Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Healers - It's a girl's world?

As is typical in the blogosphere universe, I draw inspiration upon the subjects of other great authors. This time, we'll go with one of my favorites, Larisa over at the Pink Pigtail Inn. Yesterday she posted a discussion about stereotypes, specifically the DPS as the children of a 5 man party (siblings competing with each other over the biggest toys), the tank as the father figure leading the family and protecting them from harm, and the healer as a mother figure. Larisa revolts against the fact that she has rerolled an alt druid and is loving the healer role because she thinks that's being stereotypical "girl gamer."

"Suddenly I find myself, a modern women, playing the traditional female healing role in an MMO. I’m standing in the back, a pretty night elf chick in a beautiful robe, dutifully renewing the HoTs, trying to keep everyone alive instead of boldly killing evil stuff. And it bugs me that I enjoy it so much. It bugs me a lot...Back in the early days, female gamers had to struggle quite a bit to get accepted and respected. But now there’s nothing unusual about us, we’re like other players. No more, no less, exactly how I want it to be."

So why exactly is this the case? Larisa and many commentors point out that anecdotal evidence shows very little female subscribers playing main character tanks or melee DPS while most of them have ranged DPS mains or healer mains. Three reasons jump out as an offshoot from Larisa's own discussion of the early days of gaming.

1. Women play healers because of who brought them in the game

Many female MMORPG players do not just stumble onto the game on their own. Indeed, most players get invited by friends to such a social game. In the case of girls, it's far more typical than not that these friends are boyfriends, husbands, etc. So the boyfriend/spouse has typically had to go it on his own, and guys like to feel self-sufficient so they will roll tanks and hard-hitting DPS classes. Anybody who's ever leveled a warrior knows that the best thing to ever happen is groruping with a healer to level, so when the new player inevitably asks advice for what class to start out with, the boyfriend/spouse will likely say healer for their own benefit. Then the happy couple can be a wrecking ball force in Azeroth together, which is how the game was meant to be played.

2. Women play healers because they are more willing to help where the guild needs it

This may be more on the psychological differences side, but it's also closely related to the previous point. When girls come into social groups or guilds in Warcraft, they want to feel needed and appreciated, perhaps trying to overcome the stereotype that girls gamers are bad. As the lifepsan of a guild goes on, it appears that what is always lacking is tanks and healers, depending on your specific guild and your specific server. Typically both are in short supply and you need more healers to raid than tanks, so recruiting guilds almost always are looking for healers even if they need something else. So a new guild member asks the guild master what they need and the guild master obviously says healers. The psychological aspect of this is that women seem to more willing than men to sacrifice their own enjoyment for the better of the group, and that fits right into rolling a healer for your guild. However you wish to prove the point, I guarantee this is another reason women play healers.

3. Women play healers because they are not stuck on the former stereotypes of clerics as weak

Even in a cultured modern household, boys are groomed to not be weak. So when they play games, they want to be super-strong like their role models or heroes. Lots of boys experience other kinds of games like RPG's where a typical group needs someone to be a cleric/healer. However, the cleric doesn't get to carry cool weapons or wear shiny armor, and despite being the primary reason the group survives a dungeon...the cleric is always the last character chosen or the "short straw" in a group of guys playing a game who want to avoid any weakness. That's just the sad truth about clerics/healers, so the boys growing up reinforce this stereotype of that role being weak and undesirable. Necessary, yes. But they don't want to do it. Girls don't grow up playing fantasy wargames and RPG's as much as boys, so they don't have any preconceived hang-ups about weaknesses of a class. Unlike a man, they don't come into the healing role typically with a negative outlook on it, which can spoil the game quickly.

Now Larisa also rightfully points out that the tank could be perceived just as well as the "mother bear" of the group, which is just as protective of the family as any father figure. However, she absolutely gets it dead wrong by saying there's no genetic reason for it. This leads me to two much more powerful reasons why I think there's truth in the stereotype.

"I refuse to believe there’s some genetic reason for it. After all, tanking doesn’t require any special physical abilities, such as real life strength. Basically WoW playing is the same for everyone. You push your buttons; you move your mouse and you click. The only difference is what kind of targets you have and what effects your spell have."

4. Women play healers because they like to nurture

Alright now we hit the heavy psychological stuff head-on. Before the fine women of Azeroth get into a frenzy or we throw anecdotal evidence against the wall to refute the point, consider this: have you ever been around a mother and her children? I've known a few women in my life who have had babies and all of them have one thing in common - they have a natural instinct that kicks in to nurture the child and protect it. This link is built over the months of pregnancy when a man really has little connection to the future child. By the time the baby comes out, the father is already a full year behind in nurturing and protecting the child, and this imbalance between the parents usually never equalizes. That's not to say both parents don't love the child equally, but the mother has a special bond that just naturally leads her to nurture. So it's a natural psychological fit for women, who are already wired with this nurturing disposition, to be comfortable in the most nurturing role in the game, that being healers (or tanks, but see the next point).

5. Women play healers because their brains are indeed wired better for the task

Now the previous point about nurturing actually supports the "mother bear" idea and being a tank as much as a healer. However, there's another genetic difference that swings the balance towards healers instead of tanks. A woman's brain has been scientifically proven to be better suited to multitasking. ( This has to do with the amount of testosterone flowing through the body, which is proven to lead one to be focused on a single goal, as well as blood flow in the brain, which is more active in more regions of the female brain when given multiple tasks to do than the male brain. This translates to World of Warcraft because a DPS is focused on their rotations, only targeting one or AoE'ing a group at a time; a tank is focused on doing enough taunts and damage to the group of mobs to keep aggro; a healer is typically tasked with decursing/cleansing as well as keeping the life bars of 9 or 24 other people full. This requires fast thinking and multitasking as you manage that renew and power word shield on the tank while nabbing circle of healing every cooldown and targeting the appropriate group with prayer of healing. There's a lot of things going on at once, and you have to be able to multitask to succeed at the challenging role of healer. Consequently, as the female brain is proven to be better at multitasking, women will gravitate to that role more than men.

So there's at least five reasons why the stereotype that "girls play healers" has a lot of truth to it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it though, as every person brings their skill set to the keyboard to do what they do best. That's how the biggest corporate managers make millions in bonuses, it's all in allocating your personnel so that they are most useful to the company. In Azeroth, this means more women with subscriptions with gravitate towards healing because it makes the raid or guild more successful. That makes everyone happy.

Oh and one final note...

"After all, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're gay because you're a male healer... :)"

I'm anecdotal proof positive that you can be a guy who heals and is not gay. At least I think. :-)


  1. Cheers Fitz! I'll ponder a bit on this and may come back at it, although I'm pretty much reluctant to go too deeply into a debate about brain differences... If I differ from the "norm", does it make me a non-woman, in spite of obviously giving birth to two kids...
    I suspect there may be other scientific articles pointing in another direction as well... But I suppose I'm too much of a slacker to check it out thoroughly. Anyway I don't think we disagree all that much.

    And by the way: I adore the pink theme on your page... You've clearly got some self distance and are confident enough in your masculinity not to fall for the cliches. Which is something I find very handsome!

    Don't you just HATE when they dress boys in blue and girls in pink? There's no reason for it whatsoever that makes sense to me.

  2. @Larisa - No doubt, having an infant myself it's so annoying when we dress her in normal colors and people just assume boy because it's not a dress and it's not pink.

    It's like statistics, you can almost always find a scientist say what you want them to say, if there's money backing the research. In this case, I do think the stereotypes have a bit of truth to them though, and there will always be tons of outliers because we are all very unique.

    My main point...don't feel bad for enjoying healing! If the stereotypes bother you then dash them from your thoughts!

  3. This would be why I play all my toons as female. And I mean all, my dps hunter, all 4 classes of healer, 1 hordie Belf, (cause I like pallies), and a level 1 mage bank alt. Although I have thought about going with a handlebarred gnome male. Fear the stache. I digress.
    I love healing, so if that makes people more comfortable and gets me an invite into a pug cause people think I am a girl, and therefore a better healer. I don't care. It really bursts the bubble though when I talk in Vent. Naxx group called me Johnny Cash. They were in stitches when I said, "I'm Johnny Cash." We cleared it though, and that is what matters to me.

  4. I'm Johnny Cash - I love it! I probably would be laughing too as a fan of the real "Man in Black."

    Thanks for dropping by, and we'll see you around these part hopefully.

  5. I tracked back to your and Larisa's post with all the controversy over at worldofmatticus. All this thought has led me to evaluate my own stereotypes. Thanks, I decided to come out in my latest blog post.