Frag Dolls And Girl Gamers

Maya Schenwar
July 6, 2007

At first glance, the Frag Dolls are a 21st century set of Spice Girls, gone American: a gaggle of sleek twentysomethings -- with a 'tude, mind you -- who profess "girl power" while winking at the boys. At second glance, they're still all that-but instead of singing and dancing, the Frag Dolls specialize in sitting still with gamepads clutched between their hands. The Dolls are an all-female team of video gamers, sponsored by the French game giant Ubisoft. Their alleged mission? To "promote the presence of women in the gaming industry," getting both game manufacturers and male-dominated gaming communities to take note of women's rising interest and influence in the world of video games.

Frag Doll team member and captain, Morgan Romine -- otherwise known as "Rhoulette" --says she can't imagine a life without a controller in hand.

"My first exposure to video games was watching my cousin play Legend of Zelda when I was six years old," Romine says. "My parents got me and my brother our Sega Genesis when I was 10 and Sonic the Hedgehog became my new best friend." Romine dove into online gaming communities in high school, played all through college, and once spent over thirty hours straight on a frantic gaming spree, glued to EverQuest. As a professional Frag Doll, Romine gets paid to play competitively on Xbox Live, and tour the country to "geek out" about games.

"While growing up, none of us knew very many other girls who played video games, but now we're surrounded by girls who share our passion and interest," Romine says. "We love helping to raise the awareness about our demographic of gamer which traditionally has been so underappreciated."

The Dolls occasionally take a public stand for their "demographic." When organizers of the World Series of Video Games (WSVG) announced they'd be holding a "Miss WSVG" contest -- a.k.a., a beauty pageant -- at their regional competition in Louisville, Kentucky, the Frag Dolls boycotted the competition. And along with another female gaming team, the PMS clan, they set up a pageant of their own in protest: a Mr. WSVG contest. Ostensibly, the Frag Dolls and like teams are an intriguing challenge to the male-dominated ethos of video gaming, confronting stereotypes and discrimination in real worlds and virtual worlds alike.

Too Dolled Up for Feminism?

Yet some feminists argue that the Dolls themselves are like one long, video-game-themed beauty pageant. Members were selected partially based on their looks, and their site is chock-full of sexy photos. Their blogs list their physical characteristics before each entry (height, hair color, eye color). And each Frag Doll is represented by a video-game-esque caricature of herself: big boobs, tiny waist, huge eyes framed by luscious lashes, and a seductive cherry-red smile.

The Frag Dolls' emphasis on looks is carried over to their realtime personas, as well-glamorous photos abound on their website and in promotional materials. Some other communities of female gamers argue that the Frag Dolls send a message that equates "professional female gamer" with "model."

ComicGirl, a longtime member of the femme-centered online gamer community Thumb Bandits, notes that though the Frag Dolls are the most high-profile female gaming team, they're also the least game-focused.

"Gaming should be about games, not what you look like or what clothes you wear," ComicGirl says. "[The Frag Dolls] are kind of just booth babes that happen to play games."

And according to Mia Consalvo, a telecommunications professor at Ohio University whose research focuses on gender in gaming, the Frag Dolls' "girl power" agenda doesn't promote the images of "girls" and "power" that will garner women lasting respect in gaming communities.

"'Wow-look-women play games too!' is the type of thing you usually read [about groups like the Frag Dolls]," Consalvo says. "It's more of a 'here's an oddball thing' type of coverage rather than a serious look at how more women are playing games. It can also marginalize other types of female players, particularly if the accounts focus on how young and hot female players are-that really doesn't do anyone any favors."

It's not just feminist theorists and rival gamers who are concerned about the image of "girl gamers" that the Frag Dolls create: Siren, formerly the Frag Doll Voodoo, broke off from the group when she became tired of constantly representing a prescribed "female gamer" image. She and likeminded gaming partner Vixen have since created the site, VersuS, which offers blogs, forums, and independent views about gaming. The VersuS duo regularly attends gaming events, hosts its own online tournaments, and keeps readers up to date on new games - no matter what corporation is producing them. And although VersuS' founders are both women, they avoid a Frag-Doll-like focus on the "girl gamer" persona.

"I don't see any need to whack the word 'girl' or the word 'female' when talking about an activity like gaming," Vixen said. "It's just like a big label saying 'notice me, I'm stepping out of the norm.' Really it would be nice to work more on making a name for yourself as a great gamer rather than one who stands out merely for being female."

While the Frag Dolls defy the stereotype that girls don't play video games, they may be promoting a more insidious stereotype. It's the image of the Sexy Girl Gamer who resembles the sexy female game character -- and is just as corporately manufactured.

Selling the Dolls

The Frag Dolls' hot-yet-hardcore persona mirrors the female characters that inhabit video games - often, it seems, for the sole purpose of adding sex appeal to the games. Consalvo suspects that Ubisoft intends the Dolls to have a similar effect on the gaming community, using sex to sell more games.

"I would say that the markets targeted would include more young men than young women -- it seems to be more about marketing sex appeal than encouraging women to play," she says. "When was the last time you saw a game ad in Glamour, for example?"

You probably haven't. But if you've ever visited the site of America's Army (AA) -- the U.S. army's official video game -- you may have spotted some photos of Frag Dolls enthusiastically engaged in "realtime" combat. Turns out that Ubisoft produces AA, which is marketed almost exclusively to male consumers, as a tool for army recruitment. Signing on as a Frag Doll, then, means agreeing to embody a whole set of pre-inscribed ideas and philosophies, already determined by the company. Instead of spearheading a new generation of female power-gamers, the Frag Dolls may simply be disseminating the (male-centric) status quo, says Gadget Girl, a Thumb Bandit regular.

"Corporate sponsorship gives them a voice and an image," Gadget Girl says. "It allows them to perpetuate ideas that are already in existence and to cater to male fantasy." In this view, the Frag Dolls serve as mascots or symbols; objects intended to set off a certain male reaction.

No matter what market the Dolls are targeting, corporate sponsorship is counter to the goal of making the gaming world more equal for women, or anyone else, Vixen says. If more women are buying games because they've been lured in by a marketing ploy, that's manipulation-not feminism. (Keep in mind that, though the Frag Dolls are female, the marketers who conceptualized them are overwhelmingly male.)

"People do not like to feel that they have been pushed or even conned into buying something," she says. "The Frag Dolls are always essentially there to sell and promote for a games developer. They are the adverts."

Yet, if the Frag Dolls are indeed more Ubisoft-manufactured symbolage than feminist gamer-power, why the supergrrrl portrayal? Again, the answer may have more to do with the convoluted figure of the female video game character than the physical reality of real women who play video games.

Playing the Girl Gamer

Who is the girl inside the video game? Chances are, Consalvo says, she's one of a few stock characters: the princess who must be rescued, the deceptive seductress, the opponent who flashes her underwear when she loses. Even games that contain elements of resistance often follow standard patterns of gender-creation. Consalvo points to Final Fantasy XI, which incorporates the Mithra, a matriarchal race of hunters of whom only the females are playable. Though powerful and fem-centric, the Mithra are also catlike, sultry-eyed, and body-baring-and FFXI doesn't offer the option of outfitting them with pants.

Comic Girl notes that many video games don't even offer the option of a female character; in games like Gears of War (one of Vixen's top picks), the cast is 100 percent male.

"It's set in the future or another world, so you'd think a female soldier would be alright," Comic Girl says. "A bit silly really that games are fantasy, but they stick to rigid real world 'laws' about gender."

Vixen argues that many video games feature cool female characters, strong-but-sexy women like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, who Vixen calls "someone to look up to," comparing her to the leading lady of a Hollywood film.

Yet must "strong" video-game females always also be sexy, like the 5'9", 115-pound, 34C-busted Lara? Even many of the sites that challenge the Frag-Doll-esque objectification of female gamers don't question the sex-appeal ideal. Like the Frag Dolls, the VersuS girls devote a large portion of their website to photos and videos of themselves dressed in sexy outfits. (Their specialty is "posing like there's no tomorrow with freaky arm sock things.") Vixen and Siren's poses often mimic the postures of video-game characters they admire: fists in the air, scantily clad limbs swinging, hair blowing in the virtual wind. Where are all the not-so-conventionally-attractive female gamers to go-the ones who don't resemble Lara Croft mid-action? Many feminist gamers argue that instead of cloning more "Dolls," game manufacturers should grant freer reign to the fantasy elements of the virtual world-messing with our solidified notions of gender and aesthetics just as they mess with our notions of gravity, space and time.

Revolution 1.0: Engendering a New Kind of Gaming
It may be unfair to expect teams like the Frag Dolls -- or VersuS -- to revolutionize gaming culture, turning it feminist with a flutter of their (perfectly manicured) virtual hands. Instead, Consalvo says, the games themselves need to change -- challenging stereotypes instead of reinforcing them -- in order for women to feel welcome in gaming communities.

Is such a radical gaming evolution possible? Yep, according to Consalvo: despite their current boys' club image, video games are in a prime position to mess with stereotypes. They're interactive, and therefore have the constant potential to challenge players' expectations. The player may fight a gun battle in one moment, and then in the next, be confronted with a male character bursting into tears. Consalvo points to new games like The Bard's Tale, which parodies the standard save-the-princess plotline, and Primal and Beyond Good and Evil, which feature female characters in lead roles. She also notes that nonviolent games like Dance Dance Revolution (a danceoff based on rhythm and foot positioning) and Katamari Damacy (a surreal quest to rebuild the moon and stars) have been widening the audience for video games, and especially attracting more women. Comic Girl notes new possibilities emerging in games where players can create their own characters that need not fit into standardized conceptions of the female game-heroine.

Until the day when video-game companies and gaming culture wake up to the complexities of gender, Consalvo stresses the importance of websites like Womengamers, where communities of feminist-minded gamers can convene to critique the gaming industry, question gender and race assumptions, envision a virtual future of peace and equality, and obsess about their favorite games-no wide-eyed, huge-boobed accompanying caricatures required. Geek Woman, a top writer for womengamers.com, says these sites form the core of female gaming culture. They're where the women who are most serious about gaming go to find like minds...and where savvy game manufacturers should be spending more time.

"All those people doing psychological studies and taking surveys will never have a clue into the female gamer's psyche," says Geek Woman, who's been gaming since 1979. "We are the people that developers should be talking to."

On the Thumb Bandits site, visitors can read game reviews alongside academic studies such as "Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons? Gender Analysis of the 3rd Person shooter/adventure game with female heroine." The site even includes The Vagina Gamerlogues, a blog that examines current gaming trends through a feminist lens. As communities like Women Gamers and Thumb Bandits expand, feminist gamers hope that the changing of stock gender roles will become an integral part of the evolution of video games. At the very least, they say, the sites help spread the spirit of questioning those stereotypes among gamers, instead of simply promoting the games' status quo, ala Frag Dolls. They provide a space for female gamers to imagine the kinds of games they'd like to play - female main character included.

"Design me a female, gum-chewing, pigtailed, kung fu fightin' girl, in a leather jacket to play as," suggests Geek Woman, "and don't forget to pay me my royalties for the idea."


Maya Schenwar is an editor at Publications International, and served as Contributing Editor for the recently deceased Punk Planet magazine. She has written for Punk Planet, In These Times, Common Dreams, Alternet, Conscious Choice and NewCity Chicago. Maya can be reached at mschenwar [at] pubint [dot] com.


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