Tanks come from Mars, Healers come from Venus?

Tanks and healers are the two character roles in MMORPGs that don’t really exist in single player games. When it’s just one character against the world, you have to survive the damage, kill the baddies, open the locked doors, solve the puzzles and save the world all by yourself. But in these multiplayer games, you have the option to specialise in a supporting role to better benefit the group.

Even though they are both support-type roles, players have the idea that tanks are more likely to be played by men and healers/support are more likely to be played by women. I wanted to look at whether or not this was true and why people made this assumption, so I started at the motherlode of MMORPG population surveys, Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project. And most importantly, is it likely to be true in Warhammer too or are there other factors in play?

Are there more female healer characters?

There’s no real survey information on this. But my experience is that even male players who usually play male characters may select a female character for their healer. The healing role is associated with feminine characteristics — sits out of the action with a nuturing/supporting role, is often fragile, is looked after by tougher members of the group, wears a robe.

The surveys do show that many people transfer real life assumptions and stereotypes about gender into MMORPGS (eg. treating female toons differently to male toons). And especially for players who project themselves into their online avatars, picking a female toon for a more feminine role might be a natural choice. For the same reason, a lot of people do assume that most women play healers. Even if it isn’t true, healers are associated with the female role.

Actually, tanks are also associated with the male role. Heavily armoured, fighting off monsters, protecting the weaker party members and often taking leadership roles all fit in with a stereotypical male image.

Enough about the characters, what about players?

As part of a general demographics survey, Nick Yee asked players if they would prefer to have healing or damage spells, given the choice. From the link, you’ll see that he’s broken the results down by age and gender. Over all agegroups, women preferred the healing spells and the older respondents of both genders tended more towards healing than younger ones.

He also ran a survey about which players prefer hybrids and which prefer more specialised classes. Again, he found that women and older players preferred the hybrid role. (He doesn’t really define hybrid in any detailed way.) Of course, the players who preferred specialist roles could prefer specialist healers, and not all of the hybrids will be healing. But in the main, hybrids have tended to have some healing ability.

Healers also tend to sit back and take less of a leadership role, how about that?

OK, this is just my assumption. You certainly can lead a group or a raid from a healer, I have in the past, but as a general role it tends to be more reactive than proactive. You wait for people to get hurt and then heal them. You wait for other people to pull and then react. You sit at the back and watch what everyone else is doing, then decide how to best support them.

Nick Yee has an interesting survey where he first asks people if they like leadership roles and then asks if they are guild leaders. What he actually found was that men were more likely to prefer leading but women were proportionately just as likely to be guild leaders. Again, on my experience, being a guild leader is often as much about social and management skills as pure leadership. But what the survey does show is that women are less likely to take the lead when thrown into a group situation (or at least, less likely to claim to enjoy it). This would nudge them away from tanks and towards support classes.

The benefits for social players of playing a healer

Relmstein wrote a great article a few years back about why fewer people play healers. But the rarity of healers and the need for them also makes them a great choice for social players. I know that in WoW I had a very different experience of the game when I was playing a priest. I had invitations for every instance and raid I ever wanted to attend. I never had to look around for a group (this was pre-TBC), they called me! As someone who is primarily social, this was great! Because of the social side, I loved my healer.

Women, who tend to be more sociable, are drawn to healers for these social benefits.

Playing with a partner

From survey results, 60% of women play MMORPGs with a romantic partner. That’s a lot of people. Although some of them, like me, will have persuaded their boyfriends and husbands to play with them, the majority will have been persuaded by their menfolk. When this happens, it tends to be that the person who knows the game better picks their own class first and suggests a good support class to the other one. Since men don’t tend to prefer healing, there’s a good chance that for a lot of these women, the first class suggested to them will have been a healer.

So … you’re saying that women do tend to play healers then?

Well yes. Based on the surveys, more women do tend to prefer healers. But it probably isn’t by as large an amount as people normally assume. Older players of both gender are drawn to hybrids and to healers as well. People also assume without asking that female healing characters are played by female players.

Is Warhammer going to be different?

It could be different and here are a few reasons:

Many of the healing classes are designed to be dealing damage also. You don’t have to choose between one or the other.

Healers may not be in short supply, based on the WHA class survey. If that’s the case, social players may not be nudged towards them so much.

Player base is tending older and more female. More women are playing MMORPGs these days and warhammer may not be their first game. Older players also like to heal and play hybrid classes, and they are not all women.


4 Responses

  1. I guess I’m one of those ‘older’ players who enjoys playing a male healer …

    In any case, thought provoking article. I’d never thought much about it before, but I’ve known a lot of tank/healer duos who have been played by romantic partners in real-life … and I was surprised to find that I can’t think of single one where the healer was played by the husband (or boyfriend).

  2. I can’t imagine my husband tanking, he’s a bit of a dps freak, but that usually means that when duoing he takes the tank role while I heal 🙂

  3. My guess about older players is that they tend to prefer more strategic roles/games and support in MMORPGs does tend to be more strategic (who should I heal next, etc?).

    But I don’t have any survey results to support that 🙂

  4. Interesting, my first character in wow was a female healer, because I liked finding a group easily and the social interaction. At end-game I turned into a dps spec since I was more into pvp and haven’t looked back since….. Although I would still try a healer class in pvp

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