In team games where support play is essential, the stigmatism towards actually playing support raises issues of socialized anti-feminine thought in our society, as a major psychological link exists between the expectation of physical and emotional support and nurturing as a fundamental aspect of socialized femininity and the feminization of the support role in multiplayer online gaming.
It begins with the stereotype of the female support main (to “main” a role or a hero means to play them exclusively), which inherently feminizes the support role through basic association, however it runs deeper.
To draw on my own personal experience as an example, although I feel a natural inclination towards playing support in games, the community and discourse that surround them distill an inherent feeling of inferiority within the support roles themselves, especially within female characters and those whose abilities focus primarily on support rather than an ability to attack.
A recent example may be found in Mercy, a healer support in Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch (2016).
Notably, not only must the player switch weapons (one of only two heroes with the ability to do so) in order to utilize a damage dealing ability, whereas every other hero’s primary weapon deals damage, but her kit specifically focuses on healing and support (damage boosting of other players) more than any other. More importantly, her kit features an auto-targeting beam that does not require the player to aim in order to use it, resulting in the devaluation of her playstyle as gaming culture relates good aim in FPS games to player prowess (because it corresponds directly to masculinized roles, like DPS). Accordingly, we see an abundance of discourse in game and in places like Twitch that involves the vilification of Mercy players, or Mercy mains, through relations to femininity and especially as a result of the distinction between Mercy, and DPS characters (heroes whose main job is to do damage).
Often this includes sexual insults (on the basis that patriarchal heteronormativity asserts dominance through the act of sex, and the power role of “fucking” as opposed to “being fucked”). The exchange below, for example, catalogs viewers’ responses to a Mercy player during a professional Overwatch player’s stream. (*Note: this is not meant to “call out” any of the streams used in the screenshots provided; streamers do not have complete control over their chat, cannot be held accountable for everything said in it, and these screenshots do not contextualize the streamers own opinions as they do not capture voice chat)
- pharbjorn: “Mercy players always sound so feminine…”
- yuureitv: “@pharbjorn that’s because they all like being submissive healers and taking a huge dick in their ass”
Many of these exchanges result from the prevalence of blaming support players for failures of the team, an act that may be found throughout the gaming community in other titles, however many result from the inherent relation between the (socialized hatred of) femininity of support stemming from both the act of supporting and the actual identities of support characters, or women gamers in general.
In a study of the feminization of the support role in League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009), for example, Dustin Radloff cites the disparity between the 15 female humanoid support champions available in League versus 5 male humanoid.
This is not to ignore the relationship between the masculine power dynamics of DPS roles and their resulting superiority over support. In order to accomplish basically anything in these games, the killing of the enemy team is essential.
Even within the support role, a distinction exists that highlights this disparity. For the male support characters of Overwatch, healing is a passive ability. They retain the ability to shoot simultaneously while they heal and both of their kits focus on offensive support rather than healing. While the female healers kits position healing as an active ability. In order to heal, they must relinquish the ability to deal damage, more specifically the capacity to defend themselves, and their kits focus primarily on healing.
This comes alongside (often substantiated) claims that support players gain less SR than their tank and DPS counterparts (competitive Overwatch functions on a skill rating system in which players receive a ranking up to 5000 points; each win then gains them points while each loss forfeits points). This is not to mention the plethora of support stereotypes in competitive gaming culture, including: boosted support mains (support players undeserving of their high rank, who only acquire it due to playing with a skilled DPS main), and the concept of pocketing (where a support plays exclusively to the benefit of one player, generally with the aim of that player then being able to carry the game).
Support play helps to keep DPS and Tanks alive, and often even helps them to kill the enemy team, but their inherent role is in support of the other roles. These power dynamics play into dominant concepts of a woman’s role in the family and in the household within the cult of domesticity, as well as women’s role in the workplace.
The domestic labor that occurs within the household in support of a husband and family mirrors that of the support work that assists DPS and the team as a whole. Not only in the act of support itself, but in the invalidation of supporting labor in a team (family) dynamic through the socialization of the idea that supporting work (domestic work) takes less skill than other labor, or is not work at all.
Accordingly, it is not a coincidence that the gaming community, especially with its male dominance (in terms of outward community presence, not actual player base) and rampant patriarchal values, as we see in phenomenon like the Gamergate controversy, for example.
Similar to the racialization of in-game labor in Nakamura’s “Don’t Hate the Player…”, the relation of the specific act of supporting, as well as the overall role of support, to femininity functions as a way to devalue that role by the association to anti-feminine sentiment and the depreciation of women’s labor in our society.
Ultimately, the gaming community vilifies female gamers for gaming, associates support play (a role which the vocal portion of the gaming community views as popular among women, regardless of reality) with femininity and women as a way to invalidate support labor and discredit female gamers, and these associations stem from the socialized hatred of femininity and invalidation/discreditation of women’s labor in our society.