The Politics of Tanking and Healing
There is more to picking a role than choosing the playstyle that you enjoy the most. Different roles act in a different manner within a group setting; they are roles in the sense of ‘part played by a person in a particular social setting, influenced by his expectation of what is appropriate.’ There are two aspects to this issue that we can analyse in the context of cooperative play.
The group as a social setting: Your role is defined by the interplay with the roles of the rest of the team members, never by itself. A tank playing by himself does neither protect nor hold aggro. Thus we can understand our roles only within their interaction with other roles.
Influence of expectation and appropriateness: We will. mostly unconsciously, act in accordance with what we understand as expected or appropriate. For instance, you could define yourself and prefer playing as a dps, but may often find yourself changing roles to healer or tank upon seeing that there is a shortage of those roles and raids cannot be made. Or you could be planning a foray into a new MMO with a group of friends, all of whom are dps; you might think it more appropriate to roll a healer instead, and you might be expected because you had done so before. In Team Fortress 2, seeing that there are no other engineers setting up a defense at base you might change from your frontline role into the former (and decry that you're missing on the action). Your initial choice would have been different, but you were influenced by what was appropriate and good for the collective, or what was expected of you.
The tank and the healer:
Have you noticed how most couples, friends or romantic partners, tend to play together filling these two roles? That is because these two are interrelated much more closely than healer and dps or tank and dps. While dps roles work against the mobs, tank and healer work with or on one another, especially in the healer → tank direction. The tank will often protect the healer from aggro coming from extra adds, which will be attracted first by the healer for its healing than by the dps, but the focus of this interaction will be on the healer → tank direction rather than the other way around, since all of the attention of the healer will be focused on the tank per default. There is a reason why the expression ‘pocket healer’ was coined, while ‘pocket tank’ is unheard of. The healer, while simultaneously attending everybody around him, is basically driven about by the tank. Well, everybody is driven by the tank, but dps can, and often do, act in a more independent manner: they use crowd-control before the pull is started by the tank, and keep working on said CC during the fight; they sometimes get aggro and decide to finish the mob by themselves; they kite mobs around and with one another. They can fend for themselves. Now, what can a healer do by himself (unless engaging in dps-related actions like CCing)?
When you choose to play as a tank, you are not only asserting a gameplay choice of sword & board, you are claiming a position of leadership. According to Belghast, you are: a juggernaut, a defender, a general, and a mentor, among other things. On the other hand, when you play as a healer, you are assuming a position of essential but behind-the-lines, often invisible, support, since you cannot act on how the pull will be played or the mobs will be dealt with (gameplay-wise. Technically, you can act on this by marking targets, suggesting strategies, etc., but it is usually the tank who leads). I’m not suggesting that healers are secondary; on the contrary, they are indispensable. But, like dps, they are usually only noticed when they make a mistake. And, whereas the tank initiates and manages, the healer reacts and follows.
Doesn’t this arrangement remind you of traditional gender roles?
The role of the group or raid leader is usually taken up by the tank, but not necessarily. Before I started tanking, I was a healer and a raid leader. Tanks were the ones pulling, but only when I requested it: from that mixed perspective I did not feel as behind-the-scenes as I usually did before. By ‘behind the scenes’ I mean that feeling of essentially supporting the entire act while remaining unseen. This too reminds me of the preposterous claim that women held, or hold, some sort of universal power in secret, coercing men into doing sex in exchange of sex... It also reminds me of a more reasonable idea that many women are supporting their households in this way, being housewives and child-rearers, while the husband 'goes out there to eke out a living.' Like tank and healer, both are essential to the working of the party/household, but it is the tank/man who is seen as doing the work, while the healer's/woman's work remains unrecognised.
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.
When I reversed roles and became a tank, I was constantly anxious. Not only because I felt that, in some way, it was unexpected and inappropriate (and, mind you, these were my personal feelings, I don’t mean to represent every female gamer), but also because the role of the tank moves you from the rear to the front of the action, under the spotlight, and subject to the most criticism. Healers are also very often criticised, but they are subject to this somewhat arbitrarily. Not being at the centre of the action, healers are criticised often from a position of ignorance: the tank or dps that complains usually hasn't been paying attention to what the healer was doing at all; they criticise by default. On the other hand, the tank is scrutinised by everybody. Even if her failure is minimal, it will be noticed because all the eyes are on her. And this is something that female gamers in particular are not keen on putting themselves through. Scathing criticisms aside, which hurt men and women alike, women are also expected to play worse than men because they are regarded as new to the hobby, or as inherently incapable. As written by Netta on She’s All Nerd: ‘women who play video games are constantly having to work that much harder to prove they can game just as well as men can, because boobs.‘
I have experienced this as a raid leader too, having my decisions questioned for sexist reasons; sometimes for valid reasons, but that is a different case. I have also seen it very often in the first-person-shooter space, particularly in Team Fortress 2, where I would be lauded for being a good player despite being a woman. Outside of the gaming space, you also see the sexism everyday in offices, in the street, at home. As a result, women who take a front role position often feel shy and intimidated; they have been taught that they have to perform their absolute best, or they will be considered one of those ‘girls’ that ‘cannot play games.’ There is still a long way to go until we don’t feel the pressure to legitimise ourselves any more, and feel free to sometimes be less than good at games, without worrying that they might take us for impostors or deride us on the basis of our gender.
After a while, when I got better and felt more confident in my skill, I began to enjoy tanking more than I did healing. As a healer, I often decried the confinement to healing bars debuff dispellers, the playing with the interface instead of with the game. (If there was one thing that I could take away from the almost-late Warhammer Online is the ability to heal without the interface and use mainly the nameplates on the screen.) As a tank, I was constantly challenged by aggro, incoming packs, boss abilities, and my own survival. It was much more exhilarating, and much more empowering. It was a role reversal that went beyond a playstyle.
Everything is politics — Or is it? Just play whatever you like to play. I loved every second of my healing, in every raid: the interplay of healers, the preparation for a new phase, the challenge first of managing your mana and later of being quick and situationally-aware. Now I like tanking more, and I also like what it signifies: I may be the protectress and the strategist, and dungeons move at my pace (without ever forgetting about my healer’s mana bar). But, while playing under your preferred playstyle, do be aware of the meaning of your choice. Nothing is meaningless, not even play. But nobody said that you couldn't enjoy problematic things. You can be a healer sidekick as a woman, a leading tank as a man, and enjoy yourself and be empowered; particularly if you are aware of the implications and don't turn a blind eye on them.
EDIT: I feel the need to temper my statements by saying that when I talk of masculine and feminine qualities I am referring to a set of characteristics that are usually associated with the genders, but that do not define men and women per se, and they are often 'prescriptive' qualities that we feel pressured to learn and adopt (which is why I brought up the expectedness and appropriateness of role-playing: by being female, we might be expected and we might feel it appropriate to fulfill specific roles). The truth is that all of us can be equally competitive and be DPS, equally nurturing and be healers, or equally commanding and be tanks, despite the gender (or we might have other traits and still perform those roles because we are drawn to them for different reasons). In this post I was describing social pressures to take one role or the other, pressures that often result in actual gender-based divisions.