Competitive multiplayer video games are defined by warriors, but they would be nothing without their healers. Playing Florence Nightingale in a team-based shooter like DICE’s Battlefield 1 can be every bit as exhilarating as playing Rambo – and who better to make that case than Kate, a real-life nurse practitioner in primary healthcare from New England in the US.
Kate plays healer characters in a variety of games, from the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft to the 4v1 horror game Dead by Daylight. “I’m not sure why my gaming interests have followed my career interests, but I do know that I enjoy working as a part of a team,” she says. “Knowing that my team can reach their full potential because of my efforts, that they’re surviving the fight, they’re lasting longer to enjoy themselves, makes me feel good.”
Healing in video games is rarely about applying bandages or stitching up wounds, though there are a few games, such as the terrifying fan-created ACE3 Medical mod for Arma 3, which simulate the intricacies of trauma care. Most games portray it in a more convenient, abstract way – pointing and clicking to refill somebody’s health bar, or covering your group with a restorative aura.
Playing healer is thus more about situational awareness and managing resources such as health kits, than the act of healing in itself. It’s about keeping an eye on the team’s big hitters, reading the fortunes of war and distributing those pick-me-ups appropriately. As such, these roles attract people who take more pleasure in the social side of gaming than simply flaunting their prowess.
“The main reason I love playing the healer role is that I’m not a competitive person,” says video game level designer Midas de Laat, whose credits include PS4 megahit Horizon: Zero Dawn. “I get much more enjoyment out of supporting others by allowing them to achieve things none of us could’ve pulled off on our own.”
“I think it comes from this feeling of wanting to be useful,” adds Natalie Flores, a journalist from Florida whose favourites include Blizzard’s Overwatch, which offers a colourful spread of healing-oriented superheroes. “I’m bad at dealing with the feeling that I’m burdening people. I’m also the kind of person who needs to be busy at all times; who enjoys work and being productive. Being a healer lets me feel that in a more clear way than [playing an offensive role].”
“I’ve been at very low and vulnerable points in my life where individuals have selflessly helped me and helped carry my burdens,” says Cole Henry, an Atlanta-based writer and marketing strategist who favours the Medic class in Battlefield 1. “Playing a healer role may not correlate with that exactly, but it sometimes makes me feel like I’m making a difference.” That feeling has become more precious to him while sheltering from the current coronavirus pandemic. “Playing a healer doesn’t curb my despair, but helping players is still helping – even if it is just ephemeral.”
For some healer players, the sociability of the role has a political component. Robert August de Meijer, an English teacher and anti-fascist activist from Ultrecht, likens playing a healer in WoW to joining a protest march. “Putting on the healing robes because that’s what the group needs feels a lot like getting your sign because that’s what the world needs. Playing more offensive roles I would argue demands less empathy, less concern about the group dynamic.”
As regards shooter games in particular, healer roles stand out because they don’t depend on hand-eye coordination, making them attractive both to players who find “twitch-shooting” a turn-off and people with disabilities that affect their accuracy and reflexes. While there are healer characters that demand finesse – consider Overwatch’s silver sniper Ana, with her hypodermic rifle – common healing abilities such as throwable health packs typically aim themselves. The trick isn’t using them but knowing when to use them.
“When I’m a medic in shooters, I don’t have to rely on manual dexterity as much,” observes de Meijer. “I’m attracted to the tactics and strategies of games, not so much the physical demands.” Midas de Laat agrees. “It’s actually weirdly relaxing since you’re one layer removed from the nitty-gritty moment-to-moment combat driving these games.”
This relative accessibility doesn’t mean that playing a healer is “low skill”, as snobbier players sometimes insist. On the contrary, you must keep the big picture in mind while damage-oriented players lose themselves in the cut and thrust. For Cole Henry, playing medic in Battlefield turns every firefight into a “puzzle” – how do you reach allied troops pinned down across an alleyway without being drawn into the action? And is it worth taking that risk when you could be helping out elsewhere?
Another vital trait is the ability to manage people, especially those who are in it for personal glory. “I believe communication is the ultimate skill to work on as a healer,” de Meijer continues. “Being a team’s lifeline, you learn the hard way how important it is to work as a group. In that sense, teaching other players how to work together is often the biggest hurdle. Unfortunately, it seems players who like dishing out damage aren’t the ones with the best social skills.”
Perhaps the healer’s greatest challenge, though, is keeping themselves alive. Healer characters tend to be poorly armed, and most players have few qualms about firing on first-aiders – indeed, killing the other side’s healer is usually the quickest route to victory. “Much like a nurse or emergency medical technician surveying the scene, you have to make sure it’s safe for you first,” says Kate. “Healers are often vulnerable classes, they can’t be in the fray long … unless they have someone protecting them. If you go down prematurely then the rest of the group suffers.”
The healer’s fragility is a critical factor when designing the landscapes of competitive games. “As level designer there are many things I take from my own experience of playing a healer and weave into my work,” Midas de Laat explains. “People shouldn’t be surprised to find small alcoves, craters and sneaky routes meant specifically for healers in my levels.”
Not all healers are helpless in a brawl. One of the game designer’s chancier feats is creating healers who can defend themselves without making that character too powerful. Spencer Yan, an independent game designer from New Jersey, points to the cautionary tale of Doc, a combat medic from Rainbow Six: Siege who is both extra-sturdy and equipped with one of the game’s best weapons.
“You have this character with higher-than-average starting health, who can heal himself three times and even revive himself to 75% health if he gets downed, with an incredibly accurate gun with long-distance optics on it… it’s no surprise that Doc is very rarely used in his intended capacity, which is to anchor in or around the objective and defend it by holding angles and healing nearby teammates”. Rather, many Doc players operate as lone wolves, running amok even as comrades perish.
While games are hardly ideal preparation for a career in medicine, the resource management skills necessary to play a healer are transferable. Reddit user linezolidbid, an MD-PhD from North America, compares healing in Overwatch to “triage”: the practice of prioritising patients according to staff and resources.
The game’s Mercy character is one of gaming’s most celebrated paramedics, not just able to restore people with her staff, but also swoop towards distant allies as though reeling herself in. Her main drawback is that she can only heal one ally at once. Accordingly, when playing as Mercy, linezolidbid triages team-mates as they would cases in a hospital. A relatively unhurt player whose abilities are critical to victory may be a higher priority than somebody closer at hand who is seconds from death. “‘Triaging’ is an indispensable strategy that is applicable to both gaming and the clinical setting in real life.”
Sadly, healers often bear the brunt of abuse in competitive video game spaces – it’s easy, after all, to blame the person tasked with keeping you upright when you bite the dust. “Some people assume they can play as messily as they can, and a healer can and should heal them through everything,” notes Natalie Flores.
The abuse may be coloured by sexism, with healing roles dismissed as “just for girls”. “There’s the stereotype that women only play healers,” Flores acknowledges. “However, that stereotype is untrue and reflects far more on the person with that mindset than the healer.” It doesn’t help that many game characters lean on those stereotypes: Mercy’s saintly demeanour and angel wings speak for themselves.
“Generally speaking, people respect what healthcare workers are doing for them,” observes Kate the primary care nurse, “I see that in games too.” She’s found that in World of Warcraft, a relatively mature gaming community, other players go out of their way to help healers with useful items and resources.
“That said, there are some people who do rage and get in your face. At work, I think a driving factor there is fear.” While such reactions are understandable, Kate feels that there’s a “small group of patients” who behave badly because they share a sense of entitlement with more toxic gamers. “Perhaps they’ve learned over the years that yelling and complaining sometimes gets results, and they don’t know better ways to get what they need.” These are very much the exceptions, however – the vast majority of patients and players Kate works with are considerate and understanding.
The question of how healthcare workers are portrayed and treated has all-new importance in the year of COVID-19. While he doesn’t wish to disparage their work, Spencer Yan is uneasy about describing healthcare workers as “heroes”, because this values individual contributions over a collective response to the pandemic. “I feel similarly uncomfortable in games where people tell me at the end, ‘Oh, you really saved us there at the end, you’re the only reason we got through that one alive’ or whatever. It’s a team game where everyone must play an equal part in succeeding.”
Kate has performed her share of daring feats as a healer (“those skin of the teeth heals, where a key player is about to drop and I can swoop in with a rescue”). But she adds that, “Just like in my real job, my finest moments are when things are working smoothly. People’s health is strong, their flares and falls are well managed. And then, as in the game, our steady success is dependent on how well the whole team works.”