The Smear Campaign Against ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ Developer Troy Leavitt
Because clearly the politics of a game designer are super newsworthy.
“Power is inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
~ from 1984 by George Orwell
Anita Sarkeesian is out for blood. She tweeted a link to an article in Kotaku about the lead designer of Hogwarts Legacy, Troy Leavitt, who ran a “reactionary YouTube channel focused on attacking feminism and social justice for over a year.”*
That description of Leavitt’s channel is from the Kotaku piece by Ian Walker, who notes that Leavitt’s videos include “lengthy defenses of both John Lasseter, the Pixar co-founder who left his position at Disney in 2017 after allegations of sexual misconduct, and Nolan Bushnell, the Atari co-founder who Kotaku’s reporting found to have fostered a toxic work environment for women.”
Leavitt also made some videos critiquing Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women series which he called an “uninformed fringe position.”
Holding these beliefs, it appears, is reason enough to call for his job, and Sarkeesian is not particularly subtle about it:
“I’m happy to say that, even though I disclosed my [hateful, misogynist, & regressive] YouTube channel to WB Games, it didn’t appear to be an issue for them [and I get to continue being a successful game designer on a major project with no consequences].”
Kotaku @KotakuHogwarts Legacy Lead Designer Used To Run Anti-Social Justice YouTube Channel https://t.co/aEQnFG43XZ https://t.co/LoUK6KPolA
This is a mockery of Leavitt’s own words.
“I’m happy to say that, even though I disclosed my YouTube channel to WB Games, it didn’t appear to be an issue for them,” he said in one video posted in 2018 when he was hired to work on Hogwarts Legacy. “Not that they endorse anything that I’ve said, of course, but at least they seem more concerned with making good games than with pushing some kind of a social justice agenda, so there is hope.”
It appears that some of the louder voices in video games would like to see Warner Bros. reverse this perfectly reasonable position. Calm and collected disagreement is, after all, truly diabolical. Apparently disagreeing with Sarkeesian or holding beliefs that do not line up with the social justice crowd should have “consequences” including not being able to work on video games . . . at all, apparently.
Social-media fueled controversies are nothing new, of course, but it still never ceases to amaze me when people try to cancel someone — or have them fired — simply for holding different opinions. We aren’t talking about someone spouting off racist rants or urging people to storm the Capitol, either. From what I’ve seen of Leavitt’s videos, he’s a mild-mannered guy who simply disagrees about a lot of the positions espoused by social justice activists. He accuses Sarkeesian of having an ideological ax to grind. How . . . terrible?
Some have argued that Leavitt’s videos could lead to harassment, but then so could the reactions of his detractors. Leavitt isn’t calling on people to harass others, after all. If he were, this would be an entirely different conversation. (I’m pretty sure calling for someone to be fired over their old YouTube videos could be seen as a form of harassment, too).
Upset gamers on ResetEra, however, are asking moderators to ban discussion of Hogwarts Legacy entirely. No surprise there. Many are already upset about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling for her controversial views on trans issues. Rowling has been lumped in with the “TERFS,” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (though we’ll open that bag of worms some other time. Talking about that particular issue is tantamount to walking into a minefield naked while snipers take pot shots at you from the hills. Or like that one scene in Die Hard 3.)
The point is, Hogwarts Legacy now has two black marks against it: Rowling and Leavitt. Personae non gratae. And as we know, all wrong-think must be stomped out of existence quickly, thoroughly and at all cost.
This is not because most gamers are radical leftists (or radical right-wingers, for that matter). It’s because a small, incredibly vocal cabal of influential social media activists have a disproportionate amount of influence in games media. As a left-leaning writer who finds this particular brand of social-justice / woke politics strikingly authoritarian in nature, I can only look on in stupefied wonder and shake my head. When did liberalism become so illiberal? (Not that conservatism can claim to be very conservative anymore, either).
Naturally, dozens of websites have latched on to the Kotaku piece and amplified it.
The accusations against Leavitt are manifold. GamerGate, we are told, was nothing more than “a harassment campaign targeted primarily at Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian.” So clearly anything Leavitt said supporting GamerGate must mean he also supports the harassment of these women — even though, to my knowledge, he never once voiced support for any harassment, focusing instead on the whole “ethics in game journalism” aspect of the movement. Meme-worthy, sure. Hateful, dangerous, misogynistic? Not so far as I can tell.
Then there’s Leavitt’s defense of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. We are supposed to take at face value that Bushnell created at “toxic work environment for women” at Atari, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.
Women who worked with Bushnell defended him when he came under fire, casting doubt on those in the video game industry who started the #NotNolan campaign in the first place. The campaign resulted in the GDC rescinding Bushnell’s Pioneer award. Bushnell, for his part, was the very definition of magnanimous in the face of it all, much to his credit.
Loni Reeder, who worked with Bushnell in the 70s’, had this to say about the #NotNolan campaign:
“Some of us in the Atari camp are actual MeToo victims from other walks in our lives, so we definitely know the difference between the Atari climate (a time in our lives that we loved and still celebrate!) and what being the victim of a sexual assault feels like. We also feel that this outcry muddied the waters of the claims of REAL assault victims and are causing real harm to a very important movement.”
Reeder described the #NotNolan campaign as a “drive-by assassination” in Kotaku’s investigative piece on the matter.
A woman named Shirley in the same article described her time at Atari as truly horrific, saying: “Nobody could have asked for a better experience.”
If anything, the early Atari days were more like working in rock-and-roll than in video games today. Clothing-optional pool parties, sex and drugs, a free-wheeling culture with very little concern for political correctness. Maybe not a great fit for everyone who came through the doors, but a product of the time which should be viewed through that lens.
In other words, not at all the same thing as the horrific sexual assault and abuse we’ve seen in so many other #MeToo cases. But still enough to gleefully tarnish a man’s reputation and anyone who defends him.
The Kotaku exposé, amusingly enough, arrives at no real damning conclusion, instead asking a rather open-ended — if suggestive — question: “For every woman who stayed at Atari because they enjoyed the freewheeling atmosphere and could roll with the punches, how many women bounced off the game industry because they didn’t want to deal with the behavior?”
Truly, Leavitt’s defense of Nolan Bushnell makes him a “far-right” misogynist worthy of blacklisting.
Leavitt’s opinions have also earned him the “alt-right” label normally associated with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Other pieces have cropped up claiming that Leavitt’s past is “coming back to haunt him” as though his YouTube channel were some big secret he was actively trying to keep under wraps — though as this BoingBoing piece points out, “There are people like this everywhere in the software trade. Being that guy is good on your resume, not a hindrance, if you want to get ahead in games. He’s just naive to have left it all online after doing so, falling into PR cracks opened by his employer’s disinterested hypocrisy.”
Others have brought up his defense of “cultural appropriation” as yet another black mark against Leavitt which I find somewhat amusing given how silly most accusations of cultural appropriation tend to be — a concept that writer Julian Sanchez hilariously described as “vacuous garbage.”
So here’s my question: Are we now requiring all workers in the video game industry to march in lockstep with the social justice crowd and to say only the most glowing things about Anita Sarkeesian or the most damning things about GamerGate? Should game developers adopt the stance that gamers are largely neckbearded incels living in their parents’ basements harassing women every chance they get? Should we keep narrowing the window of appropriate thought and speech until only one set of views is acceptable?
I realize that it’s not exactly conservatism under fire here — nobody is being cancelled because they want a balanced budget or support a strong national defense — but rather anti-woke beliefs. Not necessarily anything specific, either. One doesn’t need to say homophobic or racist things; one simply needs to disagree with Sarkeesian or call out cultural appropriation or not display enough seething rage over J.K. Rowling and her monstrous TERF allies.
What if this were reversed? What if the video game industry and video game media was largely under the thrall of right-wing activists? What if a liberal or progressive game designer was “under fire” by the largest gaming sites and influential social media activists for their social justice YouTube channel? What if the headlines were all about this “former left-wing YouTuber who supported Black Lives Matter” now working on a AAA video game, and oh the horrors.
We would, I hope, decry such efforts regardless of our own politics.
Perhaps it’s time we accept that people have a wide range of opinions and beliefs and that these are often not easily broken down into simply “left” or “right.” I think of myself as neither a moderate or a centrist, but as an “eclectic” when it comes to politics. Mostly I lean left, but I find myself increasingly appalled by the left’s sacred cows and firing squads. I’m not worried about being “red-pilled” either, as the right has its own host of demons to reckon with.
You can believe that Anita Sarkeesian’s work is “fringe” or “uninformed” while also believing that women deserve a place in the industry, equal pay and so forth. You can argue that “cancel culture” is out of control while also believing that words and actions have consequences, including getting fired from a popular Star Wars show when your employer has asked you repeatedly to stop making incendiary social media posts. You can enjoy sexualized depictions of women and/or men in video games and other media without being a sexist; violence without being violent, etc.
The one thing I notice missing from almost every piece I’ve read about Leavitt? Any sort of critical response or engagement with anything he actually said. Some of these posts are just straight news; others simply parrot Kotaku or amplify labels like “far-right” or “GamerGater.” Nobody has actually stopped and examined what the man actually said. And on social media this lack of critical examination morphs into baseless accusations of racism and sexism.
This, dear readers, is the vicious cycle we perpetuate. The terrible predicament we’ve unleashed upon ourselves that will come back to devour us all someday. The bottomless pit of outrage that can never be filled, no matter how much blood is spilled.
All I know is there are surely better causes out there to spend our time and energy on, real controversies to fret over, and bigger fish to fry. Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, stop shrieking hysterically, and listen for a change.
Hogwarts Legacy is scheduled for a 2022 release.
I am not necessarily defending Leavitt's arguments many of which I disagree with (though not all). I am defending his right to make these arguments and not face losing his employment. I do not think this is a black and white issue. Sometimes people do say things that are beyond the pale, such as calls to violence or harassment. Such behavior may indeed be grounds for termination. However, this does not strike me as the case here, and so far the reaction to Leavitt seems based more on what has been written about him rather than what he's actually said.
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*Update: Troy Leavitt has been a Senior Producer on Hogwarts Legacy since 2019, not lead designer.