As gaming and esports have become household terms over the past 15 to 20 years, gaming has shifted from a male-centered hobby to something anyone and everyone can enjoy. According to a 2021 survey by the Entertainment Software Association, 55% of gamers identify as male and 45% identify as female. Many find a sense of belonging in gaming, as well as stress relief, a good source of mental activity, and community. But this near-even split has not been around for long - and now that women have entered the gaming scene, they become subjected to gender bias and scrutiny for what and how they play.
One of the main questions I have always been fascinated by is this: Why do female gamers tend to play support? Out of every role across many games I’ve played, supportive roles are the most popular amongst women, including me. My own personal reason for playing support is twofold. First, I generally enjoy the character design and aesthetics a lot more. Especially in League of Legends, the female characters always draw my eye instead of the crazy bug-looking or overly muscled male champions. Second, in my mind I am “allowed” to perform poorly and can fly under the radar a little easier due to the nature of the support role. Generally, supports don’t get all the eliminations or have the flashiest skills and are less likely to be scrutinized for bad performance because sometimes, that’s just what playing support is.
But realistically, the reason why women typically are drawn to playing support is because of prolonged gender bias in gaming. Backlog Crusader is a personal blog written by Angie, a female gamer with a Bachelor’s in Comparative Cultural Studies. In her blog post “Why are there so many female Mercy mains in Overwatch?”, she talks about the prevailing cultural factors that push women to fall into a support role in gaming. The two I want to focus on through retelling my own personal experiences are Target Audience and Fear of Stereotype Reinforcement.
As a self proclaimed gamer, my first dive into video games were Lego Star Wars and the Sly Cooper series on the Playstation 2. My dad had introduced me to gaming, as it was a hobby he had enjoyed for all his life, even before it was as well-known as it is today. After I showed interest in the pastime, I got my first computer for my birthday and we played games like Minecraft and Guild Wars 2 for the next few years. But the first real online competitive multiplayer game I got into was Overwatch on its release in 2016. It was the first time I delved into a game that involved having to communicate with a team to win, and the first time I had learned a game without my dad there to help me. Let me tell you - I was pretty awful, and the learning curve felt impossibly steep. Boys my age had been playing Counter-Strike and Call of Duty for years before I even entered the gaming scene, and Overwatch was the first shooter that was actually marketed to women along with men due to its diverse lineup and character designs.
In Overwatch, I was a DPS main that played lots of Pharah and Tracer, and it was that way until 2020 when I found my college’s gaming club and applied to be on a team. I was promptly ushered into the support role, as that was the role they were missing, and looking back, I haven’t left the support role since. This is where the Fear of Stereotype Reinforcement comes in - in every game I play, I gravitate towards support because it is the role I have become most confident in and can perform well in. I don’t get out of my comfort zone often for fear of harassment or being a negative representation of women in gaming if I play badly.
Of course, these 2 are not the only factors that affect gender roles and stereotyping in gaming, but hopefully my experience gives insight into a different perspective. Angie’s article has even more fantastic insight into the support role and gender, so please go check her out!
Lastly, how do we stop these cultural factors from discouraging women to get into gaming, whether casually or competitively? It starts with every one of us who actively plays. Reporting toxic comments in game and uplifting teammates regardless of gender helps keep spirits high and bad actors out of the scene. Beyond that, seeing as the demographics for gamers are a 55%:45% ratio of male to female, understanding that sexism has no place in today’s gaming world is something everyone should be taught. Encourage esports organizations to include women and marginalized players in tournaments or on teams. Find a community that uplifts you and others, and don’t settle for those who perpetuate negative stereotypes. Most importantly, believe in yourself! Play the games that you enjoy playing, and welcome everyone into the gaming world with open arms. Put yourself out there and apply for a team or an esports job. Whatever you do, game with the confidence that you can do what you put your mind to. GHLF!