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.