Essay: The Game's Afoot
In the world outside of Harry Potter, the disregard many people have for books read by children, because they consider them to be only for children, is similar to other knee-jerk judgments people have had about Harry Potter, such as labeling the Harry Potter books evil because there’s magic in them, or calling the series simplistic, two-dimensional and otherwise not worthy of adults’ attention, either to analyze or to read for pleasure. (See Childish Things or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 1:The Kids’ Table.)
With the exception of professional sports (and even then, some people look down on adults who they think are grasping at childhood when they play or watch sports), games are also often dismissed in our world. Gamers get even less respect, if possible, and are often stereotyped as adult male college graduates or drop-outs living in their parents’ basements playing World of Warcraft, and never seeing daylight. Incidents like Gamergate didn’t help the public image of gamers—and rightly so, in that case.
Yet Jane McGonigal maintains in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, that we need to make reality more like games. JK Rowling may or may not agree, but she structured her seven-book series around toys, fairytales, games and the equipment for games, and the archetypes that I call Rowling’s game-pieces. (See The Game Pieces or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2:This Old Man.)
According to Jane McGonigal, the four defining traits of a game are that it should have a goal, rules, a feedback system (so you know how close you are to the goal) and voluntary participation. However, she cites Bernard Snits’s definition of a game as more succinct: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” This is very much how JK Rowling uses games in the Harry Potter books; the reader experiences this as a realization that Harry or another character is attempting to overcome an evidently unnecessary obstacle, and seems to be doing so voluntarily. This is probably because the character in question is playing a game. In Reality is Broken, McGonigal writes:
If the goal is truly compelling, and if the feedback is motivating enough, we will keep wrestling with the game’s limitations–creatively, sincerely, and enthusiastically–for a very long time. We will play until we utterly exhaust our own abilities, or until we exhaust the challenge. And we will take the game seriously because there is nothing trivial about playing a good game. The game matters.
Part of the appeal of the Harry Potter books could be that Harry is a surrogate player for the reader, and in turn, when people purchase the video games based on the books and films, players get to be surrogates for Harry, or for Hermione or Ron, voluntarily overcoming unnecessarily obstacles, working toward a goal, following the rules, and hoping that the feedback will report that the player is coming closer to the goal. Whether reading books or playing a game, the reader or player gets to play along with Harry.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone introduces the reader to Harry and the wizarding world. In the initial chapter a holiday that’s fun-and-games for children, Halloween, turns deadly for Harry’s parents. Soon after, Voldemort’s attempt to also kill Harry backfires, and when news of this spreads, war segues into play for wizards, who celebrate by setting off magical sparks mistaken for shooting stars and early fireworks in celebration of Bonfire Night, the national holiday of the United Kingdom that is another instance of war, or rather, rebellion against the state—The Gunpowder Plot—becoming a playful celebration enjoyed by all. This is the only literal mention of Bonfire Night in the seven-book series. From what we see, or rather, don’t see, this is a purely Muggle holiday. (I have my own theories about why that is, but that is for a future essay.)
In Philosopher Stone’s first chapter, Rowling introduces readers to Harry’s uncle and guardian, Vernon Dursley, married to Harry’s mother’s sister, his Aunt Petunia. Vernon is no fan of imagination or laughter that’s not at someone else’s expense, nor people dressing in “funny clothes”, such the wizards who are celebrating Voldemort’s fall. Dumbledore’s introduction contrasts him directly with Vernon Dursley. Not only is his taste in dress likely to produce a far more derogatory comment from Vernon than merely “funny”, he’s fond of sweets. Sweets become weapons in Fred and George Weasley’s war against Umbridge—Fred and George also being Wise Old Men, the same archetype as Dumbledore. Their sweets are eventually a weapon against Dudley Dursley, when he eats a Ton-Tongue Toffee in Goblet of Fire.
While waiting on Privet Drive for Hagrid, Dumbledore offers a sweet to Professor Minerva McGonagall. The passwords giving access to his office also happen to be sweets. Dumbledore is very fond of his Famous Wizard Card, which children collect and is only available with Chocolate Frogs. On the train, Ron indirectly introduces Harry to his future general in the war, Dumbledore, through the Chocolate Frog Card, a child’s plaything that comes with a sweet. Most people don’t take toys, games, sweets or fairytales seriously, and also don’t take seriously some of the people Dumbledore esteems most highly, such as Hagrid. But Dumbledore values all of these things.
In the next chapter, ten years have passed, and Harry learns that he’s a wizard. His young life has seldom contained games. For ten years he’s been bullied by his cousin Dudley, plus his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and sometimes Aunt Marge and her dogs. He lives in a cupboard. He’s fed very little. He has no friends; Dudley has bullied other kids out of wanting to be his friend.
A year earlier, for his tenth birthday Harry received a wire coat hanger and an old sock of Vernon’s. Dudley’s birthday gifts include videogames, a television, video cameras, and sports equipment that he’s unlikely to use. He has a second bedroom to hold broken toys and games, plus unread books, and it’s significant that this is where Harry comes to live when he leaves the cupboard, in the repository for old games and toys, the space for unread fairytales and other children’s books. (Dudley is unlikely to have books for adults, being the same age as Harry.) Despite his birthday bounty, Dudley’s favorite “game” is chasing and beating up Harry, which is more like war than a game to Harry, who’s grown up with games, for Dudley, morphing into wars for him. He was weaned on this; Harry does not get to have games for games’ sake.
When the Hogwarts letter arrives, Harry is starved for games that are only games, starved for a normal childhood. Though inherently whole and complete, Harry is actually incomplete while he’s with the Dursleys, who have deprived him of things Dudley takes for granted: loving caretakers, games, toys and a carefree childhood devoid of threats to life and limb. He’s also incomplete while ignorant of the truth about himself and his parents.
Trying to steal a letter from his uncle that’s addressed to Harry becomes a game that, like his relationship with Dudley, is also a war, but his strategizing doesn’t produce the result he wants. He rises early to get the post but his uncle has risen even earlier and reaches the letterbox first. Vernon continues the “game”, having them all flee across the country to avoid the letters. He drives erratically, doubling back on his route, having them stay in places that make Dudley howl for his television and computer, on which he likes to blow up things. (Dudley’s games are all warlike.) But this is no game to Vernon; he’s fighting a war. Vernon is, of course, going to lose.
When Hagrid hand-delivers Harry’s school letter a new world opens to him. It is a moment of sublime completion for Harry to finally know who and what he is. In the language of Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle, Hagrid is the “herald”. Campbell writes:
The herald or announcer of the adventure...is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world...
[Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1979)]
This is the case with Hagrid, especially when he’s vilified for being a half-giant. But Harry quickly takes to Hagrid, the first person he’s seen do magic since he was a baby. To him it’s the best game ever. It takes him through a wall to Diagon Alley; it gives Dudley a curly pink pig’s tail; and it gives Harry a new self. He’ll eventually learn not to view magic as a game, but this is an understandable initial reaction.
Hagrid tells Harry that the purpose of the Ministry of Magic is to keep Muggles in the dark about magic, telling him that everyone would want magical solutions to their problems. It’s as if wizards are concerned that Muggles, who they regard much like small children, would think of magic like a game, something to treat lightly, as many wizards do. It’s unclear whether they feel that Muggles are more prone to do this or just as prone as wizards. One of the most pressing messages of the books is that magic is not frivolous, let alone Harry’s most important attribute. His wholeness and his ability to love are far more important. This is another reason that criticism of the books due to the inclusion of magic is entirely missing the point.
Harry’s letter says that first years cannot have brooms at school, though they will have flying lessons and many students from wizard families have probably already flown on brooms. However, if we consider a broom as a weapon it makes sense for this “toy”, used for transport and for a dangerous war-like game, to be withheld from the youngest students except when they’re supervised.
In Diagon Alley, Hagrid takes Harry to Gringotts, the wizarding bank, which is tantamount to taking him to an amusement park where he’s given gold just for being him, a dream-come-true game that’s been turned into a videogame, allowing Harry Potter fans to put themselves in his place. As is the pattern throughout the books, the “game” of riding through Gringotts in a small tram-car past various obstacles to reach the gold is potentially dangerous. What neither we nor Harry learn until later is that Professor Quirrell breaks into the bank on the same day to try to steal the Philosopher’s Stone before Hagrid can complete his errand and deliver it to Dumbledore.
This means that at the beginning and end of the book Harry is racing with Quirrell to reach the Stone, though Harry doesn’t know this at the start, and at the end he thinks he’s in a race with Snape. His entrance into the bank is accompanied by a rhyme that seems flippant on the surface but is quite serious:
Enter stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn,
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.
This isn’t the only “game” during Harry’s trip to Diagon Alley. Draco Malfoy first mentions Quidditch to Harry in Madam Malkin’s robe shop. This foreshadows many things: Draco taking Neville’s Remembrall, which Harry retrieves, landing him on the Gryffindor Quidditch team; the midnight duel challenge; Draco and Harry facing each other in the Dueling Club in the next book; and Harry and Draco being rival Seekers in the second book.
Draco being the first to mention the most prominent wizarding game and the one that informs much of the action in the seventh book (though literal Quidditch is technically absent from it) doesn’t just set up these conflicts, it positions him as Harry’s enemy in general. The word “Quidditch” being introduced by an enemy is important. He throws down a challenge to Harry, who must rise to this challenge throughout the series.
Though Harry is not permitted a broom he acquires another weapon in Diagon Alley: a wand. Harry still considers magic as something of a game, and little occurs in Diagon Alley to dissuade him from this view. The wand is equipment for this “game”, though potentially quite dangerous. Like most powerful objects, a wand is about potential; it matters how it is used and cannot be considered good or evil on its own, though more than one person makes this sort of judgment concerning the Elder Wand.
Mr. Ollivander tells Harry that the wand that “chooses” Harry has the same core as Voldemort’s because Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes, has provided the feathers in each. In the fourth and seventh books we learn other Wand Game rules, such as the importance of the relationship between wand and wizard—especially whether a wand recognizes a wizard as its master—as well as the relationship between wands, like when Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands link in the fourth book. These two wands, being “brothers”, will not work against each other. This is metaphorical quantum entanglement; the wands are entangled, like Harry and Voldemort themselves, because their cores were once part of the same entity, Fawkes. And finally, a wizard cannot be harmed (unless it is his will to be harmed) by a wand that recognizes him as its master, since master and wand are also entangled, but we don’t learn about that until later.
Ron is the second person to discuss Quidditch with Harry. In contrast to Draco, this binds Harry and Ron as friends and comrades, since Quidditch is metaphorical war and they eventually become teammates. Ron is enthusiastic about the game and wants Harry to love it as much as he does. Draco challenges Harry and is neither friendly nor inclusive. Draco and Ron are doppelgangers, as are Draco and Harry, for different reasons, and this is seen in the contrast in how they discuss Quidditch with Harry. They’re both of the wizarding world and interested in “their” sport, but one cautiously sizes up the newcomer as a potential adversary while the other shares his love of a game without considering whether the pointers he gives could be used against his side. When they’re on the train Ron doesn’t know which houses he and Harry will be in—for all they know, they could end up cheering for different house teams for seven years.
Another game in the first book that’s played by both Ron and Hagrid is the Name Game—in other words, saying “He Who Shall Not Be Named” or “You Know Who” instead of “Voldemort”. Neither Dumbledore nor Harry play this game and Ron is impressed by what he perceives as Harry’s bravery, though Harry simply hasn’t been conditioned to play this game, as Ron was. Harry not accepting the basic rules of the Name Game becomes an issue in the seventh book.
Hagrid is another doppelganger for Harry in the first book. He instantly recognizes Harry as an outsider, though in a slightly different way than the friendly half-giant. Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts and Harry is worried about this happening to him when he disregards Madam Hooch’s instructions to stay on the ground during the flying lesson. The contrast between sharing power and abusing power is highlighted here when Draco Malfoy steals Neville Longbottom’s Remembrall and Harry gets it back.
It’s significant, first, that Draco steals something from Neville linked to memory, since Death Eaters “stole” Neville’s parents’ memories. Draco, the son of a Death Eater, steals the Remembrall, and this is an echo of the attack that took Neville’s parents’ minds, which is an inarguable abuse of power. This incident also foreshadows the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, in which Harry uses his broom to “catch” an egg from a dragon, an egg that is a stand-in for a Snitch, while in the incident from the first book, Harry is trying to catch a Snitch-equivalent from someone whose name means dragon: Draco. (See A Chip Off the OldBlock or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 5:Our Father.)
Harry and Neville are also doppelgangers because either of them could have fulfilled the prophecy and Voldemort is, directly or indirectly, responsible for each boy growing up without his parents. Harry’s response to Draco could be seen as an abuse of power—the students were told to stay on the ground—but he doesn’t seek power for himself and he fully expects to be punished—expelled, even—when Professor McGonagall marches him off to the castle.
Neville is powerless, unable to control his broom or keep his property, while Harry shares his power by retrieving the Remembrall. In addition to this foreshadowing the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, this also foreshadows an inversion of this scene in Order of the Phoenix, when Neville attempts to help Harry with the prophecy orb in the Department of Mysteries. Part of the inversion is that while Harry succeeds in saving the Remembrall, Neville fails to preserve the orb. Both the Remembrall and the orb are linked to memory; the Remembrall is supposed to help Neville remember things, and the prophecy orb contains the memory of the prophecy that could have involved either boy, until Voldemort chose Harry.
The Snitch Harry catches in his first match is also linked to memory, since Dumbledore encases the Resurrection Stone inside this Snitch and leaves it to Harry in his will. The Snitch “remembers” Harry and this allows him to open it when he is about to die, so he can use the Resurrection Stone to call up the shades/memories of people he loved and lost, who accompany him as he walks to his death.
In Half-Blood Prince, Cornelius Fudge says to his Muggle counterpart, “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.” This is why Quirrell is correct to say “there is no good or evil, only power”. The Prime Minister can’t understand why wizards are having trouble with Voldemort, but the answer is simple: different attitudes towards power. Fudge verbalizes the conflict at the center of the sixth book, the problem Harry has to solve before the end of Deathly Hallows.
It’s important that the prophecy says that Harry is the one with the power—not the destiny—to defeat Voldemort, he has a power that Voldemort “knows not”. We could call it Love, or Game-Fu—in other words, valuing and understanding games, toys and fairy tales. It could also be a combination of these, or yet again, it could be a causality, so that, in the end, Harry’s ability to love is also what enables him to value games, toys, sweets, fairy tales, and childhood itself, all of which are considered unimportant by Voldemort.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 10: All’s Fair in War and Quidditch, Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.