This post will talk a lot about video games, but even if you’re not into that, you might still appreciate this. I’ve tried to make it accessible to non-gamers as much as possible, and my thoughts here are less about gaming itself than about using games as a lens for real life activism, and applying lessons learned from games. This relates majorly to PTSD and recovery, and I can’t avoid discussing sexism or alluding to harassment and abuse, but nothing here will be graphic.
I like to play healers.
I used to play World of Warcraft. My main was a Discipline priest—a healer who focuses more on preventing damage through the use of magical bubble-shields than on reactive triage. When I got bored of that, I had other characters, and most of them were healers too. Although I started out playing the game as a mage (a damage-dealing only glass cannon class), it got to the point where I almost exclusively played as healers. The only time I would play as DPS (a damage-dealer) was when I was playing solo, or the time I was literally bribed by a friend to come back to the game, transfer servers, and fill in a raid group as a backup who could switch between doing damage and healing as needed. When I wasn’t playing a healer, I liked to play as a tank—in other words, a character who draws fire and focuses on surviving a lot of damage—but only when I had someone I trusted to fill the healer role, like my partner, who taught me how to heal in the first place.
Eventually I stopped playing WoW, partly because I don’t have that much money to spend, and partly because a new expansion was released that changed the game in a seriously not-fun way for me as a healer.
In other games, I like healing as well. I like to play through Skyrim with weird gimmicks, limiting my characters to only using certain skills. In one game, I challenged myself to play through without directly harming anything, by grabbing a follower and sneaking around, having them fight while I heal them and cast Illusion spells. I had a lot of fun doing that, despite the total lack of variety in the healing spells available and followers’ annoying AI. I really enjoyed the reversal of expectations—because Skyrim is a game where you must engage in violence in order to progress through most quest lines.
I’m also quite fond of using Pokemon that are capable of healing their teammates (mostly in double and triple battles), especially my Heal Pulse Gardevoir. Pokemon is a very different style of game, but even there I find clerics and supporters indispensable. A hyper-offensive play style, while totally viable, is just not for me.
So what is it about healing that makes such play styles so compelling?
I think it has a lot to do with trauma recovery. Because in a way, my entire life revolves around healing. Of both myself and others. I am pretty much always in a healer role, even if it’s passive.
And to some extent, it’s not necessarily something I’ve actively chosen, but something that has been heavily shaped by the way that others have treated me, and what society expects of me. That includes violence that I’ve had to survive, yes, but I also mean how sexist attitudes very strongly push women to be nurturing. Media aimed at girls very often centers the magical healing power of love and friendship, in a fantastically unrealistic way. My Little Pony (the original, no I’m not interested in the remake) and Sailor Moon both were heavy influences on me as I was growing up, and I certainly didn’t escape Disney princess movies. And my mother, my grandmother who raised me just as much as my mother, both had this sacrificial image of what it means to be Good.
So in some ways, as a healing-oriented femme cis woman, I fit the stereotype. I’m probably the type of person that people would expect to see playing a healer—minus my goth tendencies, I suppose, but I don’t style myself that way every day. The image that people build around me, both in games and in real life, is that I’m a nurturing person who will take care of them. It is simply assumed, and taken for granted, that simply because I can heal (and I like to), that I will.
If you think of me like that? Then I got news for you, bud.
I let entitled DPS die. On purpose. And asshole tanks, too.
And I greatly enjoy it.
There is perhaps nothing in WoW more satisfying than hanging back, waiting for the overzealous jerks you’ve been randomly grouped with to engage an encounter you know they won’t survive without you, and watching them die. Then laugh as they call you a “bad healer” and drop out of the group.
I can keep a group alive through a lot of missteps—and usually I know exactly who made them, because that’s how it is when you’re always focused on filling up health bars. I don’t mind teaching encounters to new players. But if you’re not going to be respectful, then no, I’m not going to play with you. You’ll die. It’ll be frustrating. But it’s a video game, you’ll get over it. And maybe you’ll even learn something.
One of the absolutely crucial skills you need to cultivate if you want to be a healer is knowing when and who to heal, as well as being able to accept it when people die—and when people blame you for it, even when it wasn’t your mistake and you really couldn’t have done anything about it. Because those things will happen, and sometimes they happen a lot.
I’ve known healers who expected to be able to keep everyone alive, all the time, and completely freaked out about it when (inevitably) someone kept standing in the fire to the point that the healer just couldn’t keep up with the damage. In a situation like that, it’s better to stop healing that person and focus instead on the rest of the group—ideally the person will realize how low their health is getting in time and move, use whatever self-healing they have available to them, and maybe even get healed by someone else. If not, then the failure will help them learn. Prioritize the people who still have a chance, especially your tank (and, obviously, yourself). Your resources are finite, and you need to recognize your limits. If you don’t prioritize well and know when to stop healing to conserve or regenerate, eventually you’ll run out of time or mana.
If you’re in a situation with multiple healers, especially when it’s a long and grueling fight, you can get yourself in trouble if you try to heal too much—this can happen by focusing on outdoing the other healers on the meters, or focusing on the same targets that they’re covering. This will drain you and cause you to go OOM (out of mana/magicka/resource). Coordinating with fellow healers is very important. But despite all of that, there will always be times—especially when you are learning new fights—when something unexpected happens (like being disconnected or lagging), or you just don’t have enough power to clear it.
All of this has strong parallels to real life. I’m sure that the link between going OOM and experiencing burnout is obvious, and Queenie has already discussed how having PTSD is like playing on Hell Mode.
I sometimes find it helpful to compare engaging in social justice activism to raiding in World of Warcraft, on a much larger scale—many giant groups of people fighting multiple instances of the same extremely powerful bosses, as well as smaller-scale encounters against packs of less powerful, but still irritatingly persistent respawning trash mobs (think internet trolls). This is not a new idea. I regularly see people saying things like, “I’m a social justice rogue/wizard/etc.” By now, nobody needs me to tell them what class I’d be.
To run with this metaphor, then, my regular “raid group” is a scrappy team of asexuality activists. We’ve got a solid core of pretty experienced members, who’ve fought the same battles over and over and over and over again. Attrition is high though because that gets tiring, and of course we all have other things going on in our lives, so members will take long breaks from playing. New recruits often feel intimidated, and we have a hard time figuring out how to help them gain confidence. We’re kind of on the cutting edge when it comes to clearing newly released content, so there’s no map, no guide, we’re all just sort of figuring things out as we go, and few of us are especially well-equipped. Ace players are still better off than they were a few decades ago, when there weren’t any groups like this at all, or even a server for us to play on.
I don’t know how much sense any of that makes to those of you who have never played a game like that, but I hope you can see why it’s helpful for me to make that comparison.
Obviously, I’ve chosen to specialize in healing in my real-life asexuality activism. I’ve had to do this to survive anyway, so I might as well share what I’ve learned and team up with others to create a big healing circle and stack the benefits. Knowing exactly what type of healing style I prefer in games has helped me figure out what I’d be able to most practically manage in real life. I like shields, bubbles, and damage reduction barriers more than reactive triage, although of course I’ll spot-heal people as needed. I also like the little bits of undirected splash healing that can come from focusing on other things (think Atonement). So IRL, I don’t generally focus on immediate, one-on-one crisis management type situations—I am not on The List, because that is not the type of thing that I am good at. I am more of a behind-the-scenes structure-building type of person. I do education aimed at preventing further damage, and maximizing others’ access to treatment.
Often, other people (especially strangers) misunderstand what type of healing I do. Some people expect me to drop everything and give them an immediate, one-on-one Ace 101 class, just because I’ve written articles or they know that I do that sort of thing sometimes. Some (okay, more like a lot of) non-ace people see that I’ve written about how to have relationships with asexual people, and expect me to drop everything to give them personal relationship advice. I’ll probably write a post about that later (oh boy), but… the point is, in short, that these people are a lot like the entitled DPS players who expect me to focus on saving them personally without regard for anyone else’s suffering, and just stand in the fire waiting for rescue even though they’re not actually helpless to figure out how to change their own situation.
And we all know what happens to those people.