‘Hogwarts Legacy’ used to be the dream — but J.K. Rowling ruined it

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The reveal of “Hogwarts Legacy” PS5 game comes at such a bad time for “Harry Potter” fans who don’t want to feed a billionaire with transphobic views any more of their money. Photo from PLAYSTATION/YOUTUBE

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

Bulacan (CNN Philippines Life) — I used to be a regular at MuggleNet.com, a website that needs no introduction if you were a huge “Harry Potter” fan in the early 2000’s. Beyond the books and films, it was one of the best places to get lost in the world of J.K. Rowling’s imagination: a fan site overflowing with news, quizzes, polls, fan fiction, essays, and a repository of “Harry Potter” lore collected and curated to near-encyclopedic levels.

Probably the best thing about MuggleNet were its forums. It was no simple message board — this was an interactive roleplaying experience designed to give fans the complete Hogwarts fantasy. There was a sorting ceremony, a working economy built around wizarding currency, and classes facilitated by forum administrators fully committed to their roles. Other immersive (and I should say licensed) experiences also came in the form of video games tied to the movies, but the fan-driven and handmade appeal of MuggleNet’s forums persists as one of my fondest teen nerd memories.

I remember creating a thread one time in the forum’s common room (where random discussions were allowed) to talk about my dream “Harry Potter” video game. I can’t count the times I’ve fantasized about stepping into the shoes of an ordinary wizard and living the magical boarding school life that existed in the books’ periphery. I don’t have to get into the specifics of that post because the recently announced “Hogwarts Legacy,” an open-world action game being developed by Avalanche, seems ready to make that dream of mine come true, and more.

My obsession for all things Potter has waned significantly in the past half-decade, but I’ve always held out for the quintessential video game set in Rowling’s wizarding world. The reveal of “Hogwarts Legacy” comes at such a bad time for fans like me. It’s difficult, but I’ve had to make the decision to withdraw my support.

The reason is pretty well-known by now. Like many others, I don’t want to feed a billionaire with transphobic views any more of my money and give her further influence to hurt an already wounded community. When it started, it was just a few raised eyebrows at a Twitter slip-up that her PR team assured the world was a “clumsy and middle-aged moment.” In the intervening months, Rowling has finally blown the cover and come out with her support of known trans-exclusionary radical feminists, including her own inaccurate views on trans identity.

In a 3,700-word explainer published on her own website, Rowling defended herself and her fears of trans activism, “modern” feminism, the erosion of women’s rights alongside the codification of gender recognition for trans individuals, and the irreversible harm that comes to gender dysphoric teens who transition. She ends this with the assurance that she stands “alongside the brave… gay, straight and trans, who’re standing up for freedom of speech and thought, and for the rights and safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society.”

Her ongoing remarks have since been repudiated by experts, trans activists, and the very actors who brought her beloved characters to life on the big screen.

Even as I proudly proclaim trans allyship in front of my computer screen, it’s hard for me to parse this discourse on my own. I’ve written about my difficulty in speaking about social and political issues such as these, not out of fear of a mob, but because I’m largely ill-equipped to argue fluently about these matters. I’ll readily admit that my understanding and judgment of most issues, this one included, are formed by reading about the opinions of others smarter than me. As I write this, I’m scared I’ll flub my lines and say something incorrect. (If I do, please reach out and educate me.)

I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way, and this is why I think Rowling’s stance on the intersection of trans rights versus women’s rights is so dangerous. There are those of us observing from the sidelines so easily swayed by an authoritative voice, especially by someone who has earned the respect of millions as a woman who rose out of the toughest part of her life to become a world-renowned author. Enough people will read Rowling’s essay against trans activism, call it valid, and end their research there.

No matter how Rowling attempts to justify her views on the trans community, it sends an incendiary effect on ordinary people who were otherwise lukewarm about the topic. The reality is that most of us are impressionable, often dismissive: our own Senate President easily rejected our calls for the SOGIE Equality Bill by saying “If you are a man, you will never be a woman.” At worst, populist figures go as far as call the gay community “worse than animals” while holding a Bible to their chest. It doesn’t help that the ones with valid counterarguments are repeatedly assailed by scripted rebuttals that flood their replies like clockwork.

Beyond the disappointment of a fan looking back at the books, I fear for the effect that this has on the trans community, especially now when we are already fighting more battles than we can handle. It only takes the careless statements of someone like Rowling to tip the argument against a minority already experiencing discrimination and assault on a regular basis. It will be difficult to combat, especially when we so unwittingly fund her platform through the objects of her creation.

At this point, it’s impossible to consume newly peddled forms of “Harry Potter” media without the phantom of Rowling’s transphobia leering at you like your own dark reflection on a computer screen. Even after the developers of “Hogwarts Legacy” stated that she wasn’t “directly involved” in the creation of the game, it can’t be denied that she’ll end up profiting from the license that made the project possible to begin with.

The internet opinions attempting to resolve the debate over this game’s boycott are many and varied. There’s a take I read that struck me personally, loosely articulated like this: your public expression of outrage at J.K. Rowling is already a valuable contribution to the discourse in itself. It shouldn’t affect your personal enjoyment of the game.

That is obviously not enough. It would be especially disappointing if I were to agree. Other than the angry tweets I’ve unleashed against the host of social and political issues ripping my country apart, I look back at what else I’ve done to further the causes I believe in. I see hardly any. I’ve seen others braver than me take their dissent to the streets despite the threat of infection and unlawful police arrests. Online personalities known for their amateur, but relatable comedy have ventured out of their sphere of influence to personally file petitions against contentious government actions like the Anti-Terrorism Law.

My brand of courage isn’t as potent as theirs, but I refuse to be a simple sounding board in matters where the most effective gesture I can make doesn’t even require me to step out of the house. I refuse to give Rowling my money. To do otherwise would be to fall into the performative trap of saying without meaning. It would be a betrayal of the genuine rage I felt only weeks ago when our president pardoned Joseph Scott Pemberton, murderer of Jennifer Laude. By buying “Hogwarts Legacy,” I’m just like Rowling herself, rollicking in the riches of her fantasy world while instigating a real-life witch hunt against the trans community.

“Hogwarts Legacy” will no doubt build upon the foundational values that have made “Harry Potter” a well-loved franchise. It will be a quest of good against evil; an adventure that will unfold against a backdrop of complex power imbalances that exist in the magical community — just as it exists in ours. Maybe someday I’ll be able to play it. A secret loophole that others have floated would be to buy a used copy of the game. It seems like a desperate way to tiptoe around my principles, but I’d like to see this option discussed further before I even consider it.

As I try to salvage my relationship with “Harry Potter,” I look beyond the books, movies, and the world created by one person. I think back on my days at MuggleNet, where I gleaned rich, social experiences among temporary friends. In my early adult life, “Harry Potter” has served as conversation starters with strangers who have ended up becoming my lifelong friends. The millions of people who found solace and company in the books have now grown past the need to identify with Harry. The next adventure is in keeping, defending, and upholding the relationships that exist around us. With the real people who enrich us and guide us everyday, there might be no need to revisit Hogwarts after all.