Harry Potter game branded a ‘genocide simulator’ attracts record interest after boycott backfires

February 8, 2023, 9:59 AM UTC
Updated February 17, 2023, 4:21 PM UTC
Calls to boycott video game Hogwarts Legacy appear to be backfiring as interest is soaring.
Critics are calling for the boycott of video game Hogwarts Legacy over the author J.K. Rowling’s politics, but sales are soaring just as the game is set to launch.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Games

It has become the video game equivalent of Lord Voldemort—the Harry Potter villain who must not be named. 

Controversy has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks over Hogwarts Legacy, an expansive role-playing game (RPG) set in the fictional boarding school for magic created by British author J.K. Rowling. 

Ahead of its official Feb. 10 launch date, the Warner Bros. Discovery title has been inundated by calls to boycott the release of what critics are calling “that wizard game.” Supporters of the campaign include many well-known members of the gaming community itself, such as Brianna Wu, cofounder of development studio Giant Spacekat. 

A major target of online abuse in the so-called GamerGate scandal of 2014 that laid bare misogyny in the industry long before revelations of sexual harassment at Activision Blizzard, Wu drew a line in the sand over Twitch streamers who might support the game on their channel

“It’s really important for decent people to boycott Hogwarts Legacy,” she posted last month. “I have a lot of friends in games media, but I will be cutting ties to anyone who promotes this.” 

This time however the controversy is not linked to questions over toxic masculinity, but rather transphobia. Potter author Rowling has become a divisive figure over her activism highlighting what she says are physical risks to women from biological men identifying as trans, such as convicted rapist Isla Bryson from her own adopted home of Scotland. For that, Rowling has been condemned as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF. 

Gamers looking to order Hogwarts Legacy on popular online distribution platform Steam have even found custom-made user tags attached to the title’s virtual storefront window by critics who sought to brand it a “genocide simulator” in a bid to scare would-be consumers away.

Cyberpunk 2077 all over again

Responding to the criticism, Avalanche Software, which developed the game, has made concessions such as greater customization options regarding gender and at the final moment added a trans character called Sirona Ryan—to little avail as even Ryan’s name has been picked apart by critics. 

Instead of chasing customers away, however, the campaign to boycott Hogwarts Legacy over Rowling (who had no creative input into the game and has not commented on it) seems to have had the opposite effect by raising awareness of the title.

As it became clear in recent days that the game’s developers did not indulge in a quick cash grab but rather created an immersive experience faithful to the source material—which many still see positively—the game climbed to the very top of the Steam weekly global sales charts last week. 

On Tuesday, when Avalanche enabled early access for those gamers who paid for the more expensive Deluxe Edition, Hogwarts Legacy broke the December 2020 record for a single-player game with over 1.2 million concurrent views on Twitch, beating Cyberpunk 2077.

As divisive as the game is in certain circles, it’s not the first time the gaming industry has had to take sides on the trans issue. Ironically Cyberpunk 2077, from the same studio behind the hugely influential Witcher series, received similar harsh criticism several years ago from some media sites—first, for a lack of gender diversity, and later, alleged transphobic transgressions up to and including objectifying trans women’s bodies. 

Reviewers too afraid to go near the game…

Arguably a futuristic society like that depicted in Cyberpunk 2077 offers far greater creative license to explore complex social issues like gender identity than one that sets itself in the 1800s, an era when historical records are less suggestive of an openly trans-friendly populace than the modern day.

The controversy has put gaming media, with its younger demographic group of journalists, in an awkward position. Travis Northup from industry flagship publication IGN even admitted last week during a podcast that reviewing the game fell to him since everyone else balked at the chance. 

“The fact that I’m getting Hogwarts Legacy is insane to me,” said Northup, who focuses more on live service games like Destiny 2. “And it’s only happening because everyone else is too afraid to review it.” 

IGN ended up adding a long disclaimer to the review, flagging to its audience it would skirt around Rowling’s politics to instead focus just on the fun factor.

Stacey Henley, editor-in-chief of TheGamer and herself a member of the trans community, criticized IGN’s decision to critique only whether the WB title is worth the money as “incredibly shallow” in her words. 

“It’s extremely worrying that the biggest outlet in the world thinks our job is ‘game fun’ yes/no,” she wrote, appearing to scrupulously avoid mentioning Hogwarts Legacy by name. This amounted to a “dismal misunderstanding of what a critic is.”

…or they feel it necessary to apologize for praising it

Others have been bending over backwards to apologize for merely reviewing it and, worse, actually liking it. Right now it enjoys a very high 85 rating on aggregator site Metacritic, while 92% of professional video game testers recommend it, according to OpenCritic.

“I’m having an incredible time,” wrote Jessica Conditt for tech site Engadget on Monday. “This feels like the RPG that Harry Potter fans have been waiting for, rich and alive and absolutely packed with magic.”

Conditt, a self-described bisexual with an “anti-TERF” tattoo, immediately followed that up, however, with the acknowledgement that this praise could cost her: “It’s slightly frightening to write that down, knowing the condemnation I could receive.” 

Publisher Warner Bros. Games did not respond to Fortune for comment over the controversy. Speaking to Axios in August, however, the head of the unit backed Avalanche for doing a “great job” and said the game was targeted at everyone who loved the world of Harry Potter.

Video gamers—much like sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero comics fans—long remained a niche element within broader society, with their own unique culture. But thanks to media executives increasingly fearful of taking a large financial risk on anything that isn’t an established franchise with a built-in fandom, all four have become mainstream over the past 10-plus years.

This means everything from Star Wars to the Marvel Universe to Lord of the Rings is now under intense scrutiny from all sides. Even a harmless cartoon from the 1970s like Scooby-Doo is currently the subject of fierce debate after being transported into the present.

The gaming media increasingly distrust their own audience

In this sense the controversy over Hogwarts Legacy is just one stone in a much larger mosaic. Yet gamers are often considered particularly prone to conventional if not reactionary gender views owing to the cliché of the basement-dwelling incel believed to dislike strong females, such as Forspoken’s new protagonist Frey.

While GamerGate first revealed the darker underbelly, no single moment in the industry better encapsulated the gaming media’s deep-seated suspicion of their own audience than a January 2022 on-air speech by Indiana “Frosk” Black urging viewers of Comcast’s revived G4 to tune to a different channel if they didn’t like what she had to say.

Not all trans gamers feel the same way toward activism in the industry, however. Sophia Narwitz, who has 30,000 subscribers to her YouTube gaming channel, labeled the controversy over the Harry Potter game “a silly hill to die on” and called out her own community for doing more harm than good to its cause. 

“This entire manufactured outrage is hollow,” she wrote on Monday in response to the game’s imminent debut. “It’s keyboard activism at its finest.” 

In a post on Monday, Engadget reviewer Conditt later appeared to accurately anticipate the backlash awaiting her just hours after her gushing praise for Hogwarts Legacy hit the site. 

“The level of infighting and hate in my feed this morning is heartbreaking,” she wrote, urging those who wish to vote with their wallet do so. “Boycott the game, not the players.”

By all appearances so far, they are expressing themselves at the cash register. Just not the way critics have anticipated.

Clarification, Feb. 15, 2023: Fortune has clarified language around Rowling’s statements and removed a link that included a trans person’s deadname.

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