Combinatorial Meaning in Pottermore

A scene of Platform 9 3/4 from the Pottermore scavenger hunt. Credit:

One of the defining literary and cinematic events of my childhood and early adolescence were the Harry Potter books and movies. Like most other kids at the time, I was completely absorbed into the fantasy realm created by J.K. Rowling, and followed both forms of media until their completion. It seemed like there would always be a Harry Potter related mode of entertainment to enjoy, so when the last movie truly ended the series, fans like myself were looking for something to fill the void. Created by J.K. Rowling and Sony Entertainment, the website was introduced in 2011 as a supplement to the Harry Potter books. This website meant to give fans access to unreleased written material and facts from the author by way of an interactive game.

The website is set up as a community, but allows users to create their own profiles and independently go through the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter, collecting new facts along the way. Each chapter presents a few interactive settings in which users engage in a scavenger hunt or game to gain new information and the ability to move to the next chapter. The farther a user gets into the book, the more “connected” he or she becomes to the Harry Potter world. For example, once users reach the chapter in which Harry gets sorted into a house, the user gets sorted as well and can begin interacting with other members of their house.

The large amount of information combined into one platform makes Pottermore a great example of a combinatorial meaning system. Not only does the website require users to have previous knowledge of an imaginary world that is then symbolized online, but it also assumes that an entire real-life community can be created and symbolized digitally from this knowledge. The most noticeable means of combinatorial meaning are the visuals used on the site. These visuals provide a sense of “reality” to the feeling of actually being “in” Harry Potter’s world by way of animations, photos, icons and videos. The sounds associated with the movements of many of these animations and visuals also allow users to feel a multidimensional sense of cognitive reality, regardless of the fact that they are engaging in actions that are digitally expressed (not to mention, based on imaginary plotlines.) Written instructions tie the whole experience together, and depend on the symbolization of language to tell the user what to do next, as well as describe the new facts they may encounter along the way.

Going through the Pottermore website, three ideas from this week’s readings became apparent to me. First, Gibson’s idea of “affordance” as described by Zhang and Patel, is very relevant to interactive multimedia websites like Pottermore due to their holistic approach in expressing information. Since “what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their dimensions or properties” people experience Pottermore in its entirety, rather than just seeing or hearing one part of it at a time, or just seeing the interactive experience as a simple function performed by their computer. (337) One of the main ways this website allows for the holistic aspect of affordance to be apparent, is the manner in which the point of view of each scene is set to be from the perspective of the user as though he or she is seeing the visuals and performing tasks head on.

This holistic aspect of affordance leads in to the example of the way a pilot behaves in a cockpit while interacting with his technological interface, as described by Hallen, et al. The way in which the pilot manipulates the interface automatically without physically altering some form of his machinery or environment is applicable to the icon manipulations a Pottermore user completes. For example, if a user is prompted to combine ingredients to brew a potion (not until he or she is an official student, of course) he or she will not actually transfer the ingredients into a cauldron in real life, but would rather understand that the actions are only demonstrated as manipulations on the website. By doing this, players are “[manipulating] the properties of a representation to encode information that does not pertain to and is not about the thing that the representation represents.” (186)

(For a link to a screenshot of a Pottermore potions class, click here.)

Finally, the interpretations of each chapter’s activities are highly cognitively symbolic within themselves, particularly in relation to how the “difference between different modes of reference can be understood in terms of levels of interpretation.” (73). Each player will see exactly the same setting in each chapter the format of the site presents, but each player will also most likely have different interpretations as to where they should start clicking to begin their scavenger hunts, or what they want to read first. This would create different levels of interpretations of the same information even though initially all players saw the same visuals.

Having a better understanding of the massive amounts of symbolic thinking that is involved in multimedia projects like, really demonstrates how much goes into the creation of a modern digital artefact. Additionally, thinking about each component of internal and external communication truly brings to light how much we take the complexity of online communication for granted.


Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.