My two oldest brothers are among my best friends. We grew up relatively close, or at least they always let me be a part of whatever they were doing, and this meant we spent a lot of the time playing games together. Two games that we all played through and through were Shining Force and its sequel Shining Force II. It’s one of the few games that we still discuss and play even as adults. Whenever one of us gets around to playing it, we inevitably end up sharing our team roster.
When this comes up, there’s always one thing I can count on: a good-natured quibble over the fact that I use at least two healers in my team at all times.
Healers, while an integral part to any team, tend to get a lot of heat. Their stats are never as strong, so they need extra defense, precaution, and care when grinding out levels. But they can also be the most powerful. Sarah in Shining Force II, when you promoted to a Master Monk via the Vigor Ball, easily becomes one of the deadliest characters on my team.
This is the extent of my love for healers: I want an abundance of them in strategy games, but would never choose one as my main playable class in an RPG – tabletop or digital. I took this thought to Twitter, to see who has a love of what I (erroneously, it appears) assumed to be an under-appreciated class in video games.
And wow! I learned that people sure do love playing as a healer. (Side note: there were so many fantastic responses to my tweet that are worth checking out and that I unfortunately couldn’t follow up on.)
All The Heals, All The Feels
For Meg Smitherman, fellow Dorkshelf contributor and host of the Roundup Podcast, playing as a healer isn’t just an incidental part of her gaming life. “I’m not sure why I first decided to switch my priest’s specialty from shadow to holy in World of Warcraft all those years ago, but I can tell you it was the best decision of my gaming life,” she says.
“I think what initially sparked my interest in healing was the idea that I would be useful to the rest of the party, instead of just trying to top the DPS meter like every other damage class out there. And tanking was never something that appealed to me – I don’t like how tanks generally look, I don’t like hitting things with a sword very much, and I don’t like shields. I’m all about pretty robes and spells.”
But Smitherman goes on to explain the rush she gets from healing tanks in WoW – and it’s eerily similar to the rush I get when taking down hordes of Hyperion personnel and loader bots in Borderlands 2 as a Gunzerker. “When your tank is taking tons of damage, it’s about finding the balance between keeping her alive and keeping your mana reserves intact,” she tells me.
“You have to know when to throw out a heal over time, when to shield, when to bust out the ‘oh shit!’ major cooldown. Seeing a tank’s health bar go into the red and panicking while trying to cast that healing spell in time is such a rush! And when you cast it just in time, the biggest relief and sense of pride. If you have a good tank who recognizes when their ass just got saved, they will thank you for the awesome heals. It’s okay tank, I didn’t do it for the recognition. I did it ’cause I love you.”
This multiplayer focus is common amongst people who said they prefer playing as healers in MMOs. Many appreciate fulfilling that support role in a team. They gravitate toward the healer because fewer people want to play as one, so the wait time is less for those playing as a healer, compared to the longer queue for other classes.
Games critic and consultant Veerender Jubbal finds a sense of value and joy in “helping, and being a main asset to the entire team.” He explains. “I love helping people. Being able to feel valuable, and even though healer is not the class people like to play as much, I love to. I love supporting the warriors, fighters, and offensive magic users to triumph over strong or large enemy units.”
Playing Beyond Physical Limitations
But for writer Stephen Wilds, playing as a healer is not just a mental or emotional preference – it’s a choice he makes, in part, based on the limits of his vision. “I am an albino, and like many like me, suffer from severely bad vision,” he says. “I have to use a magnifying program just to operate my computer. A lot of World of Warcraft for me is buttons and key commands I memorized, or learning what colors to look for on the screen. I honestly thought my raiding days were over until I began trying other classes.”
It was the ability to slow down while playing that made all the difference for Wilds. “Healing was different. It was a lot more about focusing on certain things, life bars, and keeping myself safe as I cast spells. Being a paladin [a healer class in WoW] made me a bit tougher and gave me larger heals, allowing me to adjust my style so my eyes could bounce from target to target, and in large groups, focus on tank heals. I loved it.”
Toxic Gender Stereotypes
Despite the sheer love people have for healers, the tension around women typically being cast as caretakers and healers is too big to ignore for some who play as healers. Mandaray, a streamer, confesses she has incredible memories playing as a healer, but it’s not a class she’s keen to go back to playing as her main class. “I’m really, really tired of healing being associated with femininity (I hate it SO much when the only female character is the healer) and also being associated with ‘easy mode,’” she explains. “Coding something inherently nurturing as feminine and then saying it’s easy is so incredibly toxic, and reinforces so much outdated gender role bullshit that it makes me see red.”
It’s hard to ignore the politics behind representation, particularly when certain characters and classes have been stereotypically presented in the same way time and time again. “At the same time, I don’t feel like I should have to force myself to love over-aggressive, high-adrenaline ‘damage’ roles in order to get a break from healing,” she continues. “I don’t want to have to choose between patching somebody up and screaming about headshots, you know?”
Mandaray has a point, one that is particularly resonant in multiplayer games that involve interpersonal interactions that may or may not be influenced by the class selection — and the political baggage that sometimes joins them.
For Jubbal, this interplay becomes the space where he can make change by helping people. “I want to help people in both real life, and in video games in any way I can — playing this role helps not just the team, but in how I coordinate with others.”
Kaitlin Tremblay is a writer, editor, and gamemaker who makes narrative-based horror games. You can find her games and other writing on her website, That Monster.