“Girls only play healers!”

“Girls only play healers!”

The cause & effect of gaming's biggest stereotype

“Girls only play healers!” 

If you’ve played World of Warcraft (or any other class-based multiplayer game), you’ve likely heard some version of this refrain before. As with most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth to this long-held belief that female-identifying gamers only pick healers or support classes, but where does it come from? Does it color the role choices of newcomers, or change how women navigate online communities? I had the opportunity to speak with several prominent female WoW players about the origins of boxing women into one gaming archetype and the ways in which this tired stereotype has affected their experiences. 

More Than Just Healers

Just being a female gamer is a trial. Harassment, slurs, and sexism are commonplace in all kinds of online games. According to a 2018 study of UK-based female gamers, roughly one third of women surveyed were harassed or abused based on their gender. Of that 33%, 10% of respondents had been threatened with sexual assault.

Graph from Bryter, via

Identifying as a woman in these male-dominated spaces doesn’t just put a target on your back, but also settles heavy expectations on your shoulders. For women who play World of Warcraft, the harassment is obviously unacceptable but the stereotypes, while less infuriating, cause issues too. In particular, female players have grown frustrated with the frequent perception that “healing” is all they can do.

While many women enjoy support roles in games, many also wish to break out of the mold. Long-time WoW player and dedicated Survival Hunter main Swan, for example, enjoys playing as a damage dealer. But she’s noticed her choice of class and specialization has made joining Mythic+ groups more difficult. “At times yes, I do [feel] maybe if I were a healer, it would be much easier to get into groups if I’m outed [as] being a girl, because that’s the job that’s expected of me,” she said. 

Dotty, a devoted tank multiclasser in both Mythic raids and Mythic+, has focused on building her own inclusive communities where women can feel free to play any class they desire. Despite this, she still struggles with the negative perception of women as tanks and with navigating toxic communities just to be able to learn, improve, and play. “Being a woman in any male dominant space can lead to a lot of awkward interactions and can actively limit your progression,” she said. “I have left several tank-focused communities that I wasn’t personally comfortable in because of casual porn inclusion or use of derogatory language or slurs, and I’ve been in situations where my ability to receive feedback from more experienced players was hampered because they were more interested in my gender than providing useful information.” 

Women who conform to the support stereotype aren’t necessarily any safer than those who choose to play other roles, said Liquid Guild multi-class healer Emsy. “It's more the attitudes towards women playing in guilds that is a problem in WoW, rather than the stereotype itself, in my personal experience.” However, “the stereotype definitely opens up room for individuals to be sexist, whether you play healer or not.”

Broccoliz, a resto druid expert and leader of a Mythic raiding guild, said, “As soon as you group with people who realize you are a girl, the expectation is that you are going to be bad at the game (and any small mistake will be scrutinized more heavily than a man's mistake).” 

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the general “attitudes towards women'' that Emsy speaks about. Content creator and streamer Spawntaneous maintains a YouTube playlist, now 33 videos long, to document the treatment she receives when fellow gamers discover her gender. First-person shooter expert and professional content creator AnneMunition shared a three-minute video of the hateful and even violent reactions she received after making helpful callouts to her teammates in a multiplayer voice chat. 

In another telling example, Women in Games Argentina had three male Valorant pros use a voice modulator to speak in female voices to their teammates, with predictable results: when the players spoke with modulators, their teammates stopped cooperating and started harassing. After his games, one pro said, “I don’t even want to imagine having to live an experience like this every day.” These attitudes seep out beyond the screen and server, too. In 2022, World of Warcraft streamer Nalipls detailed her experiences being stalked, doxxed and harassed by a fan she met at Blizzcon. 

In the face of that pressure and harassment, the women who do stay in the community have to work harder to be heard and respected. Dotty said, “Before I created my own push group it was extremely common for pugs to talk over me, challenge or ignore my routing choices or calls, or spend time hitting on me rather than focusing on the game. I put a lot of undue pressure on myself to perform well and be a ‘good representative’ for women in gaming, which has limited the competitive games I’ve participated in because I struggle to accept playing casually.” 

For Broccoliz, it’s all just tiring. “It can be exhausting to have to humor someone's internalized and often unintentional sexism just to play the game,” she said.

This stress and pressure reinforces the stereotype that women are weaker gamers. Though a lot of men don’t realize it, reinforcing the stereotype is often the point — it’s all a way to position another group as “worse than” and deflect from the gaps in your own gameplay. The stereotype reinforces the idea that women should be limited to support roles, because they’re easier or less important. Given how exhausting it can be just to exist in the space as a woman, it’s no wonder that some female gamers just roll with it.

The stereotype pushes the other way too, making some players afraid to pick up a healer. Desperate to avoid any close associations with the overtly feminine, now-Mistweaver Monk expert and Wowhead guide writer June chose specifically to avoid support roles for many years. “In a roundabout way, the stereotype did affect my character choice,” she said. “Before I understood that I'm transgender, I made it a point to avoid anything I thought wasn't ‘manly’, as a way to prove my own masculinity. And, at the time, that included playing healing and support roles, since that was something classmates and family members had drilled into my head. Thankfully that's no longer the case.” 

A Stereotype Born From Gender Norms

Many players enjoy playing all sorts of roles within multiplayer games and it would make most sense that players pick their class based on playstyle and strategy, not gender, especially given how limiting these gender stereotypes can be for people of all gender identities. But then, the limited data we have shows that women really do tend to play healers and supports more often.

If the somewhat-limited data is anything to go on, female gamers tend to play healer or support roles slightly more than they do damage-dealer or tank roles. Dr Jarryd Willis, a professor at UC San Diego, conducted several surveys between 2021 and 2022 indicating women prefer healer roles above all other MMORPG roles, and were “significantly more likely to indicate playing healers than men.” What the data doesn’t tell us, though, is why women are more likely to play healers. How did this happen?

Data and graph from Dr. Jarryd Willis, via Medium.

Broccoliz believes it could come from societal gender norms. “I think that women are often expected to carry the emotional burdens and caretaker roles in real life in ways that test our strength and ability to balance a million things at once,” she said. 

Women have long been associated with nurturing roles and jobs: qualities that, at least on the surface, fit neatly into support and healer roles. Those associations feed into aesthetics too with supports (generally) being coded as feminine and damage-dealers and tanks as masculine. And in some ways, the domestic labor still expected of many women does parallel the job of a healer. Keeping all of your damage dealers alive really can feel like babysitting!

But there’s still more to it. Emsy suspects that the stereotype leans into the idea of women taking on those unwanted background roles, adding, “A lot of the support/healer roles in video games are often undesirable to play for the general population for whatever reason, which was definitely the case with the support role in LoL for example, and perhaps women fall into playing these roles because they're used to filling where needed for the group.” 

Swan saw it as an extension of the long-held idea that women are supposed to hold up and support men, not to take center-stage themselves. She said, “...maybe most cis men label women and gender minorities to be the ones who are caretakers underneath them.” 

June agreed and pushed it further. “The stereotype feels like it comes from the wild idea that women are meant to be these docile, supporting figures, doing all they can for the men ‘playing the real game,’ so to speak,” she said. “It's a stereotype meant to force us into an image others have built for us, instead of letting us be who we are. It's entirely outdated and should be thrown out!”

For Dotty, it also comes down to women joining the game later than men. “A lot of women aren’t socialized to participate in gaming early on….” Thus, selecting a more “background-coded” role like support can be appealing to women who are joining mainstream games for the first time.

That theory aligns with the marketing and economics of games, too. Even as late as 2004, video games were still marketed primarily towards boys and young men, with games for the emerging “non-traditional market” (meaning girls and young women) presented primarily as pink and cute and less competitive. While there is nothing wrong with these types of games, femme gamers who grew up with this gendered marketing likely had less access to games than their masc counterparts and came into the space with less experience and confidence. 

“Due to how underrepresented women are in video games in general,” Emsy concurred, “we lack the confidence to play some of the roles that are more aggressive and proactive such as duelists in Valorant or [carries] in LoL and tend to fall back into the more passive roles.”

Data and graph from Dr. Jarryd Willis, via Medium.

Female-identifying players may play a healer role more frequently, but even Dr. Willis’ surveys show that the majority of women play other classes or roles. Instead, the gender norms around the support role leads gamers, especially male gamers, to both notice female healers more often, and assume that silent support players are female without any firm evidence. Since women are often harassed with sexist remarks or their skills heavily judged when they reveal their gender, the stereotype could reinforce itself because those stereotypes and tacit assumptions aren’t challenged as often.

Paving The Way For Inclusive Communities

Stereotypes exist for a reason — many women enjoy support roles, and that’s a good thing! But women, like any group, are a multitude and want to be able to do more than one thing without judgment. That’s why it is important to break this stereotype down.

There is no surefire way of completely breaking stereotypes, but creating dialogue and encouraging acceptance of all kinds is a start. When your female-identifying friends choose to play tanks and dps, we should encourage them in making that choice. We should also acknowledge the intricacies and difficulties surrounding the support roles, because there’s very little truth to them being easier than other roles. As Broccoliz said, “I find healer to be one of the most difficult roles there is — you are expected to not only handle all mechanics of a fight the same as any other role, but also respond quickly to unpredictable mistakes and try to save the day for your team.”

For many women in WoW, the solution seems to be finding, or even building, inclusive communities of their own, sheltering them from the commonplace harassment most women face across games. Swan leaned on communities to help her find like-minded people to play with: “[It] hasn't really affected me long term because I found communities to help, and through that I was able to find people who will let me play with them.” 

The leaders of those spaces are looking out for their fellow gender minorities, too. “...I have been fortunate enough to surround myself with wonderful, inclusive communities that have treated me fairly and assessed on the basis of skill and personality vs preconceived notions,” Dotty said. “I’ve spent most of my time in WoW in leadership positions actively recruiting other women into my spaces, regardless of role.”

If there’s something uplifting to be gleaned from these experiences, it’s that there are communities built by and for gender minorities. Within these communities, female gamers can find some relief from that pressure to support or to heal, and open a world of different roles and opportunities. That’s obviously not as big a deal as eliminating gender-based harassment, but it does matter. In wider society, women are constantly hemmed into this role or that, pushed into being this way or that, and these WoW communities can be a reprieve from the constant societal pressure. Games can serve both as a healthy escape from the world and a way to grow within it. Shouldn’t games be a way for everyone, women included, to escape from the weight of gendered expectations?

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