Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What's So Wrong with Being the Healer?

Today an interesting conversation came up in my Twitter feed.  It echoed a conversation I had with one of my daughters yesterday, about the role of gender and the celebration of fighting over more peaceful activities.  With my daughter, we discussed girl cartoons vs boy cartoons.

Specifically, Jem, who uses science and technology to create music, vs. the Transformers, who use science and technology to cause devastating explosions.  Even though my daughter is female, she thought the girl-shows were lame.  Shooting things was much, much better.

The Twitter conversation was about gaming, specifically related to today's release of Diablo III.
Oestrus is a woman.  For those who might not automatically guess, this statement is potentially controversial in a gender-politics kind of way.  Why?  Because stereotypically, women are healers in games.  Moreover, this reflects real life, in which women are healers, nurturers, and in general, sissies.  (The word "sissy" was invented to describe what weak little girls women can be.  Men can be unflatteringly accused of being in this state.)

One could easily imagine a man mocking a female gamer by making the above statement in a highpiched voice.  "And then my girlfriend was all like, 'Are there healer thingies?  Can I follow you around and heal all the things?  PLEASE?' and I was all line, no ho, get back in the kitchen!" (Cue bass laughter.)

I didn't see the original post first.  I saw the reaction:
This is an understandable response.  i.e. stop acting the stereotype, because you're going to prove what men have been saying about us all along!

This kind of thinking makes a few assumptions that bother me.  It assumes that being a healer is undesirable.

There are simulations of living things flying around on the screen and the healer is not helping them to die.  You're just going around making injured people feel better, and that is not very respectable.

There is a kernel of fundamental sexism rooted in this assumption, so deeply, that most people, even women, miss it.  It is such a basic part of our mental reality that we take it for granted.  The male paradigm of what is important, and what is not, is so accepted as truth that we will not question it.

The question should be: What's so bad about healing?

We assume it's weak.  We assume it is not very hard.  We assume it requires no skill.  We assume it doesn't help anyone win the game.

Yet none of this is true.  In most serious MMORPGs, there are basically three roles (sometimes broken into sub-roles):
  • Tank: Takes damage and keeps mobs (monsters) from attacking other players.
  • DPS: Deals massive damage.  Can be ranged or melee.
  • Healer.  Heals people and buffs them (makes them stronger).
Anyone who has seriously played an MMORPG actually knows, deep down inside, that healing is essential.  It is a difficult skill to master.  A poor healer will cause a party to wipe far more often than a poor damage class or tanking class.  The tank's primary job, actually, is to keep the healer alive.

A good healer can often make up for poor performance on the part of any other class.  Our team is not doing enough damage?  That's okay.  I will keep you alive long enough to kill it.  It just means the fight takes longer, but we will live through it.

A healer in PvP (Player vs. Player, considered some of the most hardcore gaming on MMOs) is golden.  A team with good healers will beat a team with no healers or bad healers any day.

I rarely play a healer.  I rarely feel up to muster.  I know that the tank (who usually leads parties) will chew my hide if I fail as a healer.  Healers get yelled at.  Healers hold the life of the party in their hands.

My lovely girlfriend?  She is happy to take on this enormous responsibility, and I respect her for that.  And she is good at it.  And every time there are open calls for raid parties or in PvP queues, she is first in line.  All healers are.  Because there aren't enough of them to go around.

Maybe there aren't enough of them because the role is downplayed.  Because it's sissy.  That's a character only girls play.  Or the larger picture: The role of healing in our entire society is downplayed.  Who cares about healing when we can build stuff, or better yet, kill things?

So a lot of men don't want to play healers.  And a lot of women trying very hard not to seem like women don't want to play healers.  (I didn't want to give this video airplay by linking, but it is appropriate.)  What we end up with is a shortage of healers.  It should be obvious to everyone how necessary they are, when a party can't even do a raid without them.

Another gaming analogy went around today.  John Scalzi wrote about how being a white male is like playing an MMO on easy, while everyone else has to play on hard.  Games simulate life, and so it only makes sense to bring the metaphors back to reality.  What can we learn about real life from looking at how healers are perceived?

Think about our healing classes in real life: Teachers, nurses, mothers, day care providers, HR managers, psychologists, massage therapists, social workers.

Unless you're lying to yourself, or an alien, your idea of these careers evokes a reaction in you: One Big Giant "Meh!"  Who wants to do any of these things?  Compared to rocket scientist or police officer or lawyer or airline pilot, no one does.  They are weak roles, anyone can do them.  They are boring, at best necessary evils - the kids must be taught, and someone has to clean up after sick people.  Only janitors show up lower on the totem pole, in terms of respected careers.

(Doctors are an exception, a respected healing class.  Perhaps that is because it is still not a female-dominated career.  Many of the above listed careers more respected back when they were male-dominated.)

Is the problem that women act in nurturing ways?  Take nurturing jobs?  Are we too eager to be healers?

Or is the problem that we accept the sexist undervaluing of these roles?

Rearing children is amazingly cool.  It is difficult.  It requires skill, and it helps society win the game.

Psychology is awesome.  It fixes people's brains.  It makes people happy.  It is difficult.  It takes a lot of skill, and helps society win.

Social workers help lift people up, keep people going through hard times.  It is difficult.  It helps society win.

Admin assistants (aka secretaries) are awesome.  Like healers in MMOs, they juggle a thousand different things, run all over the place, get it all done in time, and get yelled at if they let anyone fall down.  It is difficult.  They help a company win.

We could "stop acting the stereotype", but that won't lift the oppression.  If we are reacting against the gender roles by stepping into male shoes, we validate the existence of those roles.  We continue to perpetuate them and allow them to oppress us.

If women are avoiding acting the stereotype so we can be "free" of oppression, then we're no more free than we were barefoot and pregnant.  Sure, it will lift oppression for women who would rather work in male-dominated fields (as I once did in IT, and arguably, still do as a writer).  It will help women who want to be successful tanks and damage-dealers.  And that's great.

But it won't help those people, both women and men, who want to be healers.

What we need to do is not question the stereotype, but question the value placed on the stereotype.  What's so wrong with choosing to be a mother, if that choice is available to you?  What is so wrong with being a nurse or an HR manager?  What is wrong with being a healer?

Women should be able to play whatever character we want.

This goes past gender politics.  This goes to the bedrock of some of the ills of society.  This world is in need of good healers.  Humanity needs more people (men and women) competently doing very difficult and valuable jobs.  If we respected the results of good healing as much or more than we respect skillful damage-dealing, perhaps we'd have fewer lawsuits and wars, and more happy, healthy, functional people.

Gaming shows us it's possible to heal and be competitive.  It is possible to heal and help everyone else win.  It is possible to cooperate and win in a competitive way.  Let's learn from that.

We've been programmed to dis peaceniks (hippies and sissies, the lot of them), just as we laugh at healers.  In the long run, shifting our values could make for a better society, one in which it is valuable to heal and be healed.

If you are a healer, you are awesome.


  1. Heart is an awesome power!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Speaking of girl cartoons that suck
    have I mentioned how awesome My Little Pony is today?


    And Legend of Korra rules!

    1. Yeah, I've been meaning to watch MLP. Especially now that it's on Netflix. :)

  4. After spending years out of gaming I returned to gaming with MMORPGs but I've always been reluctant to play both tanks and healers because I didn't want to fail. I didn't want to do it wrong. I didn't want to be shouted at for screwing up. So my mains were both DPS, mage for PvE and rogue for PvP.

    Then not that long ago I finally levelled a tank. She's a gnome warrior just because its funny having a gnome warrior with pink hair as a tank. Not far behind is a priest healer. Playing them almost side by side gives me a better understanding in how each role affects the other.

    I've always had an appreciation of healers. After tanking I have more of one. After an instance I always make a point of both thanking the healer specifically and giving them an appreciative virtual hug.

    1. That's awesome. I think the same can be said of real life healers as well -- those who understand what goes into nurturing roles are often more appreciative of their support.

      In Diablo 3, the closest thing to a healing role is a Monk, which I always use when duoing with my fiance, Roland. Fortunately, Blizzard made THAT healing role super easy... At least, so far, in Normal mode. ;)

    2. I know guys that like to play healers. When I played DDO I ran a Bard that focused on healing/crowd control.

      One of my buddies insists on playing a healer, whether on TF2, any MMO or even in table top.

      I think that it is as you said, we as a society do not place enough value in our "support" role; why be a teacher and earn apprx. 30k a year when you could perhaps work for a corporation in marketing and earn substantially more? Why be a nurse when doctors are much more respected and rewarded?

      And if you can run, jump, throw or hit things why not just play sports?

      It's also interesting to see the backlash one generates in trying to defy any such stereotype.