The process of engaging in some BDSM in the seemingly squeaky-clean video game Overwatch is simple. Equip the angelic healer Mercy with her Imp skin, spray-paint an arrow on the wall, and crouch beneath it. If you're lucky, a tank will walk up to you and emote "understood." You'll serve them dutifully and wait for the private message after the match.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
Overwatch was not built with kink in mind. It's rated T for Teen. The developers were so averse to sexualising their game that they pruned one character's over-the-shoulder pose from the game for being too risque. But for the venerable "healslut" scene, which is all about the eroticisation of playing support roles in games, you've got to work with what you've got.
"Mercy 'rezzed' the community," says LeviathanLust, the moderator who runs r/healsluts, a subreddit where people who are into that kind of erotic play meet. Mercy is Overwatch's most recognisable support character. "She breathed life into the fetish. An incredibly beautiful girl that heals people? It's a perfect fit."
Classic BDSM relies on the core concepts of domination and submission. It's been the foundational dynamic of sexual relationships since the beginning of time. Someone plays the role of a bossy, assertive caretaker. Their partner transforms into an obedient, powerless servant, and they both have fun.
Essentially, the healslut community adapts those tropes to the language of video games. It's difficult, but not impossible. In Overwatch a "tank" is a protective, frontline character soaking up lots of damage and the "support" keeps everyone's health bar full. With a little bit of imagination those roles can be loaded with plenty of kinky symbolism.
Some players, (like those crouching, Imp-guised Mercys in Overwatch lobbies) try to land partners in-game, but much of the time people who healslut find each other on the r/healsluts subreddit or the official Discord channel. Think of it like a first date, except for a highly specific digital fetish.
"They naturally get to know one another [and] discuss their interests, both sexual and nonsexual," says LeviathanLust. "They talk about what games they like and if the two are interested, they try taking it another step further. They might be interested in the audio portion of things and want to roleplay over voice. They might be interested in the textual portion of things and want to roleplay over text.
"Even real life couples might be interested and act out scenarios in real life, like the healslut getting their dom off while they play."
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to healsluts, but according to the Discord channel, there are five general roles across the games they play. Tanks are gentle doms who play for the adoration and devotion of their healers. If you're DPS, you represent a darker, more violent version of the same desire. Switches (as in real life) are fluid in their taste. Healers are submissives that prefer lighter domination.
The titular healsluts are more masochistic. All of these closely mirror the same fundamental designations of your average sadomasochist fetish. But in Overwatch specifically, it's interesting to think that someone could identify certain semantic sensual qualities in the mechanics of certain characters, such Reinhardt's barrier field, or Mercy's cherubic heal-beam.
"Toys and voice are the prime tools that make it such an attractive idea," says LeviathanLust. "As a healslut, you'd have your duties to serve your tank or DPS. Add in some punishments like your vibrator intensity turning up as you play and trying your best to concentrate despite that can be a real thrill.
"As a tank, you'd have your duties to protect your healslut and dominate not only them but the game too. Scolding your healslut for her failures, complimenting her for her successes ... it all really just works out."
The beauty of healsluts is you can make anything — literally anything — part of the kink. A player who is an active member on r/healsluts tells me that outside of League and Overwatch, he also participates in the fetish with Town of Salem, Borderlands, and the incredibly chaste Civilisation 5. "It varies from game to game but generally I make a set of rules that encourages submission for the submissive," the player says.
"For example, in a Civilisation game you might limit their ability to build things like wonders and religion. In League and Overwatch it's fairly easy to implement rewards for good plays and punishment for bad."
People create metagames all the time. There's a guy who plays through Grand Theft Auto as a pacifist. Healsluts are basically doing the same thing, except to appease more carnal desires. Another player, Thomas (not his real name), tells me that he's associated sexual feelings with video games for a long time, but only discovered that he could act on some of those sensitivities fairly recently.
"I had an idea about my kink, but I never really solidified myself as a healslut in-game," he says. "It was more just me getting off to the idea of being treated like, well, a heaslut. Once I found the subreddit and an actual community around it, I could discover more what I liked and disliked about the kink."
For the most part Thomas is a lurker, but he does play the part in-game sometimes (he says the trick is to use a lot of winky faces.) He doesn't like to come out and advertise himself as a healslut outright, and instead keeps the more active lustfulness on his end only. For such a specific fetish, it's also pretty easy to act on.
"This is just something enjoyable for me that's practical as well. I can't expect to have any real life sexual interaction on a constant basis," he says. "But with video games I know I can always log in, hit the play button, and prepare myself to become someone's healslut for the next thirty minutes."
That breeziness is a core part of the scene. More than anything else, these people just like to play games together. Sure there's a bawdy quality to some of the talk on the Discord channel, but there's also plenty of people bellyaching about the Hanzo buff.
The ongoing "Looking for Partners" thread on the subreddit features people from every walk of life: male, female, trans, nonbinary, submissive, dominant, whatever. It does not matter. At a time when people who love video games seem so tremendously far apart, it's nice to see some of us unified under the liberty of fucking.
"People are willing to talk regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or anything of the sorts," says Thomas. "Maybe they personally may not be sexually invested into the same thing you are, but [they] will still respect your opinions and do their best to help and hear you out. Even though the community is small, we are really united just by everyone having the uncommon kink of enjoying healsluts, regardless of who is the dom or sub."
For whatever reason, Overwatch is the game that's reinvigorated the scene. The subreddit almost entirely consists of handmade Mercy tributes, which itself dovetails out of a surprisingly large hamlet of people animating porn based on the game's characters.
It's difficult to know why this universe, which lacks anything slightly PG-13, has inspired such an intense sexual fascination. But it also doesn't matter. Overwatch has one of the most vibrant, inspiring communities in the world. If some of them have discovered a way to use a game they love to explore their sexuality, that should be celebrated, not feared.
"I am a submissive healslut!" said a trans female. "It has absolutely helped me come to terms with some of my kinks. I was actually afraid to talk about my kinks until I became active in the community."
Overwatch probably shouldn't introduce mechanics built specifically for healslutting. This community is small. The healsluts subreddit has only 1,600 subscribers. The Discord group has 600 members. But video games are full of people, and people like to bone. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner it will feel normal.