MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars have a long history of gender-based conflict and scholarship. There’s an abundance of early literature that talks about male players playing as female characters, and the various issues of appropriation and harassment they raised.  More recent dustups have focused on the armor of female PCs, and how realistic or unrealistic it is – the “chain mail bikini” problem.  (The photo, from Borderhouse Blog, depicts the same armor on a male and female WoW avatar.) 

Male and Female Night Elf in Pants

As I discussed a few weeks ago, healing classes have long been a standard part of MMO. The genre has pretty much been defined around an end game (the part of the game that starts when a player reaches the level cap) made up of dungeons that require teams of players to work together to complete them. Whether you’re talking about Rift, or Everquest 2, or WoW, the healer was a necessary part of the equation.

Like in any subculture with defined roles, there are, of course, stereotypes. And one that is particularly interesting to me is that women disproportionately play healers. (Sidenote: I have actually never played a healing class. Ever. Not sure what that says about me.)

Even if you don’t subscribe to “women play healers”, there are a variety of other associated stereotypes. Perhaps that women are better suited to healing and other support classes, based on their socialization. Of course, there are numerous counter-examples, as discussed in the thread linked to above, but it does seem to come up again and again.

There’s an excellent paper by some of my favorite Virtual World researchers that sheds a little bit of light on the “women play healers” stereotype. It’s called “Do Men Heal More When in Drag? Conflicting Identity Cues Between User and Avatar” by Nick Yee, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Mike Yao and Les Nelson. Putting aside the slightly problematic notion that men who play female avatars are “in drag”, what the authors found is super interesting.

First – there are game specific differences between the number of players who “genderbend.” From the paper, “For example, the EQ2 study found that 17.4% of men genderbended, whereas in the WoW sample, 53.3% of men genderbended.” Like the authors, I’m sure there’s some confounding factor here – perhaps the number of alts (alternative characters) allowed in each game? Or the ease of creating additional characters? 

The way that healing behavior is defined for the purpose of the study is a ratio of damage done to hit points (HP) healed.  From the paper, “Thus, the ratio focuses more directly on the concept of preference—how does the player allocate between healing and dealing damage on a particular character?”

Yee et al say, “While WoW players share a strong stereotype of women preferring to heal, our findings show that this stereotype isn’t true. We did not find a significant difference in terms of player gender. What we did find was that players enact this stereotype when gender-bending. Thus, the stereotype becomes true in the VW—female characters heal more than male characters.”

So first of all, it is not true that women are disproportionately more likely to play healers than men, at least in the population studied for this paper. Good to keep in mind for future online flame wars. However, Yee et al draw some broader conclusions from the study - that players are likely to perform the stereotypes of the gender that they are playing as. They discuss this in the context of confirming the  “Proteus Effect,“  a term for the phenomena of one’s behavior conforming to a digital persona.

However, I think that this conclusion understates the potential of the stereotype to be performed in two directions – first, that players who play as female heal more, but secondly and more importantly, players who are going to heal more play as female.  

In my experience, most players start new characters with a specific intention in mind – they don’t just end up healing a lot and then become a healer. Even though WoW has a number of classes that can serve as healers, it seems likely that players are making a healer/DPS/tank choice at the same time they choose their gender. Therefore, male players are able to make a choice for their character to be female if their intention is to play a healer.

There’s a particularly telling blog comment on a blog post about female character clothing and MMO practices. “The one time I made a healer in an MMO, I made it a female (I’m male). Partially because I’d been wanting to create a female character and healer seemed the best fit.”

So perhaps the right question is not “Do Men Heal More in Drag?” but “Do Men Put On Drag to Heal?”