Playing Support in Video Games as a Woman

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.

Mercy, aka Angela Ziegler

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.

On Being a Positive Influence in Online Video Games

I’ve been playing a lot of video games recently, which I attribute to being home a fair bit more than usual, what with one thing and another. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Overwatch recently, and have even been participating in the most recent competitive season. I normally avoid online play which puts me in connection with strangers like the plague, but I’ve started thinking: why should I? Unlike what’s happening in the real world right now, playing online can’t actually spread the plague. I’ve decided I deserve to be able to play this game as much as anyone else, and I’m not going to let random strangers stop me. If that means I expose myself to a bit of toxicity, well, I think now I have some of the tools I need to be able to deal with it.. 

I just recently finished my classes for the semester. As part of one of my research methods classes, I designed and executed a small research project. I chose a topic which I thought would foreshadow what I’m interested in pursuing for a dissertation – talking to female gamers about their experiences in competitive online video games with the aim of understanding why they continue to play, in spite of the toxicity that rages through those types of games. It was a fascinating project in a number of ways, not least because it confirmed for me – again – that I like doing this whole research thing. But more importantly, talking with other women who have more experience playing online than I do helped me to understand the kinds of things I can do personally which will help make me more confident playing games online.

One of the major things that came up in my research project was the idea of being a positive influence as a way to combat toxicity. One of the gamers I interviewed had been playing League of Legends for a number of years. Given how infamously toxic LoL is, it’s not surprising a lot of what she told me about her experiences with the game involved her encountering and dealing with toxicity from other players. She, of course, had numerous strategies to deal with it – muting players, ignoring what they said, justifying to herself that their comments didn’t reflect on how she was actually playing, etc. She would sometimes talk back to toxic players, in order to defend herself or to defend other players. 

Most of the things she did were simply avoidance tactics, but she did one thing that really stood out to me: she made it a point to be a positive influence in game. She would compliment other players if they did something well. She would encourage teammates. She would make it a point not to say anything negative in chat. She told me she consistently maxed out her honor points in game. I gathered from talking to her that being positive in game was something she was really proud of. Being positive was also something she did with the aim of encouraging other players to be more positive as well. 

Ultimately, the theory is that spreading positivity is a way an individual can help to reduce the amount of toxicity in game. Around the same time I was in the midst of interviewing women gamers for my project, I was spending a lot of time on the GirlGamers subreddit, which I’ve found to be a very friendly, welcoming place to talk with other women about playing video games. The subreddit actively promotes something called the Good Luck, Have Fun pledge, which I discovered through a sticky post in the subreddit. 

The pledge was started by a non-profit organization called AnyKey, which has been working for the last few years to support diversity and inclusivity in video games and gaming communities. Incidentally, one of the cofounders is T. L. Taylor, one of my academic heroes. By taking the pledge, you are essentially confirming that you believe everyone you’re playing with deserves respect. Signing the pledge also gives you a badge, which you can put on your profile on Twitch or YouTube Gaming to signal to others that you intend to abide by the terms of the pledge as you play. I don’t stream my play, but I did sign the pledge – you can use my referral link to sign the pledge, too.

Between what I learned from talking with other women players and the ideas behind the Good Luck, Have Fun pledge, I decided to come up with my own guidelines for myself so that I could not only be a more positive influence in game, but enjoy playing online more as well. 

  1. Always say “gg” (short for “good game”) at the end of a match.
  2. If one of the other players in the match makes a good play, call it out – even if they aren’t on my team.
  3. Thank teammates when they heal me or protect me.
  4. If someone compliments me, remember it and take it to heart.
  5. Make it a point to endorse players who have been positive in game.
  6. If someone is mean to me or to another player: call them out on it and report them.
  7. Give kind words of support to players who are getting targeted by toxicity, particularly when they don’t respond in kind.
  8. If I start getting angry at the game or at other players, take a break from the game and go do something else until I feel I can be positive again.

Since I’ve started thinking about this, I’ve actually been communicating more with other players during games. Sometimes it’s not been super positive, but most of the time it has. I find that being positive in game – even if no one responds to it – helps me to feel more positive about the game. But I also find that when I make it a point to say positive things, other players are more likely to say positive things to me in return. That alone is motivation for me to keep doing it. I also feel like I play better when I approach the game with a positive mindset, which is also a bonus.

On Playing Overwatch and Toxic Communities

I love the game Overwatch. I’ve been a fan pretty much since it launched in 2016. I typically don’t care for first person shooters – in part because I’m terrible at them, and in part because I don’t much like the idea of shooting people, even if they’re made of pixels. But Overwatch has excellent character design (well, mostly), a very well-designed UI, and beautiful maps. The designer in me was attracted to it, and I couldn’t look away.

As far as gameplay goes, Overwatch is a fairly nuts-and-bolts team-based shooter. The primary game mode is a competitive mode in which two teams consisting of 6 players each are pitted against one another with the aim of “winning” the map. Teams may take on three different roles, depending on the map – defending an objective, attempting to capture an objective, or battling against the other team in a “capture the flag” scenario. Teams consist of 2 healers, who help other team members regain health; 2 tanks, who can take high amounts of damage and defend their team members from taking damage; and 2 “DPS” (damage per second), whose role is to damage the players on the other team. 

Why has Overwatch kept players’ interest for so long? The game itself is evergreen – the game’s developer, Blizzard Entertainment, has obviously invested a lot of time and thought into keeping the game relevant as it ages. The addition of a new character or a new map a few times a year adds a variety of new ways to play the same game. Even tweaking the stats of a few characters here and there – which Blizzard does consistently – can vastly change how the game is played. But mostly, the primary mode of play features six real – and often random – people collaborating together in order to defeat the six real people on the other side. Nothing keeps a game fresher than not knowing exactly what you’ll be up against when you start playing.

Blizzard intends to keep the trend going with the release of Overwatch 2, just announced in November 2019, which will feature updated character designs, more new characters and maps, and more game modes.

Overwatch 2 promotional image featuring new character designs

My Personal History with Overwatch

I’ve been really enjoying Overwatch as a spectator sport for years. My partner picked up the game when it was released, and I started watching him play. I was drawn in by how well-designed the game and its characters seemed, and wanted to know more. I found the barrier of entry to be a bit high, but once I understood the basics of how the maps were played and what each character could do, it became a really fun game to watch. I currently follow several Twitch streamers who primarily play Overwatch, and tune in every so often. I’ve also been keeping up with the Overwatch League since it started in 2018, and am looking forward to the beginning of the next season in January. 

Overwatch League match in the Blizzard Arena in southern California
An Overwatch League match in Blizzard Arena in southern California

But I haven’t really played the game much. Though I’ve been enjoying Overwatch for nearly three years now, I didn’t start actually playing the game myself until a few months ago. That seems crazy, doesn’t it? I’ve spent all this time learning about Overwatch and watching a variety of people play it, but it took me two years to buy the game and start playing myself.

At first, I didn’t particularly want to play because Overwatch is just not the kind of game I normally play. I don’t like first person shooters. Games that require a lot of precise hand-eye coordination frustrate me. I don’t often have the patience to work at building the muscle memory I need to play such games well. I tend to prefer strategy games and puzzle games that rely more on speed of thought than on reflex and dexterity.

There’s a part of my brain that just says I’m bad at those types of games. And sometimes I listen to it more than I should. But when it comes to games like Overwatch, I’ve realized I don’t necessarily have to be good at the game to enjoy playing it. It’s one of those games where I win some, and I lose most. And I die quite a lot. I don’t particularly like dying in games – who does? – but I’ve found if I approach it sensibly, dying constantly doesn’t much bother me. Sometimes, dying in games is out of my control. Even then, dying becomes an opportunity to learn. 

So if I go into it with the right mindset, I’ve discovered I can play games like Overwatch and enjoy them. But I still don’t play Overwatch a whole lot. When I do, I play with people I know, or I play alone with voice chat turned off, even though I know doing so limits how far I can make it in the game. Why? Because I don’t want to open myself up for harassment from other players of the game. Using voice chat with strangers means outing myself as a female player. And it’s a dangerous thing to be visibly female in a competitive online game.

Overwatch’s Community is Toxic

What do I mean by toxic? I mean that there are a number of (quite vocal) people in the Overwatch community who get off on harassing and bullying other players. When gamers bring up games with toxic communities, Overwatch often ends up in the top ten. Blizzard has taken steps to police the community and discourage bad behavior, including implementing a reporting system, using machine learning to regulate chat, and adding an endorsement system. But it’s not enough, and a lot of bad behavior still gets through. 

The nature of the game lends itself to toxicity. Overwatch is a competitive game, and competitive games are stressful. There are links between stress and anger – being in a stressful situation can cause people who are prone to anger to lash out. There’s also only so much you can control about the way a match in Overwatch will go after all, you’re only one player on a team of six. In a game like Overwatch, if things aren’t going your way, there are 5 other people on your team you can blame for your misfortune. For some players, it’s easy to justify being toxic because they may never encounter those teammates again, and the social consequences are low. Ranked competition, relative anonymity, and a relative lack of consequences makes toxic interactions during game play rather common.

As with many other competitive online games, the primary demographic for Overwatch in the U.S. consists of younger white, straight, cisgendered men, and those players tend to make up the vocal majority in the player base. Behavior they don’t consider egregious (like, for example, rape jokes) often slips through the cracks. Making fun of women, or black people, or people with accents is so common as to be considered the norm. And unfortunately, it’s the players who represent minorities in the community (women, and in the U.S., non-white people and non-native speakers of English) who bear the brunt of the toxicity in the community. 

Blizzard is actively trying to regulate the community, but it’s clear they’re not doing enough to account for all of the different motivations people have for being toxic. It’s also clear that the solutions they have put in place address toxicity only from a high level (“bad behavior is bad, and you should report it”) without specifically addressing the types of bad behavior (like gender or racially motivated harassment) which disproportionately affect the more vulnerable people in the game’s community.

My Thoughts on Playing Overwatch Going Forward

I play video games for fun. I think most people do – the primary purpose of games is to have fun. What’s not fun for me – and, I suspect, for most people – is having a random person tell me I suck, that I should stop playing, that I don’t belong in the game. Even in the early days of Overwatch, it became clear to me that the Overwatch community has its fair share of toxic people, and that encountering them in game is so commonplace as to be accepted as part of the game. 

Sometimes, toxicity in gaming communities can get particularly bad – I’ve seen more than one Twitch streamer in tears because of what some anonymous person has said to them over voice chat. I’ve heard of people quitting games that they love because the toxicity leveled at them has been too harsh for them to want to deal with anymore. I’ve seen streamers whose defense mechanism towards toxic comments is to be just as toxic in return, which only makes the situation worse. 

And I hesitate to put myself in the kinds of situations where I know I’ll be targeted for being an unskilled player, for being a woman, or even simply for being a team member on a losing team. As much as I want to practice and get better at playing the game, I’m not sure the potential damage to my mental health is worth it. 

I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in studying toxicity in video game communities. I really, really want to play games like Overwatch, and I want to have fun doing so. I want to be able to play with other people who are also having fun, and maybe even form connections with the humans behind the avatars. I’ve spent so much time actively avoiding playing online games because I’m afraid of what I’ll encounter from the other players. I’m sick of feeling like a fringe gamer. I feel that by studying the motivations behind toxic behavior and the effects of it on players, I can help others understand what the problems are. Maybe then game developers and other players can take some real steps towards making game communities more welcoming spaces for players like me to be in.

I still plan to keep playing Overwatch – but in small doses, and most likely with voice chat turned off. I haven’t played a single match since August, because school has been taking up all of my brainpower. Overwatch is a lot of things, but I do not find it to be a relaxing game. But winter break is on the horizon, and I find myself feeling cautiously optimistic about playing again.

The Disappointing Lack of Female Body Diversity in Overwatch

Overwatch is a multiplayer, online, team-based game, the primary mode of which pits one team of six players against another team of six with the goal of gaining control of a map. It’s currently one of my favorite games to watch and to play. The game is engaging, because every match is different. It’s easy to hop into, play for half an hour, and hop back out. It’s also easy to play for hours at a stretch. There are lots of tricks and techniques to learn, and lots of potential for mastery. There’s also a lot of potential for hilarity when the mastery part of it just doesn’t work out. I even find it a fun game to watch – I enjoy watching my partner play, I enjoy watching streamers play on Twitch, and I enjoy watching official esports league for the game, the Overwatch League.

What really drew me to the game at the start was the design. I enjoyed watching the game and learning about the characters well before I started playing it myself. The maps are gorgeously illustrated, with so many fun, hidden details and random corridors and rooms to explore. The gameplay is smooth, colorful, and engaging to watch. The UI is surprisingly elegant and simple, and tailored to each character’s abilities, which are each impressively unique. And the characters themselves are well designed: they are cartoonish, but not overly so. They each have their own distinct personalities, with voice lines and emotes to match. They are characters designed not only for the game, but for compelling media in general – video shorts, comics, etc.

The characters in Overwatch are geographically, ethnically, and socially diverse, in a number of important ways. About half of the current roster of characters (14 out of 30) are female, or present as female. They represent different countries and cultures – India, China, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, Egypt, Australia – with corresponding skin colors, clothing, accents, and languages to match. Some characters even represent people in social minorities, such as gay and lesbian (Soldier 76 and Tracer), autistic (Symmetra), PTSD (, Mei, Reinhardt), all of which are officially a part of their background stories, as governed by Blizzard (the game’s developer). There are elderly characters, well past their physical prime: Reinhardt, Ana, Soldier, Torbjorn. There are characters from impoverished backgrounds: Sombra, Baptiste, Lucio, probably a few more. There are even a number of characters with obvious physical disabilities: missing an eye (Ana), missing limbs (Junkrat, Torbjorn, McCree, Symmetra), or more serious damage requiring extensive cybernetic support (Genji, Reaper).

That’s a lot of diversity and representation to cram into one game. So much so that I feel almost (but not quite) guilty about pointing out one obvious deficiency in the design of the characters: believable female bodies. Among the male characters, there are plenty of obvious physical differences beyond skin color and age. There are the conventionally attractive heroes, like Hanzo, Baptiste, Lucio, and McCree. There are big, beefy, scarred, muscular characters, like Reinhardt and Doomfist. Torbjorn is short, chunky, and scarred. Junkrat is pointy-faced, thin, and wiry (and scarred). Roadhog is tall, fat, and hides his face. In fact, many of the male heroes hide their faces: Soldier, Reinhardt, Reaper, and Genji all also have masks which makes their facial features and expressions nearly or entirely impossible to discern. There are even two male characters who are not human: Winston and Hammond. Those that don’t hide their faces might be smiling, smirking, frowning, or straight-faced.

The only thing these men have in common are well-defined muscles.

And then there are the female characters. By and large, the female characters in Overwatch have attractive, smooth faces, not obscured by masks. They have few to no scars. They smile or smirk almost exclusively. And just about all them of seem to be size 0, with skinny waists and curvy hips and chests, which you can easily discern through their form-fitting clothing. They pose in painful-looking backbends, the better to show off their boobs and butts. Or they tilt their hips, to better show off their curves and legs.

And for some characters, it gets worse. I can’t look at Tracer running around the map without wondering how uncomfortable her pants must be, they’re so shoved up her buttcrack. I can’t look at Symmetra’s outfit without wondering if her legs get cold. I can’t see Widow without wondering how much double sided dress tape she had to use to keep her boobs from falling out of her extremely low cut catsuit. And do Mercy’s (and Symmetra’s and Widow’s) feet hurt after running through battle after battle in heels?

Blizzard removed this victory post from the game, but not the super obvious butt crack.
Zarya for the win.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Zarya in particular is represented as a tall, strong, muscular woman. According to the character’s background story, Zarya is a champion athlete, probably of the track and field variety. She is one of three female tanks in the game, and the only one who isn’t significantly supported by technology. She looks both physically strong and physically feminine. Interestingly, because she doesn’t fit the same mold as most of the other female characters, a number of players assume she is gay.

As a female gamer who enjoys the game, it’s demoralizing to me to see practicality and realism fall by the wayside in favor of making eye candy for the “ideal” player of the game, which is presumed to be only straight men. It’s disappointing to think that I could never be a hero in the Overwatch world unless I became anorexic, developed a penchant for uncomfortable, form-fitting clothing, and bowed to male society’s desire to see women “smile more.” I’m tired of feeling that female characters in games (and movies and TV and any other visual media) have to sell sex in order to seem strong. Blizzard, you did such a good job with so many other forms of diversity, so why couldn’t you put more effort into this part?

What’s the solution?

There are a number of things I think Blizzard could do to for both Overwatch and other present or future games to address this issue. First and foremost, don’t assume that all players are primarily interested in viewing female characters as sex objects and male characters as power fantasies. Characters in games often tend to be designed with the straight, male demographic in mind, and in particular, game developers assume that the people who play their games want to see sexy female characters. While some players certainly do, I would argue that players play Overwatch primarily for the gameplay. If you made the female characters less sexy and more realistic, I’m sure a number of male players would complain because Blizzard took away their eye candy. But would they stop playing as a result? Probably not.

Look at all those female fans! Photo from an article about Overwatch in the Washington Post

Secondly, get feedback on character designs from women and take it seriously. I’m making an assumption that the character designers and other people involved in design decisions at Blizzard are primarily men, because game development as a field contains way more men than women for a variety of reasons. If Blizzard did their due diligence, I’m sure they consulted people of various ethnicities when designing characters to represent different cultures around the world in order to avoid egregious stereotyping or any other faux pas that could cause offense. Obviously, Blizzard wants people around the world to play their games. But they seem to be ignoring the fact that half the world is composed of women, and that many women play and enjoy their games. The live audience for Overwatch League games often seems to be half women. So why not make an effort to include female voices in the design decisions so as not to potentially offend women like me who play the game?

Frankly, I am a bit offended that Blizzard seems to think I’m not worth the effort it would take to make how female characters look less offensive to me, and I imagine, many other players. That’s not to say I will stop playing Overwatch, or stop watching the Overwatch League. But making female characters look less sexy and more believable would make my gameplay experiences more positive. I sometimes play with my partner and his (male) friends, and it’s not uncommon for me to hear comments along the lines of “that new Mercy skin has nice boobs.” I’m told I should just ignore it, let it slide, because that’s “just how games are.” To that I say: that’s not how games have to be.