I had an interesting conversation with my partner not long ago about playing support in multiplayer games. I don’t play many games which have discrete roles, but when I do, I tend to prefer support roles. I’ve been thinking about stereotypes of women gamers quite a lot recently, in part due to the research I’m doing, and in part because I find it personally interesting. I’ve noticed that a lot of the women gamers I encounter tend to gravitate towards support roles. I brought it up with my partner, and we both started to wonder: why is that? Are women being shoehorned into support roles in games, or is it an honest preference? Or perhaps a bit of both?
To provide some context, this is what I mean by roles and by support: a lot of team-based multiplayer games and game modes involve building teams with other players in which each player plays one of a number of roles within the team. In World of Warcraft and Overwatch, for example, there are three roles you can choose to play: tank, damage, and support. Tanks are harder to kill and their role involves pulling the focus of the enemy in order to a) absorb most of the damage and b) protect the rest of the team. Damage players (also known as DPS – damage per second) aren’t as strong, but can do quite a lot of damage – their role is to do damage to the enemy. Support players primarily stand in the back and heal their teammates, though they also often have abilities which provide utility to the team, such as abilities which weaken the enemy or which buff their own teammates (for example, by enhancing their existing abilities).
In both Overwatch and the multiplayer modes of World of Warcraft, I primarily play in the support role. It is fairly common for women players to play support. Most of the women I’ve encountered in Overwatch have been playing in a support role. In fact, it’s so common for women to play support that it’s become a bit of a stereotype.
I recently listened to an interesting episode of the podcast Group Up, hosted by SVB on YouTube and Twitch. SVB is well-known for creating video content around the game Overwatch. In this episode of his podcast, he interviewed three women who regularly stream Overwatch on Twitch about their experiences playing and streaming the game. Each of the streamers had gotten started in Overwatch by playing support characters. More than that, each of them recounted times when other players had asked them to play support specifically because they were women. In Overwatch, a common ask of women is that they play the character Mercy, who is, incidentally, the support character with the most stereotypically feminine design in the game.
There were a couple of interesting themes that came up during the discussion in the podcast, one of which was the widespread belief that many female players are introduced to certain games (particularly competitive online multiplayer games) by their male partners, brothers, friends, etc. The assumption that goes along with this belief is that because male players are typically more experienced with these types of games than female players, the female players are asked to play roles which support the male players – typically, that means playing a healer. The negative (and perhaps unfounded – but perhaps not) interpretation of this is that many men want the women in their lives to support their hobbies, and the best way they can think to bring women in is to ask them to literally support them in game.
The supposition behind this interpretation is that women are expected to be in the support role in relation to the men in their lives. Historically, many women have been expected to play support in the home and for their families. Women stay home and take care of the house and the children while men go off to work. Women knit socks and cook food while men go off to war. In games, this translates to women healing and staying in the back lines while men do the flashy, important work of killing members of the enemy team. Women aren’t supposed to do the flashy, important work. They’re supposed to remain relatively unseen in their roles.
This got me thinking: where do I fall in this discussion? I typically don’t like conforming to stereotypes, and yet in this case, I am. How much is my desire to play support in games due to societal gender norms and other sexist ideas which I’ve unconsciously internalized, and how much of it is just that I’m drawn to the role? Why did I specifically choose to play support when I started playing World of Warcraft, and more recently, Overwatch?
Like many women, I was introduced to both World of Warcraft by my (male) partner. He had been playing on and off for years at that point. I grew more and more interested in playing myself as I watched him play, and finally created my first character in 2015. Of course, I asked my partner for advice: which class should I play? He told me about the three roles, and that each class had multiple specifications allowing for damage, tanking, or healing. He also told me that the roles of tanking and healing were much more variable in nature, as they involve choosing the correct abilities to react to what’s happening in the game. My partner started playing WoW as a priest, a class primarily known for its healing specifications, and spent a lot of time healing when playing group-based content in the game. The way he described the role to me made it sound interesting and fun; for that reason, I chose a priest for the first character I created. My priest is still the main character I play in WoW.
I was likewise introduced to Overwatch by my partner, who started playing when it was released in 2016. I was initially attracted to the art and design of the game and spent a lot of time watching him play. I was convinced, however, that I’d be terrible at the game if I tried playing myself – I’d had no previous experience with first person shooters (well, unless you count Portal) and knew I didn’t have the aim necessary to play such games well. As I continued to watch others play the game (I also started watching a lot of streamers on Twitch, as well as following professional play via the Overwatch League), I realized there were a number of characters – specifically tank and support characters – which didn’t rely on having good aim to play. I finally decided to give it a shot in 2019 and latched onto support because I was more familiar with the characters from having watched my partner play support characters, and because it seemed like any mistakes I made would be less obvious than if I was in a tank or DPS role. I still almost exclusively play support, which I’ve been enjoying more and more as my skills have improved and as I’ve been able to uncover some of the nuance of each character’s abilities.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve pigeonholed myself into the support role because it was the first role I chose in both WoW and Overwatch and I’m not confident enough in my abilities as a player to venture beyond it. That said, I feel my choice to play support has been a good one. I’ve recently been enjoying being a healer in WoW dungeons, as it’s much more interesting and variable than damage. I also really enjoy zipping around maps in Overwatch as Lucio (a support character known for his speed-boosting abilities), and tend to have more fun playing that character than others I’ve tried in the game. I’m not particularly interested in being a jack-of-all-trades at this point – I want to play one role, and I want to play it really well. In doing so, perhaps I am conforming to gender norms. But I’ve decided not to worry about it, so long as I’m having fun.