Harry Potter and why we play games we hate

My feelings about Jam City’s Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery mobile game can be summarized by this Reddit quote:

“I tell my friends all the time, ‘hey the new HP game is just the worst! Seriously. I play it every day, you should download it. But it’s the worst game I’ve ever played in my life and I absolutely hate it. It’s not fun at all. I play it every day!'”

I found this contradictory love-hate sentiment so fascinating that I had to investigate its cause. There must be some reason that I and so many other Hogwarts Mystery players spend hours playing a game that we complain about daily.

Overview of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

(Mild spoilers ahead through pictures.)

In the game, you begin as a first-year at Hogwarts and search for Cursed Vaults, which your brother was investigating before he disappeared. As you progress through the school years at Hogwarts, you take classes, bond with friends, and complete side quests.

The main game currency is energy, which you spend on classes and story tasks by tapping on different objects. One energy recharges every four minutes, so the only way to progress in the game is to wait a few hours or buy more energy with gems.

Tapping my way through a lesson, I spy: energy bar in the top right corner, St. Patrick’s Day event icon on the bottom right, option to watch ads for extra coins on the bottom left.

To find out why I play this game in the first place, I’ll borrow a framework called Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA) that proposes at least 8 “aesthetic” goals games can have. I’ll assign a score out of 5 for how accurately each goal describes Hogwarts Mystery. This exercise might tell us a bit more about what the target audience values in this game.

1. Sensation: game as sense-pleasure

Since games are about interactivity, watching someone play through the story online is not as satisfying as experiencing the world firsthand. Hogwarts Mystery draws me in with its visual and sound design. The rooms in the castle are modeled after the movies, and the iconography is clean and precise. The background art also changes to reflect holidays, which is a great detail. There are snippets of dialogue like Professor Snape drawling, “do you expeccct applllllause?” after a Potions class, or sound effects like Fang barking with joy. The fun orchestral soundtrack reminds me of the Harry Potter movies.

On the downside, the animation for human characters can be awkward.

2. Fantasy: game as make-believe

The magic of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World gives this game an obvious advantage. There are limits to working in a pre-existing world, but the game designers do lend themselves some flexibility by setting the plot a few years before the events of the books. They capture existing characters’ personalities in the dialogue, such as Professor Snape’s disdain, or Hagrid’s accent. I interact with characters like Bill Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks, who are familiar but not fleshed out in the book series. There’s also a host of original characters, which offers me the opportunity to develop new 2D friends and crushes.

Unfortunately, the game structure prevents me from immersing myself in the world for very long.

3. Narrative: game as drama

The story drives the forward momentum of the game, and keeps me curious enough to return. The only reason I’ve continued to play is to catch up with the story before people spoil it for me on Reddit. Although the story contains lots of filler material like “drink butterbeer with friends,” the overarching plot is a mystery that players complete over the course of 7 years at Hogwarts.

Unfortunately, the story is half-finished. Many players have caught up with the chapters that’ve been released so far, and the game churns out side quests and timed events to keep those people busy.

4. Challenge: game as obstacle course

The main skill this game challenges is my patience. There’s not much complexity beyond tapping highlighted objects to complete lessons or tasks. I only need to strategize about which projects to spend my energy on within the next few hours (you can only do one at a time).

My other big challenge in this game is overcoming my crippling arachnophobia.

5. Fellowship: game as social framework

All the interactions with other players are highly suspected to be robots using other players’ information. There’s no way to communicate with other players through the game.

6. Discovery: game as uncharted territory

At some point, I’ve discovered everything there is to know about the game’s world and interactions. Most tasks and events are spoon-fed to me, with little flexibility in accomplishing goals.

7. Expression: game as self-discovery

I can personalize my avatar’s clothing and facial features, which is an exciting way to explore different appearances. I also get the chance to choose my Hogwarts House and collect pets.

I would give this game a higher Expression score if I could explore my choices through the story or build my world.

8. Submission: game as pastime

The main game mechanics are limited to tapping through tasks and waiting hours for the energy bar to fill up. This is great if I’m looking for a game to tap through absentmindedly during my bathroom breaks at work.

However, the monotony of repeating the same easy tasks can be demoralizing.

Based on these scores, the main goals of Hogwarts Mystery are Submission, Sensation, Narrative, and Fantasy. This indicates that the game appeals to casual players who want a mindless, mobile-friendly, free way to experience the world of Harry Potter. We don’t mind setting the game down for hours, only interacting with it for a couple minutes at a time. We can also tolerate a low-stakes game that doesn’t provide much Challenge, Fellowship, or Discovery. Either we don’t need these elements in our games, or we have other games to make up for them.

A delightful way to interact with characters and creatures through story…if you don’t mind grinding for 8 hours at a time.

Taking a psychological approach

As a diehard Harry Potter fan, it’s easy to justify my loyalty to the game when I describe the Sensation, Narrative, and Fantasy elements. But I find it harder to explain how I can grit my teeth through the tedious Submission aspect of the game. Thankfully, I can use psychology to blame my mind for falling into common traps. There has to be more sinister forces at play when I can’t stop playing a game I hate:

1. Sunk cost fallacy

Sunk cost fallacy is the false assumption that since you’ve already invested time into something, you must follow through with it. I’ve already poured so many hours into Hogwarts Mystery, so it’s easy to assume that stopping now would be a waste of my previous effort. In fact, pushing myself to continue a game I hate does not help me “reclaim” all the time I spent, and makes me even more miserable. My life would be just as meaningful if I stopped playing to do something more productive, like read Harry Potter for the 20th time.

2. Cognitive dissonance

Sunk cost fallacy goes hand in hand with cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we experience when our actions contradict our beliefs. To relieve this discomfort, we often change our beliefs to match our actions (which in my case means writing a whole blog post defending my choice to play the game). If we admit the game is meaningless, then we have to face the reality that we’ve poured time and energy into something for no reason.

3. Peer pressure

I admit that I’m exposing myself to peer pressure by checking the Hogwarts Mystery subreddit regularly. Even being a passive participant of a community provides motivation. Sometimes I’ll play the game faster to avoid spoilers on Reddit. I enjoy the tips and tricks, complaints, and posts about differences in rewards we’re getting (proof that the company is doing A/B testing on us).  It’s fun to connect with like-minded people in this cruel, lonely world, even if it’s through a game we love to hate.

4. Partial reinforcement

The game designers encourage us to play more by rewarding us according to unpredictable reinforcement schedules. Some interactions in Hogwarts Mystery feel like gambling; since I’m not sure when energy rewards reappear throughout the castle or how many points I’ll get from feeding my creatures, I’ll keep checking the castle locations or spending my creature food again and again. The outcome of every rock-paper-scissors-style “duel” seems to be rigged by the game software, but my occasional “wins” make me feel so accomplished that I keep playing anyway.

5. Perfectionism

Leaving stories unfinished is contrary to my beliefs. I’m not the only one with this personality, based on the many online complaints about being unable to finish a grinding task. The events and story arc drive perfectionists who feel compelled to earn every reward and complete every task.

I can’t deny that the game’s use of dark psychology is…predatory. However, knowing about all these factors doesn’t stop me from playing the game. So what would?

Running out of energy is frustrating…and expensive…

What will make me leave for good?

As with every love-hate relationship, there is a breaking point that convinces you to finally break up for good. Here are my dealbreakers for this game:

1. If monetization interferes with the game

Some might argue that microtransactions already intrude upon the game; every project encourages players to buy energy in order to complete the task in time. New advertisements for special bundles and discounts frequently pop up. Thankfully, instead of forcing ads on you like other games, Hogwarts Mystery offers the choice to earn extra energy or gems by watching ads. I’ve been able to get by without paying real money, but if the game starts to require payment or ad-watching, I will reconsider my relationship with it.

2. If the stress level increases

The grind sucks, but I can do it at my own pace without much consequence (unlike Neopets, where my virtual pets are long suffering from neglect). If the designers increase the stakes and make it too stressful to temporarily ignore the game, I will start to permanently ignore the game. Also, the designers seem to equate adding challenge to mean “do more of the same boring thing” instead of “do more varied and complex tasks.” If they add “challenge” by making me do more of the same task in even less time, they have seriously misread their audience.

3. If there’s an alternative game

If there’s a different Harry Potter game that provides the Sensation, Narrative, and Fantasy elements without the Submission grind, I’ll consider leaving this game for the new one. The new Wizards Unite game looks promising, so I’ll evaluate it as a replacement.

4. If elements that actually appeal to me get worse

The game relies on new outfits, hairstyles, creatures, and stories to keep me and other players interested. If they stop trying as hard to impress us with these elements, there’s no other reason to keep playing.

The infamous Floating Sandwich Bug: annoying or endearing?

Why it’s ok to keep playing

I’m still playing this game, with no end in sight. As I’ve shown, I’m kept captive by a combination of sunk cost fallacy and a genuine enjoyment of the stories, characters, and fantasy elements. However, I prefer to look on the bright side and see what I have to gain from playing this frustrating game:

1. Learning from the game’s mistakes

Playing a bad video game is a good way to learn how not to make video games. If the game was perfect, I’d have no opportunity to think about game design improvements, like better trivia questions or game structure. It also makes me appreciate all the good games in my life, like The Legend of Zelda.

2. Learning from the game’s strengths

The creature interactions are adorable, and the outfits are so cute that people (not me) actually buy them with real money. This may sound morally dubious, but the predatory techniques of the game can actually work. If I wanted to make a similar mobile game and didn’t care about players’ complaints about microtransactions, this could be my model.

3. Learning about myself as a gamer

My complaints about a lack of puzzles reveal that I need games with more logic challenges. I need to be in control of my destiny, not anxiously grinding through a series of random rock-paper-scissors events. I enjoy exploring an open world, not just the limited levels that Hogwarts Mystery offers.

But I also don’t mind a casual game that uses the bare minimum of my intellectual energy. As long as I have other games that fulfill my puzzling needs, I don’t mind keeping this one on the side. After all, I do need something to do during my bathroom breaks at work.

4. Building character

At the risk of sounding like Calvin’s dad from Calvin and Hobbes, I can build character from these pointless tasks. If I can survive the extreme grind, I’ll know I have plenty of patience. Plus, I’m learning to be less of a perfectionist! With each new timed event, I’ve done the bare minimum to earn rewards. I’ve learned to prioritize tasks and ignore parts of the game that are bad for my mental health (such as “dueling” events that make me feel helpless).

Unfortunately, the increased exposure to spiders has not helped my arachnophobia.

I do enjoy customizing my character!

Final thoughts

As long as a game doesn’t stop me from being productive or impact my mental health, as long as there’s a character or storyline that still gives me an inkling of joy, I’m happy to keep playing a game I love to hate. Like staying loyal to a crappy sports team, I can admit that a game is the worst thing I’ve ever played, but I’m a fan anyway.

I know I have the power to stop at any time. But I choose to see my engagement with Hogwarts Mystery as a typical relationship I have with my fellow humans: I can learn to love something, even if it drives me crazy.


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