This article was originally published on Medium and has been republished here with the author’s permission.
Despite Mercy being posed as the angelic medic of the popular team shooter Overwatch, she, or the people who play her, might as well be the devil with the way that many complain about her at every opportunity.
Their ire covers a multitude of sins, but a lot of it centers around her being a female character, a popular support hero, as well as one that exemplifies peacefulness and collaborative team effort. However, these same design choices, as well as the playerbase that have followed her in, have made Mercy a lightning rod for the obvious derision in the competitive gaming community about who plays support, as well as what we assume about their abilities.
It is incredibly gendered at times, and that’s not a coincidence.
Misogyny is real
A thread on the official Overwatch forums reads with a giant headline in the familiar typeface of the game, “Why aren’t there more female esports players?” A forum-goer could believe that it is a serious question and would be further explored with nuanced, respectful discussion. Instead, the first post is the dry fart of a punchline: “Because they are all Mercy mains.”
Women make up a good portion of the gaming audience, but their numbers in competitive games are more limited. This is attributed, wrongfully, to the “stress of competition,” but more truthfully is due to the open toxicity in these games from other players. This then gets portrayed as women having an innate inability to be competitive, rather than wanting to avoid suffering hateful slurs.
Across gaming forums and in voice chats, women are spoken of as being too delicate for the rigors and stress of these games, preferring more collaborative, supportive roles. This falls in line with the perception that women often will pick support characters — characters that heal or buff teammates — in these games, if they play at all. This logic then loops into how support characters just so happen to be for players who “lack skill,” despite being a necessary part of the team. Sexism is a poison that creeps into everything that is perceived to be “for women” to those who believe in it. It degrades everything.
That kind of thinking was summed up for me by Kat (who goes by VegasBabydoll), who plays Overwatch on her Playstation 4.
“Everybody wants someone to go Mercy,” she said. “But the minute you do and happen to also be female, it becomes something to criticize.”
Mercy’s draw from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint seems obvious: While Overwatch technically has five heroes that count as support — three female, two male, in as far as Zenyatta is presented as such — Mercy stands out as the archetypal high beauty, with her angelic wings and halo. She’s a good character for new players who are unfamiliar with first-person shooters to pick up and also helps teams out quite a bit in terms of single-target healing as well as her resurrect ability.
Many people have made her their de facto “main” in the game, including quite a few women, or those who are assumed to be women by other players. Therefore, playing Mercy means, as dictated by a misogynistic gaming environment, being seen as less capable, less competitive, and moreover, a worthy target for harassment.
Kat described what kinds of comments she gets and how they are rarely about her play as much as her gender.
“I’m a fairly vocal player with a very feminine P.S.N.,” she said, referring to a user’s handle on the PlayStation Network. “So they seem to feel like I’m opening myself to the commentary. I had a guy yesterday immediately say, ‘Oh! A stereotypical female Mercy player,’ like it’s a bad thing? On behalf of women who fill support roles because you aren’t a team player, you’re welcome. [He] then started talking shit. When I told him he was boring, he asked me if my little girl feelings were hurt and [said,] ‘Welcome to the internet.’”
And that’s a mild example.
“I always feel like I have to try 10 times harder than most people as a support class as a female, that I always have to prove my skills to everyone,” ShootingHailstar, a Grand Master ranked Mercy main, said. “There [were] certain points where I even thought I didn’t deserve to get Grand Master,” — the top ranked bracket in Overwatch — “It definitely does make playing Overwatch pretty hard, and no matter what I do or say they never really stop. I’ve had guys tell me I’m shit … and that I’d never get any higher than Diamond [rank] … I guess I proved them wrong.”
ShootingHailstar’s experiences playing at the highest tiers of competition speak to the depressing nature of success doing nothing to thwart misogynistic “facts” about women’s intrinsic failings; the truth is that they are not arguments demanding proof so much as repeated aggression designed to alienate women who don’t participate in the core loop.
Recently, a new esports pro by the name of GaleAdelade on Team SoloMid made ripples of this nature in the Overwatch community when a series of Discord chat posts turned up on over.gg. The 16-year-old spouted opinions about female players not being as skilled or competitive as their male counterparts.
The really damning part was that it was a response to another player’s opinions about top-500 ranked players — the highest rated players in the game’s competitive mode — and how women only play support. The issues at play here revolve, again, around the idea that support is for less-skilled players and, because all women play support, they must be less skilled, despite the top competitive echelons of the game requiring a lot of tactical and mechanical coordination. Even if it was true that all the women at the top of Overwatch’s competitive scene only played support (it’s not), it shouldn’t diminish their play at all.
As luck would have it, I got to speak to an actual top-500 player named Maplebirb, who related some similar experiences being a female Overwatch competitive player. While she doesn’t play Mercy, she is an incredibly talented support and tank player who solo queues for matches and streams most of her games. When she plays with other streamers, their stream chat, despite watching her every move, has often been incredibly toxic. She attributes a lot of it to fact that she does a lot of shot-calling. (A shot-caller is someone who calls out kill targets, group pushes and ultimate coordination for the team.)
“That’s where the hate came [from], it was mostly Twitch chat,” Maple said. “I tend to have a positive reception on how I play in my games from my team but there are people in Twitch chat that just hate me … It ranges from ‘Her shot-calling’s shit,’ to ‘Mute that bitch.’ What pains me is that if it was any other player that were making the same calls as me, people wouldn’t care but because I am a female player that uses her mic just a bit too much, I get flack.”
Maple is one of the best players in the whole of the game and even she can’t escape friction from other gamers.
The skill glass ceiling
In competitive gaming, skill is believed to be the meritocracy that separates. Good players float to the top like cream, while bad players are easily identified. The belief is that who is good and bad is purely determined on mechanical play and never has any social modifiers, like how women are, according to some, just uniquely bad at all games ever, no matter what. This shadow of sexism also intertwines with how we think about and talk about “skill” and how it relates to support roles. It’s easy to see the Gordian knot of this belief about talent being obvious and innate characteristics making you ineligible. The fact that Mercy is perceived to fall in the overlap between these two lines of thought is not surprising.
Alongside this fundamentally flawed ideology is another that posits that only the narrow range of things are deemed skillful, which are then practiced, and this is what defines a good player. In first person shooters specifically, your prowess in-game boils down to how well you place your sights over another player and shoot them. The problem is that Overwatch is not PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, but both could be argued to require aptitudes outside of the scope of damaging other players with the intent to kill them. Overwatch’s are squarely based in team play and collaboration, which is where it innovates away from the lone wolf survival tactics of other shooters. Mercy’s actual use seems to speak to these wider design goals, and yet she still falls to the bottom of the list in terms of being perceived as skillful.
Support characters in general are not seen as having very high skill ceilings or skill floors — the maximum and minimum amount of effort needed to master a character — meaning hopping in game and excelling at them is significantly smaller time investment than, say, Tracer or Zarya. But picks like Ana or Zenyatta require more mechanical abilities involving aim, so they do not receive the same guff or are considered to be characters that only women play. Mercy’s abilities aren’t recognized as requiring that high of a competency in mechanical skills so valued by the F.P.S. community. Her beam requires no aiming, and her pistol damage is extremely secondary. Mercy’s kit might be easy to pick up and the mechanical mastery needed seems minimal, but it’s myopic to consider her “low skill” when only adhering to one skill paradigm.
All of this, says Lex, another Mercy main, is insecure posturing.
“I recognize that some characters are easier to pick up than others, but I don’t consider that a bad thing,” she said. “You can play Mercy in competitive without spending 20 hours with her in quick play and do well. Same with Soldier: 76, honestly, and he isn’t considered a no-skill character. I don’t know, ‘skill’ just seems to be a word that gets thrown around to enforce some characters as being better than others based only on what makes men comfortable. They depend on Mercy and discredit her at the same time.”
Every Mercy main that I spoke to about this lack of skill laughed about it, since anyone who has actually played the role for a significant amount of time knows how demanding it is. Playing support requires a high amount of game sense (knowing where enemies are), a continual tally of team and enemy ult usage, risk assessment in split seconds, as well as crisis prioritization. She is the antithesis of everything we think about first-person shooters mechanically and earns a lion’s share of derision because of it.
A grand design
Overwatch is a game that took basic elements of shooters and mixed in interesting parts of other genres; if Mercy makes gamers who are here to shoot people feel uncomfortable, it’s probably because she was made that way intentionally.
Blizzard’s gameplay choices for Mercy hew closer to M.O.B.A.s — tactical third-person competitive team games — versus shooters, and this makes her extremely different from what gamers are comfortable with in FPS stalwarts like Call of Duty versus League of Legends. Her play is entirely collaborative; she exists to aid her team versus carving a path to glory herself. That being said, Mercy’s ultimate ability, resurrect, is the culmination of this kind of play. She can fly in and resurrect eliminated teammates. It can be a great way to keep up a team’s momentum or pull off a Hail Mary of sorts to keep control of a point when the game is tied up. Knowing when to use this is contentious but it is a fulcrum around which some matches can pivot — not for a team kill of your enemies, but keeping your fellow players in the game so they can do that for you.
A lot of the criticism around how Mercy players of all stripes perform seems to dance around this ability and how it is used, because it can completely undo the work of an enemy team’s ults. It’s not even unearned — the method of having a Mercy go off and “hide” from other players so that the other team wastes themselves only to have her run in when it is safe and rez is tried and true. Skilled teams can put a lot of pressure on a team’s support, but trying to nail down a slippery Mercy when you should be focusing on the fight is frustrating. It is doubly so when you realize that same Mercy had been sitting passively somewhere else versus healing or boosting her team’s damage. Seagull, a well-known Overwatch streamer and former esports competitor, has often gotten frustrated with seeing a Mercy wipe out what was a near-team kill on his part.
It’s one of the few arguments I’ve seen regarding a Mercy’s play-style that indicates it is contrary to the game’s core ethos. The problem is that it’s not the fault of Mercy players, or how the hero was designed, but an emergent tactic that is cobbled from other players. I’ve heard calls for “Mercy go hide” in competitive games before, but it also happens because outside of the higher levels of competitive play, the rules of team fights tends to favor saving up multiple team-wiping ultimates and overwhelming anything the other team could do. Mercy’s “hide and rez” technique has grown out from that. What’s interesting is that it’s analogous to a technique I’ve seen in player-vs-environment-oriented games like World of Warcraft, before the game introduced combat resurrections as player abilities: A designated healer was often set outside of an encounter with a monster solely to come in and rez people while the fight was occurring. Gamers in multiplayer scenarios like having a “fall back” plan in case all of their best-made tactics get washed away in a dragon’s breath or in this case, Dragonblades.
This is not the direct fault of Mercy players, so much as a habit of wanting an escape plan from our own failures and weaknesses in an uncertain fight.
One weird trick
While we’ve touched on Mercy hate being rooted in sexism, in too-rigid ideologies about skill or design, what hits many players’ nerves is how Mercy can work in competitive play as it relates to the game’s own rating system, and it what it says about “earning” your accolades.
Something Maple said in passing while we were talking gestured at this issue that appears alongside the flat hatred for the hero.
“Every pro player I’ve bumped into that has played with me and knows my style had positive things [to say] about me,” she said. “The thing is that, I wasn’t a Mercy ‘one-trick’ that was duo-ing [or] trio-ing with a clear damage-per-second smurf and had weird ass stats that jumped from gold to Grandmaster in one season.”
A one-trick, for people who aren’t familiar, is short for “one-trick pony.” In Overwatch, it means someone who plays one hero and has literally no time spent on any others, often for a variety of reasons. Most of the time it is because it’s the character the person feels the most skilled with or enjoys the most. At most levels in competitive, being a one-trick isn’t hugely detrimental but it wears thin the higher up you go where more flexibility is demanded. It also can be seen as using the game’s own skill rating numbers against itself. Your skill rating in the game is a combination of your participation in a match, how you fared against the players you’re matched against, and a small part is how well you played as a particular hero vs. historical data of other players of that hero. This means that one tricking can result in inflated skill rating or win rate for a variety of reasons.
A_Seagull said on his stream that one-tricking “values rank over learning the game,” implying that one-tricking is done when a person wants to get to a high rank versus raising themselves through varied hero play, match analysis and mastering fundamentals across all roles.
There are, apparently, a lot of one-trick Mercy players out there, and this ruffles feathers. Despite Mercy being a solid pick, the perception of one-tricks who play Mercy is generally that they are at a greater disadvantage than other hero one-tricks. The previous Reddit post speaks a lot to Mercy having very low mechanical skill crossover (which I think is fair in the abstract but only applies to people who one-trick), or require more team play to make useful, but other things like Mercy one-tricks throwing matches or quitting entirely if they can’t get their hero.
Given the perception that there are many Mercy one-tricks out there, the consensus as a community seems to be that they are effectively using the system against itself in order to make quick gains in ranked play, and are a significant detriment to any team that has to play around them. There’s also the factor of being able to use Mercy (a fairly reliable, useful hero) with other, better players in order to boost you higher than you would be able to do all by yourself. Fury, a Master ranked player who is a friend of mine, boiled it down for me.
“The biggest criticism for Mercy one-tricks lately has been how a lot of the higher level players don’t feel like Top 500 Mercy O.T.P.’s deserve their ranks, due to a perceived lack of skill required to play her,” Fury said.
As far as criticism is concerned, this is where the rubber meets the road. I would argue that a one-trick is frustrating in terms of potentially being countered by the other team (say, a Widowmaker), or that getting two Mercy one-tricks in matchmaker would be migraine-inducing, but all of the problems that come with this hero seem to crop up here: that Mercy players are not as skilled because of how the hero is built, that women are unable to play anything but support, and this is what contributes to the idea that arrogance and deception must be at work here. Not all Mercy players are women. Not all one-tricks are Mercy and yet I don’t hear people complaining as loud or as hard about the number of them in competitive (trust me, there are one-trick Symmetras and Torbjörns out there, especially at the lower tiers of ranked), all because of how we continue to talk about this hero. The system, as it stands, is potentially exploitable by any one-trick, but because it is exploited by a “low skill” character, it suddenly isn’t okay.
This is absolutely the fault of how the Skill Rating system works if it is broken in favor of Mercy players, a low skill hero, meaning it’s a double whammy in the face of that believed meritocracy of good gaming. Anyone can hop on the S.R. train as Mercy and rise to the top, and it’s their fault for getting around the rules everyone else has to abide by and not that the rule-set is broken to begin with.
The angel is in the Ddetails
Having a wealth of feminist criticism of gaming has made me incredibly suspect whenever a community seems to rally around hating a particular character in a video game, which always seems to be female. It’s pretty obvious to me that Blizzard created Mercy to be a gateway for people not traditionally interested in first person shooters to come into the fold, piquing the xenophobia of competitive gamer dudes. Adding her to a competitive, team-focused shooter in a genre people are so often prided for being strong, intense man-against-the world types, making it a visibly femme and visibly female character with pure, good characteristics has made even more of this kind of friction rise to the surface.
It doesn’t help that the competitive gaming community is still extremely sexist in many quarters and the resulting misogyny invented a string of reasons why women (and many others) cannot and should not participate. That being said, her popularity speaks to why it was ultimately the perfect choice. Designing a way to easily include others who have been historically uninvited into the team shooter genre is clever, and we need to keep interrogating and pushing back against those who wish to keep us out.
Mercy and her players, protest as some might, are here to stay.
More gaming news and updates
Check out the latest from Mic, like this essay about the sinister, subtle evils lurking in rural America that Far Cry 5 shouldn’t ignore. Also, be sure to read our review of Tekken 7, an article about D.Va’s influence on one Overwatch player’s ideas about femininity and an analysis of gaming’s racist habit of darkening villains’ skin tones.