Women who play video games can sometimes be saddled with a lot of assumptions. If she’s streaming on Twitch, it might be assumed that she’s a cam girl or a “fake gamer girl” who’s just doing it for the male attention or money. If she’s playing well, it could be assumed that she’s cheating. If she’s playing a team-based game, it’s often assumed that she will play a support hero or healer. Does this stereotype have any truth behind it, and if so, why is this the case?

There isn’t a lot of data about Overwatch specifically, so we’ll be using information centered around League of Legends, another popular team-based game. Though not the same genre as Overwatch (FPS vs MOBA), I believe that they’re similar enough to compare: they’re both team-based games that contain a dedicated support role and have large, international player bases. League has a long history of toxic interactions between players (regardless of gender), so there have been a lot of investigations and discussions around what causes harmful stereotypes within the community.

This article is a good overview of several of the stereotypes that plague women in competitive games. It mentions the support stereotype near the bottom and references several Reddit threads. Some of the reasons it provides are that some women began playing games with groups and the only role that was available was support, so they naturally played more support heroes than DPSes or tanks; it also states that confirmation bias may be in play, meaning that rather than seeing a pattern and creating the stereotype, we instead hear the stereotype first, causing our brains to be more likely to notice women who play support heroes than women who play other roles. This is all well and good, but is there any data to back it up? A few threads on r/LeagueofLegends may provide some insight.

The top comment on this thread references a study called “Stand by Your Man: An Examination of Gender Disparity in League of Legends.” Of the women surveyed for the study, the comment claimed that “73% of all female League players play with their romantic partner and usually it’s the partner who brought them into the game. In order to play together with your partner, Support is the obvious choice for someone who someone who is new to the game.” This does make some sense: if you’re just starting to learn a game, you want to play something that will help your partner, friend, etc., and a support hero is a good way to enable them. However, Overwatch was designed to incorporate easy-to-play characters in each category, which means that there are more choices for new players. Soldier: 76 is an easier DPS hero because he was designed to mimic the traditional FPS soldier; Reinhardt is an easier tank hero because even if you’re not great with his charge, you can act as a wall for your teammates to hide behind. If you don’t want to play support, there are other options, even for newbies.

This thread compares the women/support stereotype to the Heidi/Howard Experiment. In the experiment, an identical resume was given to two groups of people; the only difference was that one had the name “Howard” on it, while “Heidi” was written on the other. People perceived Howard to be “capable, ambitious and desirable to work with,” while Heidi was considered successful, but “more selfish and less desirable to work with.” This presents the idea that women are pressured out of playing flashy roles like DPS because it makes them seem selfish or too ambitious. Men don’t seem to be perceived the same way. While it’s an interesting social study, we have to remember that we only know a support player is female if we hear their voice, which could then lead us to make assumptions. There are likely plenty of men who play supports who just don’t use voice chat; similarly, there are surely female DPS or tank players who also don’t use voice chat. This links into the confirmation bias theory stated above: our sample is likely quite skewed and not representative of all players.

None of these threads address what I believe to be the elephant in the room: what women are “supposed to be.” In our media, we are told that women are supposed to be caring, sweet, and helpful. Women are supposed to help from the sidelines but stay out of the spotlight, lest they seem “unladylike.” Support heroes often exemplify this role (with the notable exception of Moira!); as such, we assume that women should play support because this matches up with an ideal for them that society has created. A heavily-downvoted troll on the Overwatch forums voiced this after a female gamer (also heavily downvoted) asked about the stereotype. While it’s clear that many on the forums don’t agree with him, I still believe that this idea may unconsciously play a part in our assumptions. Rather than telling a woman what she should be, we should encourage her what she wants to be, which includes playing whichever hero she wants.

So is the stereotype true? I don’t think that matters as much as the assumptions we harbor that cause these stereotypes to be created. The existence of a stereotype usually means that there is some truth to it, but much of it is our perception of a given issue rather than what’s really there. There likely isn’t a way to examine the data from the game, as I doubt Blizzard keeps statistics on male versus female players, so we may never have a straight answer. The best thing we can do at this point is encourage women to play any role that they want, which includes not accusing them of supporting a stereotype when they play support heroes. This would be an excellent way to use Overwatch’s endorsement and discipline systems: if you see someone berating a woman on voice or text chat for not picking a support hero (or, more rarely, for picking a support hero), report them! Likewise, endorse people who treat women with respect and support them when they pick a hero. This will teach the community that the formation and perpetuation of stereotypes is not something that should be supported.

So, ladies: play what you want!