Wizards Dis-United: How Niantic’s Harry Potter Video Game Augments Reality to Strengthen White Supremacy

Logo of Niantic’s Harry Potter Wizards Unite with wands featured as the A in Wizards
logo of Harry Potter Wizards Unite mobile video game

Trigger warning: This article discusses violence, particularly that against People of Color, and electroshock torture. These are depicted in the game, which has a rating of “E for everyone10 years old and older.”

Welcome to the Ministry of Magic! You, the player in the mobile phone game Wizards Unite, have been enlisted to help the Ministry of Magic as a Great Calamity has befallen the wizarding world. According to Niantic, the game designers, this “Calamity” is a series of magical wrinkles causing memories and people to be pulled from the past and inserted helter-skelter into the present. However, the bigger Calamity is that Niantic’s augmented reality game design and narrative framework teaches its primary audience — white, urban players — to view People of Color as useless victims or horrific aggressors. The game also objectifies People of Color, devalues cross-racial dialogue, ignores de-escalation practices, and normalizes and rewards the primary way of interacting with People of Color as being at the point of a weapon. I mean, wand.

Violence Against People of Color in the Game

The main gameplay in Wizards Unite revolves around Foundables and Confoundables. All depictions of People of Color in Wizards Unite are Foundable/Confoundable characters who have no lines. Foundable/Confoundable interactions pop up on the map at random intervals, loosely tied to the amount of cellphone traffic present at a location. These scenes are on repeat loops, and, over and over, you will rescue the same memory-mooncalf (Foundable), help young memory-Harry Potter (Foundable) by casting ridikkulous on a memory-dementor (Confoundable), dispel the memory-howler (Confoundable) harassing the two goblins (Foundables).

When People of Color are characterized as Confoundables of Color, the result is the teaching of violent, racist behavior. There are two portrayals of People of Color as Confoundables that are particularly problematic: an Indian-presenting Ministry Official and an African American Ministry Official. The Indian-presenting Confoundable is the most ubiquitous character in the game yet has no lines nor a name. There is much to unpack here: the cultural and historical significance of un-naming a Person of Color, the assumption that a Person of Color is a subservient worker, the scene repeated over and over depicting an “angry, dark-skinned man.” For brevity’s sake, however, we’ll focus on the more egregious portrayal of a Person of Color: the African American Ministry Official who is wearing a white doctor’s coat.

his character is an African-American female character from the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, in which she has three short lines. In the game, she is more deadly than Death Eaters and more violent than Voldemort. (The former throws sparks that stun the player, and the latter merely looms threateningly.) Her level of violence far outstrips any other presented in the gameplay. Over and over, she physically and mentally tortures the Foundables she is with by attacking their heads with electric, white spell energy. The Foundable victims look dazed, uneasy, and hurt as they try to resist her spell. (Players who have seen the movies know to be forcibly taking a memory from someone’s mind. Wizards Unite’s violent rendition of such a spell brings new, visual meaning to the term “mind rape.”)

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screen captures from the game of negative and violent portrayals of a woman of color

In Wizards Unite, this unnamed medical Ministry Official attacks two white, male characters using this method. In the film, however, she gently removes a memory from Tina Goldstein (who does not make an appearance in the game). Niantic chose to have Bernadette (named in the film, not in the game) to interact with Newt Scamander and Percival Graves, both of whom she has almost no interaction in the films. Bernadette’s role in the films is minimal, and if the game designers were looking for a Person of Color to play a opposite Newt and Graves, it is telling that they chose Bernadette over MACUSA Madame President Seraphina Picquery, who is a much more prominent character in Fantastic Beasts and has numerous interactions with both Newt and Mr. Graves in the film. President Picquery also orders the wands to be confiscated from both of them, and these actions could easily have been adapted into gameplay.

Agency, Reward, and Augmented Reality

For those of you unfamiliar, Niantic’s primary claim to fame is their augmented reality gameplay, showcased in their most popular game Pokemon Go and also used in Wizards Unite. Whereas “virtual reality” submerses the player in a completely fictional landscape, augmented reality superimposes a fictional landscape’s elements onto reality (usually through a camera viewfinder or a google map.) Niantic’s augmented reality is so lifelike and compelling that it made international news in 2016 when two young men walked off a cliff while playing one of Niantic’s games.

Wizards Unite augments reality in two ways: the map and “magical traces,” which, when clicked, pull the player into a scene where they are presented with a Foundable/Confoundable pair with no context. Usually, one of the entities is seen as attacking or menacing the other. With no option for dialogue or further information seeking, players are required to take immediate action by firing spells at the alleged-aggressor. This game design reinforces players to either play “savior” and rescue the assumed victim Character of Color or, if the Character of Color is the alleged-aggressor, to fire a spell to strike them physically or imprison them in a bubble. After taking this action, the words “good,” “great,” “excellent,” or “masterful,” appear on the screen, boosting the player’s endorphins. If the Confoundable is successfully conquered, then bonus points and rewards are given for an encounter well done. This dichotomized setup teaches players, particularly white players, to see People of Color as either a victim or as a violent offender. It ignores the practice of de-escalation. Furthermore, it normalizes the primary way of engaging with a character of color is through the point of a weapon — their wand.

Through the augmented reality feature of the game, Wizard’s Unite’s design to encourage and reward the behavior of attacking characters of color in real-world settings is even more troubling. Through the AR of Wizard’s Unite, players can be required to and rewarded for attacking (i.e. firing their wand at) an African American medical official woman in a bedroom. This evokes a horrific parallel to the unjustified murder of Ms. Breonna Taylor. Similarly, players can also be required to and rewarded for attacking People of Color on a sidewalk. This eerily evokes the violent murders of Mr. George Floyd and Mr. Eric Garner.

Further Objectification of People of Color

Not all Characters of Color are Confoundables. Some are Foundables. Once you incapacitate/dispel a Confoundable, the corresponding Foundable is collected into an in-game book. In this way, Characters of Color that are Foundables are depersonifed even more and as they become objects to be acquired. Throughout the game, you “acquire” a black Ravenclaw, possibly Latino/Latina Hufflepuff and Slytherin, an Asian Gryffindor, and a black unnamed Ministry Administrator. This objectification is deeply troubling in a country with a history steeped in enslaving people.

Thus we encounter problematic portrayals of People of Color as both Foundables and Confoundables, which serve as non-speaking “extras” in the game. At this point, you may notice we have not mentioned any major characters who have lines and progress the plot. That is because they are all white.

Compounding the Issue: Racial Makeup of Wizard’s Unite Target Audience

As having characters who reflect your designated audience is one of the first lessons of storytellers, it is safe to say that Niantic designed Wizards Unite specifically for a white audience. If you disagree, ask yourself if they were designing for Audience Members of Color, would there be absolutely no Characters of Color with lines?

A large portion of time playing the game is spent wandering the map for game-active locations. Most of these are geotagged to specific real-world spots. In the game, there are Inns (corresponding to hotels and houses of faith in real life,) Greenhouses (public parks,) and Landmarks (monuments and points of historical interest.) At these locations, players can refill their “spell energy” which they use to interact with Confounables and Foundables. If a player runs out of spell energy, the possible playtime is limited. If you are in a rural area, especially without a car, the game is almost impossible to play for longer than 2–3 minutes at a time, perhaps once or twice a day. There are not many spontaneous encounters (based on cell-phone traffic) and even fewer opportunities to refill your spell energy. By contrast, if you live in the city, you can immerse yourself in the game world for hours. There are locations to refill your spell energy on almost every street corner, and spontaneous encounters are frequent. From this, we know that Niantic has designed the game for an urban audience, with the possible inclusion of suburban players with access to cars.

Thus all the negative portrayals and violence against of People of Color in Wizards Unite are compounded when you take into account that Niantic designed the game for white, urban players. Additionally, by designing a game where white players only have dialogue with white characters, Wizards Unite models, normalizes, and rewards racially-segregated behavior.

Additionally, for 40% of the time that game has been actively released, the USA has been under quarantine. Players have even less interaction with people outside of their immediate family. For many white players, Wizards Unite is the only interaction they have with a Person of Color- fact or fiction, for 7 out of the 17 months that the game has been actively released.

Call to Action: Petitioning Niantic

On June 3, 2020, Niantic tweeted and published online an internal memo from CEO John Hanke outlining how the video game design firm would support #BlackLivesMatter. In the memo, Hanke says that Niantic “strive[s] to make the world a better place…[and] to build positive connections with fellow human beings.” Wizards Unite, in its current form, does the opposite: it perpetuates negative stereotypes of People of Color and encourages players, particularly white players, to immerse themselves in situations where they act out as White Saviours or as aggressively policing agents against People of Color.

We are petitioning Niantic to remove the White Supremacist Narrative and Game Design in Harry Potter Wizards Unite. The petition can be found here and the demands are enumerated below:

We demand that Niantic fix Wizards Unite so it has racially equitable representation. Currently, its gameplay features deplorably racist portrayals of People of Color and encourages and rewards players to take actions in alignment with white supremacy.

Specifically, we petition Niantic to mitigate as much harm as possible by implementing the following edits to the current game design, so that it is slightly more equitable:

• Name all characters, including but not limited to Characters of Color.

• Give lines to all Confoundable Characters of Color.

• Introduce at least two Characters of Color (NPCs) who speak and contribute significantly to the game’s plot progression.

• Additionally, introduce President Picquery as a major character (with lines and significant influence on the story).

• Delete the scenes in which anyone mentally tortures characters. Specifically, delete the interactions in which the unnamed African American medical Ministry official shoots electric white spell energy at the heads of named white male characters.)

🡢Instead, include an interaction where the aforementioned Dr. Bernadette [with her last name] casts expelliarmus on Newt Scamander. (Completely delete the scene with her and Percival Graves.)

• De-weaponize the player’s wand in the game, including but not limited to when it is used against Confoundables/Characters of Color. Do not use the wand to imprison or inflict harm on Characters of Color.

• Create Foundable/Confoundable scenes in which the wand is used to heal.

• Create Foundable/Confoundable scenes in which the wand creates a shield/barrier between the two characters.

To be clear, Wizards Unite requires more substantive revisions than the previous list to make it a racially equitable game. These are easy starting points.

After consulting with Antiracism Trainer Michelle Ledder, we have the additional recommendations for Niantic’s company in order to live up to their promises to make #BlackLivesMatter: have racially equitable developer personnel levels, moving from diversity and inclusion training to anti-racism training for their game designers, and create concrete accountability structures for institutional anti-racism.

Please sign, share, and signal boost. Readers are also encouraged to post on the WizardHub forum any sections or learnings from this article so that Niantic may listen to the demands of the fans and work to eliminate the white supremacist messaging taught in Wizards Unite.

In conclusion, as white supremacy is heavily present in Wizards Unite, even with the fixing of the analyzed flaws, the game is still deeply problematic in its depictions of race. Its depictions of gender, body diversity, ableism, and even animal rights also leave many things to be desired. We, as Harry Potter fans, urge Niantic to live up to its promises and work to make amends in this game’s design and in their future games’ designs. We challenge Warner Brothers to create products that speak to the values that Harry Potter fans so loudly advocate. Harry Potter fans are dedicated to dismantling oppression, and we demand that the companies that cater to us hold themselves to a higher standard and interrogate their own products even as we interrogate the flaws in our most beloved canon and how we live our own lives.

New Zealanders don Headscarves out of respect

Many New Zealander women are wearing headscarves today out of respect for those killed in the Christchurch shootings. After consulting the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand and the Muslim Association of New Zealand, Dr. Thaya Ashman organized the Headscarves for Harmony campaign which invited all women to wear headscarves   in a  allowing a show of solidarity in the aftermath of the shootings.  Is in inappropriate for non-Muslim women to wear headscarves? “I can promise you it will not be disrespectful” writes Mavash Ali in  in an opinion piece in The Spinoff, an online NZ politics and culture magazine.

 

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Philadelphia DNC

This blog is temporarily on hold from now through the end of the month as my time will be dedicated to working in the social media department of the DNC.

I’ll be back in early August with more blog posts. In the meanwhile, my twitter- @softpowerpunch, will still be active as I’ll be commuting quite a bit.