February 14, 2023 - 11:31am

Last week, the long-awaited action role-playing game Hogwarts Legacy was released worldwide for the PlayStation 5, Xbox X/S, and Windows. The game — which had made numerous “most anticipated” lists in 2022 — debuted to above-average reviews, record-breaking sales, and an entire news cycle of controversy due to fan outrage over the views of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, the Right-wing politics of the game’s former lead developer Troy Leavitt, and the belief that the game’s central plot line borrowed elements of the antisemitic “blood libel” myth used to justify past persecution of Jewish people.

I may have been too old when Harry Potter first came out to fully appreciate it, but when I observed a younger relative playing the Hogwarts Legacy game on his PS5, I took notice. As such things go, the game is a perfectly serviceable Western-style RPG. It looks quite good — obviously a great deal of attention was lavished on the campus of the Hogwarts School, as well as the Scottish Highlands that serve as its backdrop — and aside from the excessive walking, talking, and fetch-questing that plague all of the games in this genre, it plays quite well. 

However, many Potter fans seem unable to escape into this world of fantasy. Rowling’s transformation into a divisive figure over the trans issue has caused her critics to argue for the severing of the creator from her intellectual property, though doing so is easier said than done. Meanwhile, another lightning rod for criticism is Troy Leavitt, who served as designer on the game until gamers highlighted his YouTube channel, which had amassed 26,000 followers. On the channel, the developer rebukes the social justice movement, defended MeToo’d Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, and critiqued Anita Sarkeesian’s early-2010s “Tropes vs. Women” YouTube series. Although he has now left the project, Hogwarts Legacy appears to critics to be the result of “unclean hands”, tainted by the mere presence of someone whose Right-libertarian ideas were and to a certain extent still are endemic in the game development community (Leavitt has produced a video arguing why his personal views shouldn’t inhibit enjoyment of the game).

Finally, there’s the matter of the goblins. To the extent that goblins have been used as twisted, avaricious background characters in the Wizarding World works of Rowling, some have associated these fictional characters with long-standing antisemitic tropes. Hogwarts Legacy puts goblins squarely at the centre of the game’s plot, which is set in the “Goblin Rebellion” era of Wizarding World history. 

In fact, the main storyline follows a goblin-led faction — tired of a life of subservience and subjugation — that abducts kids and plans to use the main character’s blood for some sort of ritual to destroy their enemies. Though fairly generic by role-playing game standards, with baddies wanting to do something nasty to the innocent, critics eager to lump fresh offences on Rowling and her universe have pointed out that this parallels, at least in broad strokes, the “blood libel” myth (some, like television presenter Jon Stewart, have recently repudiated prior claims that the goblins were antisemitic). It feels like a stretch.

Of course, none of this has stopped Hogwarts Legacy from significantly outpacing the better-reviewed Elden Ring’s first-week sales. It’s also the biggest Harry Potter game launch of all time. At least in some sense, the game must surely be giving many Potter fans what they want. As for those who continue to whinge about Rowling and the world she made, there is a simple solution, one I implemented after I saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and a handful of the first-generation Marvel and DC comic-book movies: read and watch something else. Instead, the best way to deal with it is to simply avoid giving them your time and money. Sadly, that seems like too much to ask.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work