Growing up in Scotland, Jennifer Heaton, 27, used video games as a way to escape a real world that didn’t quite make sense to her.
Without the language to articulate her gender dysphoria, she said she would play games to express her true identity and escape from being depressed and alone in the real world. That attachment to video games stayed with her once she began to live life as her authentic self.
While Heaton was growing up, the Harry Potter franchise — especially in Scotland, where author J.K. Rowling lives — was inescapable. Over the past several years, however, Heaton said her views about the best-selling book series and subsequent movies have soured. That’s because Rowling has made controversial remarks about the transgender community on several occasions, including expressing a belief that a number of young people are coming out as transgender due to social contagion.
As the Harry Potter franchise continues to grow 14 years after the publication of the series’ final book, properties being produced have to grapple with Rowling’s beliefs about the transgender community, and the backlash that has followed. Most recently, it was reported that “Hogwarts Legacy,” a Harry Potter video game set to be released by Warner Bros. in 2022, will separate body type and voice from two gender options when allowing character creation in an effort to make the game more transgender-inclusive. The news was first reported by Bloomberg. This comes as many in the trans community have spoken out against the damage they say Rowling has spawned with her words and the permanent rift she has caused between some trans fans and the franchise.
Last year, after Rowling wrote an essay that many trans people and their allies found offensive, Warner Bros. issued a statement that said, in part, that the company’s “position on inclusiveness is well established, and fostering a diverse and inclusive culture has never been more important to our company and to our audiences around the world."
Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment on the “Hogwarts Legacy” game and confirmation regarding the game’s reported gender options.
Heaton said the reported trans inclusion in “Hogwarts Legacy” would be a “nice but meaningless gesture.” She said expanded gender options would bring it more in line with other video game options that allow for characters with varying gender identities and, in her view, would not make up for any of Rowling’s controversial views about the transgender community.
“I've been following Rowling's burgeoning transphobia since before it was major news, and that killed any interest I might have had in purchasing the game no matter how good it ends up being,” Heaton said. “The game lets you pick your voice and whether you're referred to as a witch or wizard. That's hardly a huge step for trans representation.”
The timing and substance of the reports left much to be desired for Heaton, who said it felt like nothing more than “damage control.” Other trans gamers echoed Heaton’s beliefs that they do not trust that the developers are trying to push for more gender diversity by pointing out the game’s reported character creation options — witch or wizard — still force players into a binary gender choice.
Em Beall, who uses gender-neutral pronouns and identifies as “agenderflux” — meaning they feel no particular attachment to any gender, but fluctuate between masculine and feminine identities — said that while the game creators may have been well intentioned, forcing trans players into a “narrow-minded and exclusionary worldview” of gender can be just as harmful as Rowling’s remarks about trans people. Beall said they don’t feel tied to binary gender option,so being forced to choose one while playing a game feels harmful and exclusionary.
Beall, 32, said the Harry Potter franchise was a major part of their life until they were in their 20s, and reading about Rowling's views on trans people — including the notion that self-identifying trans women might identify as women in order to prey on cisgender women in female-only spaces — has been a constant source of disappointment, as has witnessing companies tripping up while trying to distance themselves from Rowling while still maintaining ties to the brand. Beall added that video games provided a retreat during many of life’s challenges, and they don’t have that same sense of comforting looking ahead to the debut of “Hogwarts Legacy.”
“Games are supposed to be where I go when I'm going through things; they aren't supposed to make me go through it,” Beall said.
Laura Kate Dale, 30, is a video game streamer, an accessibility consultant and an author of books about the video game industry and how it intersects with both the autistic and transgender communities. She said if “Hogwarts Legacy” truly wanted to be committed to the transgender community, then it would feature a nonplayable character who is transgender or nonbinary.
Featuring characters that showcase a wider range of gender identities would permit developers to allow those characters to be supported in the storyline in a fixed manner, Dale said. She said it would signal that despite offering a binary character choice and not distancing themselves from Rowling, the developers took the time to care for and showcase the transgender community.
Dale does not expect that many transgender people will go out and buy the game based on the information about the character creation, especially with plenty of other games out there to choose from that feature “canonically trans or nonbinary characters” and games that are made by LGBTQ creators. She said games like “Ikenfell” already offer everything that “Hogwarts Legacy” plans to offer, so why support someone that has damaged the transgender community like Rowling has?
“This doesn't come across as though it was designed by trans creators, and feels like an attempt to grab a positive headline,” Dale said. “I think most trans people will see this as the pandering it is, and still not buy it until meaningful change happens. It's not like this is the only game in the world where you can create a character where their voice and body type differ in an interesting way.”