potter, would only wind up hating us for being nasty to them. It gets old. This kind of discourse really doesn’t help anyone. Life is hard enough without getting angry at people for buying a game.”
As initial reviews of Hogwarts Legacy pour in, the debate continues. Zannah, 22, is a content creator from the north-east of England who films herself playing video games for 3,000 followers on the streaming platform Twitch. At the beginning of February she earned almost 12,000 likes on Twitter after compiling a list of magical video games that people could play instead of Hogwarts Legacy.
“I used to love Harry Potter,” Zannah says. “I knew my [Hogwarts] house, wand and patronus. I had all the books, watched all the films, owned a time turner.” When the game was first announced she was “elated”, but after reading trans and Jewish people’s perspectives, she decided not to purchase it. Harry Potter has been criticised in the past for the resemblance its goblin characters have to anti-Semitic tropes; in Hogwarts Legacy, goblins are the central antagonists.
“Communities being harmed were asking for others to not fund or promote the game,” Zannah says. “As I am not part of those communities, it was my job to just listen to them, and realistically it wasn’t a big ask.”
Rowling has responded to the backlash by accusing boycotters of “purethink”, adding: “The truly righteous wouldn’t just burn their books and movies but the local library, anything with an owl on it and their own pet dogs.” While some claim that Rowling has been “hounded” or “cancelled”, Rowling herself has previously said: “The only time I’ve ever made reference to being cancelled, my book sales went up.” Throughout January, pre-orders of Hogwarts Legacy made it the bestselling game on both the games platform Steam and the PlayStation 5.
“Trans kids are being attacked and criticised and having to go back into the closet because of the political discourse,” says Ives-Rublee. Between 2021 and 2022, in the UK, there was a 56 per cent increase in hate crimes against transgender people recorded by police. For Ives-Rublee, buying the game, in that context, seems wrong.
While Jarmson understands why others are boycotting the game, she is happy with her decision to purchase it while also helping Mermaids. “Something that people often overlook is that we don’t choose to be trans,” she says. “Life is really rough.”
Jarmson says she suffered greatly when she was unable to come out in her youth. “I only came out as trans a few years ago. I tried to when I was younger, but my mother didn’t understand it and didn’t support it. She’s very supportive of me now, but when I was younger, I didn’t have the choice to come out. Because I couldn’t come out, I dipped into heavy alcoholism, suicide attempts and severe depression and self-loathing.”
“Bringing more support in for young trans people can help people avoid having to live my dreadful life,” Jarmson continues, “Life would be far easier if we had a better chance at an earlier age.”