Tuesday, October 08, 2013

An Alternate Explanation for Gender Bias in Healing and Tanking

Milady at Hypercritism has an interesting post on The Politics of Tanking and Healing. Milady notes that women are more likely to be healers than tanks and feels that this is due to traditional gender roles:
In our social setting, many women see the role of healer as natural, appropriate, expected. And men are equally conditioned as wanting to fill the role of the protector as well as the leading actor.
This is quite possibly true. In fact, among Asian WoW players, the gender differences are even starker, perhaps reflecting a society where the traditional gender roles are stronger.

However, I'd like to propose an alternate explanation. Note that Milady does not consider the DPS classes. But there is a gender divide in the DPS classes. Female players are more likely to play ranged dps classes such as warlocks, mages, shadow priests, etc. than melee classes like rogues and warriors.

If you add the ranged/melee split to the tank/healer split, I think there's a stronger factor present than gender roles: range.  Healers and ranged dps operate at a distance from the enemy, while tanks and melee dps have to get up close.

So why choose stay at range? One possible explanation is risk-aversion. As a group, women are normally more risk-averse than men. So it makes sense that female players would gravitate to the classes that can stay away from the enemy the longest. Even healers fit into this scenario better. If you want to avoid dying, what's better than a class which can restore health?

Sadly, we don't really have access to good data that identifies the gender of the player. There are some interesting questions that we could look at. For example, among female DPS shaman, what proportion plays Enhancement (melee) as opposed to Elemental (range)? The same question could be asked for Druids: Feral or Boomkin?

What about Monk healers? Do female Mistweavers "fistweave" or do they heal in the traditional style?  Are women who tank more likely to tank on their second character, once they have a better handle on the game and the risks involved?

If we just looked at the healers, is the proportion of female paladins higher or lower than the norm for the other classes? Perhaps risk-aversion thesis should predict lower paladins, because paladins are traditionally melee. Though I suppose this is countered by the whole hard-to-kill vibe with the bubble and plate armor. I'm not entirely sure if a risk-averse person would be attracted to paladins or not. Plus, we'd have to account for the general awesomeness of paladins.

In any case, either theory might be true. Women and men might be responding the social pressures corresponding to traditional gender roles. Or women may be attracted to classes which appear to be less risky and more likely to survive. Or maybe both theories are in play, with different individuals having different motivations.

However, I prefer the risk-aversion theory over traditional gender roles because it also explains the bias in DPS class choice, and not just the tank/healer split.


  1. Interesting idea. I know when I played SWG and decided to make an alt to be a harvester for my main that I went with a female toon and worked up the Teras Kasi (unarmed martial arts) skill lines becuz it went against type. In that game, most female toons were either entertainers, doctors, or yeah, ranged dps.

    Moving on to EQ2, the 1st female character I made as intended to be a healer, but since then you went "L1 Commoner, L3 Archetype, L10 Class, L20 Subclass" I changed my mind between level 1 and 3 and decided to go the tanking route. And then betreayed the high elf to Freeport and became a Shadowknight to boot. Female, melee, evil, death magic user. Yeah, it satisfied my "breaking the mold" desire and for months I was 1 of only 2 female SK's on my server, and the other one didn't play much. . . .

    Of course in EQ2 as my stable of alts expanded... my female toons tended to be healers and ranged mages, now that you mention it, while I had 1 male healer, the other males were ogres and barbarians -- monk and berserker, so yeah... more along your lines of risk aversion. Not wholly, my male healer was a fury, so he was the "wizard wannabe healer" for a long time, and I do have a male ogre wizard too, but again.... made that toon to break stereotype both with an ogre being a wizard, but a male ogre to boot. And my Sarnak mystic is spec'd melee, so even though he's also a healer, he's still "large race, melee toon."

    I didn't realize I was thinking along those lines when I made them. Interesting to me to look back on it now and go "oh yeah, that makes sense as to why I did that."

  2. I'll suggest a different spin: confidence. My main reason (speaking as a woman) initially in picking a ranged class was my ability to grasp what was being asked of me. As I have become more confident, I've taken melee classes and now I am confortable than I ever was regardless of distance.

    The reason I won't tank? I find it technically too stressful, whereas I consider healing easier, because I can choose who lives and dies based on their ability to avoid damage.

    I should probably bite the bullet and roll a tank.

  3. I don't think it's one single factor.

    Men prefer to active aggressive dominate their group, hence tanks.
    Women prefer to passive aggressive dominate their group, hence healer.


    Transmogrification showed that a lot of player care about the way their character looks. And you've probably heard the reasoning why men play female characters: because they prefer to look at the butt of a female character. The way your character looks is important to a lot of player of both genders and healer can use all four armor classes while tank have only access to two.

    Maybe women don't like plate gear and prefer cloth.


    The tanks are all of the "barbarian tank style". There is little difference on how they play. The DD have a lot more different play styles. A rogue plays vastly different then a mage.

    That's why they should add a different kind of tank. Warlock tanks would have been way more useful to the game then monk tanks because the game lacks a "caster play style" tank option.

    Maybe women prefer to wield magic instead of big swords.


    Tanks always get the blame for everything. Healer get blamed less often (and if they do in LFR often only as a group but not as an individual.). In a game like WoW which, more or less, forces you to run content with random people, that's a big disadvantage of the tank classes.

    Maybe women are smart enough to not let a game abuse them as punching bag for immature randoms.

  4. @Kring, I think most of the explanations don't explain why women prefer ranged classes over melee. "Women prefer magic over big swords" does, but it doesn't explain hunters (archers, rangers etc.) who are, in my experience, at least as popular among women as wizards or priests.

  5. Hmmm stupid question maybe, but is there any hard data on the gender/character stuff? I mean, it's not like we're making this up just because it fits our (deformed) expectations, right?
    For example, when I look at my guild, it doesn't really follow those rules very strictly......

  6. I am male, and my likes and dislikes are following:

    - I prefer tanking and healing to dps because in these roles I don't have to be super-efficient cooldown-stacking button-masher. Tanks enjoy feeling of control and healers get to react to ever-changing health situation while dps sadly have to perfect their execution to theoretical maximum.

    - If I do dps, I prefer ranged role for better view and understanding what is going on. I like to see the whole picture (which is probably why I can't concentrate all my attention on dps matters like cooldowns, rotation and efficient movement).

  7. I'll admit, I've always loved ranged. Ranged classes have always seemed more... elegant? I can spread out, have my own space and not have to deal with the chaos that is melee range. I remember learning about cleaves and dragon breath and being SO VERY GLAD to be way the hell out there at range.

    I still dislike melee classes, but over the years, I eventually learned how to tank (with varying degrees of success) on a paladin, a druid and a warrior. I didn't always enjoy tanking, but I could do it well enough to get the job done. (Heroic Black Morass in BC, Heroic Halls of Reflection in Wrath, for example.)

    I like the view. I love being 40 yards back. I've occasionally referred to this as me being "a wuss", but it's not really that. It's just a dislike of the barely-organized chaos in melee.

    I'm not sure any of it has to do with me being a woman, but when I look at some of my most successful raid groups...

    WotLK ICC 25m meta: 3 women: 2 healers and a hunter

    Cata Heroic 25m Dragon Soul clear: 8 women: 7 healers and 1 ranged

    Interesting stuff to ponder.

  8. Why not apply both theories to supplement one another?

    Societal forces do not act in isolation. Several different factors combine to apply force in one direction or another, and often in several at the same time.

    I do not think that it is the case that women are more risk-averse than men. What might be the case is that the gaming environment is perceived as more hostile to women, and thus as a woman you might feel safer not putting yourself in a leading position, whereas as a man you will not feel the same pressure because you are not subject to the hostility of being a female player. (Plus add to this the 'natural', 'expected' and 'appropriate' roles according to gender, which are a force in their own right.)

    The hostility is more or less poignant depending on the medium or genre of the game: co-op FPS games tend to be more toxic to women than MMOs because the former have a lower female population and are inhabited by sexist wights in a larger percentage than MMOs. Women are more prevalent in MMOs these days, and that might lead to an accommodation of different, more 'risky' roles when the initial reluctance, produced by the said perceived hostility of gaming environments, disappears.

  9. I'm with Godmother. I think it is confidence and comfort with video games. I think men are more likely to have grown up with video games, and having lots of elements "in your face" at close range has a psychological element that requires a good deal of confidence and comfort to deal with.

    A lot of the women playing are playing their first serious video game, or have only played MMORPGS. In that instance, having that psychological distance is a comfort.

  10. I'm not really sure on this sort of analysis without much better source data. However, even if you do go for the X-Y answer, why wouldn't women tank more? Every society is full of Mother Bear stories and what's a guild other than an extended family?

    Personally, as a male gamer I started with ranged, moved to healing, then to melee, and finally to tanking. I normally prefer to be the tank or healer, but that's mostly because those roles have the sort of intricacy I prefer. Like souldrinker, I'd rather not be judged on my ability to do a DPS rotation to factory standards.

  11. @Helistar, the best source of data for this stuff is Nick Yee's work, and the PARC PlayOn group from a few years back. Unfortunately, their blog and their work seems to have disappeared from the Internet.

  12. @Milady

    I do not think that it is the case that women are more risk-averse than men.

    The research is fairly strong on this point. There is some question as to if it is a learned behavior or natural. See:


    Besides, haven't you heard ideas like "if women were in charge, the financial crisis wouldn't have happened"? The basis behind those thoughts is the risk-averseness of women.

    Of course, it's just the group average. Some men (like me) are very risk-averse. I would expect these men to gravitate towards healers and range as well.

  13. @Milady: You took the thoughts from my mind. You're good at that.

    I think both theories are true and are reinforcing. I think it's not so much aversion (though I agree that may be a component) but if it is, it's because of social expectations. Women are expected to be more risk averse/shy/unconfident even though it's not true.

  14. I think it's due to a mix of factors, most of which other commentators have already named, but I also wonder if the depictions by Blizzard have had an impact. Most of the important female NPCs have historically been "ranged" (Jaina, Sylvannas, Aggra) while the male ones tend towards melee roles (Garrosh, Varian, even Thrall acts more melee than ranged). The art also often has male characters in plate, female ones in lighter armor. I wonder if this primes people to that style of thinking.

  15. I started my gameplay as a ranged dps, at the time swearing I'd never tank or heal.

    When my husband couldn't keep a steady and reliable offtank and I was becoming quite dissatisfied with my warlock, it seemed only natural to step in and become his cotank.

    I have enjoyed bringing our teamwork into play in our raid and it's about the only thing that makes tanking LFRs tolerable.

    As for risk aversion? I dunno. I've actually had it commented that as tanks we're not afraid of dying. We don't pull stupidly but aren't afraid of a wipe either.

    I do find it interesting that people usually assume I'm a guy. Just last week they were asking if we needed more tanks on a Celestial boss and someone said "We have Askevar, he's an awesome tank." Gave both myself and a friend a giggle. But yeah I'm used to "He, Dude, Man, Bro". And usually it's not worth bothering to correct nowadays.

    I think our entire raid defies the "Norm" just about... we have three couples - Myself and the hubby as tanks and then two other couples with the guys healing and the gals both happening to be hunters. [I count 11 people as in our raid due to having an alternate].

    The rest of the raid includes another healer who happens to be a guy; 3 more ranged dps [spriest and shaman and hunter] who are also guys.

    But then again, I'm not sure what normal is... Anyway, my random thoughts.

  16. @Rohan, I wasn't able to find the particular study that said women preferred ranged classes while men preferred multiple role classes ("hybrids") but there's a study with gender ratio per class:
    (Although there is another study which said women preferred hybrid classes...)

  17. I play...what I enjoy playing.

    Sometimes it's the feel of the class/role. I feel more 'in control' as a healer or ranged DPS. I am back from the action with a good view.

    As melee I have less time to react/am so focused on what I'm doing with a smaller field of view that I don't notice things going south. I have played and enjoyed melee, but always later in my 'career' with a particular game when I have a solid grasp of it.

    I like feeling important (heals, tanks, support) but tanks are more in the public eye, so to speak, and the hate is quick to flow. Healers get this to a lesser degree, plus I always felt that it was far easier to handle stupid as heals/DPS than as a tank.

    All this together means I tend to favor support roles. I'm USEFUL, have options to control a situation/save myself, but am not in a starring role, so to speak.

    I have enjoyed pure DPS but given a chance I'll take a DPS with some other...useful trait.

    I think risk aversion and confidence could both be at play here, at least for me. Having options/a feeling of control = minimizing risk, and confidence = why I take up melee later, when I'm more sure of myself.

    I've always found melee more unforgiving, in WoW, Rift, and GW2 (especially GW2, oh god).

  18. There's also the fact that the games we're talking about are based on fantasy archetypes, and in fiction the "tanky" characters- heavily armored brawlers- don't tend to be female, they tend to be not only male but overtly masculine. I remember Nick Yee's data (I am VERY sad those archives aren't online any longer), and the most popular melee class for women was rogue- which is what you tend to see female characters in fantasy fiction as when they aren't wizards, archers, or clerics.

    Perhaps women players in fantasy games are simply mirroring the role of women in fantasy fiction.