Role-Models or Ubisoft Dolls?

by Bonnie Ruberg - January 20, 2005, 10:00 pm PST

Are the Frag Dolls, a new clan of hot, Ubisoft-sponsored girl gamers, helping the girl gamer image, or are they just PR stunt play-things?

Discuss it in Talkback!

Ever heard of the Frag Dolls? They’re a relatively new clan of seven, hot girl gamers set up and funded by the publisher, developer, distributor Ubisoft. If you stick to Nintendo news, you may have missed them; it seems they play exclusively on Xbox. But GameCube fans beware: these girls are raising issues bigger than console loyalty.

Since the Frag Dolls started up this past September, there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not they’re “real.” Take a look at the image gallery on their website, www.fragdolls.com, and you can see pretty quickly why people might get suspicious. These girls don’t look like gamers, they look like models. And the Frag Dolls cartoon renderings don’t help the situation. They make things seem too well setup (without even going into what they do for the Dolls’ supposed “hardcore” image). Sure, the girls have blogs, and they play under their sexy pseudynoms on XBL. They even post their gaming schedules, so you can meet up with them online for some healthy competition. But who’s to say Valkyrie, the blond-haired vixen, is really holding the controller? The communicator headset ensures a girl has to be playing, but maybe it’s just Mary Sue, the unattractive girl gamer from Ubisoft accounting.

Those doubts were laid to rest the day the beautiful Frag Dolls - not their theoretical ugly doppelgangers - strutted into PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, entered the Black Arrow Tournament and kicked major butt. Now it’s impossible to deny: they’re real, and they’re good. So what’s an ordinary girl gamer to do? Try and imitate them? Worship them as girl gamer gods? In a world where girl gamers get so little respect, this has got to be a good thing. Right? This is where it gets complicated.

First off, it’s important to keep in mind, this is not a friendly clan of gamers simply out looking for a good time. Nor is it a previously-established clan that just happened to be picked up by a big-name publisher. The Frag Dolls, through and through, are an Ubisoft creation. These women, though they were presumably already serious gamers, didn’t know each other before joining the Dolls. They practice multiple times a week, but rarely in person, since they are considerably scattered, residing in Texas, Colorado and California. Even they admit that a big portion of what they do is promote the guys that pay the bills. You’ve got it, Ubisoft.

In short, they’re a big PR stunt.

Which isn’t to say they should be disregarded, or pushed to the sidelines. Whatever Ubisoft’s intentions, even a clan put together for publicity can have a worthwhile impact on the gaming community. That is, as long as their motives are clear.

Well, another big gripe forum-goers have had with the Frag Dolls is that they’ve been secretive about their involvement with Ubisoft. The majority of text on fragdolls.com omits any reference to the publisher, and the girls have been rumored to, without reasserting their connections, offer unfairly-high reviews of Ubisoft games. Admittedly, the very bottom of every page on their website bares a little water mark “Sponsored by Ubisoft.” And, as of November 1, the Dolls have made their involvement with publisher more straight forward via a post from Rhoulette, the only Frag Doll who is also a full-time Ubisoft employee, entitled, “A little extra clarification for those who are wondering.” The girls themselves seem unremorseful about their ties to the sponsor, deny covering up Ubisoft’s involvement, and insist in interviews that the real issue at hand is standing up for girl gamers.

What exactly about girl gamers do the Frag Dolls stand for?

Seemingly, girl power. In their “About Us” section they write, “We're here to represent the ladies in gaming with the taste and talent for beating you at your own games. So, for all you guys who think the only gals in gaming are the leather-clad, pixilated beauties on your screens, think again. We're real, and we've got the skills to teach you a few tricks of our own.” As a girl gamer myself, I have to admit, that doesn’t sound like a bad mission to me. Young girl gamers (and all gaming women, in fact) need strong leaders in the gaming community.

But, again, it isn’t that simple.

A lot of what the Frag Dolls say seems to earnestly support the mission for girl gamer rights and the convictions independent of Ubisoft. Said Rhoulette, “From the beginning it was obvious that the team’s success would be dependent on we girls contributing our own passion and purpose to the project. It’s definitely nice to get a paycheck for playing games, but all of us see this as more than just a fun source of income.” Still, she went on to state, “This is a community outreach effort on Ubisoft’s part as much as it is anything else.”

Now that’s the kind of thing Ubisoft likes to hear: we’re only in it for the gamers. And they’ve been making plenty of public-service claims of their own. "We're creating role models for a whole legion of girls out there who may have been too intimidated to play games online--or even play at all," said Ubisoft's online community manager Nate Mordo, as quoted in Zoe Flower’s piece, “Getting the Girl” on 1up.com. "For those who have bemoaned the fact that in-game heroines have tended to adhere to a certain template, I think that more women playing games means that we'll see more games that cater to this newly diverse audience."

Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that Ubisoft had such totally pure intentions? Let’s be honest. In the end, they’re a business, and they’re trying to make money. They’re allowed; that’s what they do. But let’s not pretend we’re creating unambiguous role-models here.

They are a couple of things that make the whole Frag Dolls setup so suspicious as a “community outreach effort.” The most obvious one is: why are all these girls gorgeous? If young girl gamers are so desperately in need of positive role models (which they are), why would you complicate the issue by choosing seven girls who look, to a large portion of the gaming world, like glorified booth babes? Ubisoft claims it’s doing this for the girls, but it seems to me the signs point elsewhere. Hot girls don’t usually attract other girls (and don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against hot girls), they attract boys. The math is simple. Hot girls + Ubisoft products = Boys like Ubisoft products. It’s one more instance where girls aren’t really being respected, just used to sell things. They’re not such great role-models any more.

Unless, of course, all these girls just happened to be gorgeous. The dolls were recruited in a process that started back in June, beginning with a “casting call” posted on craigslist.com. As Rhoulette puts it, “Respondents went through a multi-stage interview process in which the coordinators and candidates discussed the project’s overall goals and direction. In the final interview each candidate’s gaming skills were tested via Xbox Live. The competition was intense and offers were made to the cream of the crop.” While all of that sounds valid, it doesn’t answer the full spectrum of questions this girl gamer has about just how the Frag Dolls were selected. The Dolls’ public relations manager, though queried, hasn’t commented in response.

And what does the gaming public think? Do they feel swindled, betrayed, inspired? As could be expected, the reactions vary between guys and girls. Men, the traditional gamers, seem either genuinely surprised and enlightened at the prospect of being beaten by a girl (hooray!), stuck in the “Ooh, booth babes” phase, or repellent to the idea that girl gamers are people. Girls, on the other hand, seem to be almost unanimously pro-Frag Dolls. Killer Betties got an interview three of the Dolls, and Awenyddion, the interviewer, had this to say after the fact: “There you have it. I think that despite the initial pre-conceptions of them, they are what women gamers are all about... I touted them as role models for women earlier in the conversation and I will stand by it. We may not all be exactly like them but they are in essence the epitome of what we are.”

It seems to me, in a world full of biased notions about girl gamers, the real question is: are the Frag Dolls knocking down stereotypes, or reinforcing them? The answer, strangely enough, is both.

The Frag Dolls obviously feeling like they’re fighting the good fight. Said Rhoulette, “Being women who have been gaming for years, we have plenty of experience with the stereotypes that run rampant in gaming communities. By working in tandem with Ubisoft, we’ve gotten the opportunity to break down those misconceptions and show everyone from the hardcore gamers to the mainstream that girls not only enjoy games, we kick ass at them.”

But at the same time, by joining up with Ubisoft as gamer beauties, the Frag Dolls aren’t standing up for most actual girl gamers, only idealized ones, making it harder for real girls to break into gaming.

Who’s to blame? In my opinion, not the Frag Dolls - that is, not the women themselves. They seem to believe in the value of the work they’re doing, even if they are being naive in thinking they aren’t reinforcing stereotypes. They’re intelligent in all of their interviews and have constructive things to say about the industry. In the end, they’re employees, doing a job. Beyond that, they’re actors. They’ve been hired to play the role of sexy girl gamers, for good or bad, and they’re doing that. Instead, my finger’s pointed at Ubisoft. They had the opportunity here to establish real, unambiguous role models for girl gamers, a section of the market they (like most other publishers) have generally ignored. Instead, they let ulterior motives call the shots, and then covered up their clever PR with even clever public-service BS.

So Kudos to these girls for kicking ass (what else are they supposed to do?), but boo to Ubisoft for selecting only hot gamers, initially hiding its involvement and promoting backwards stereotypes. One thing’s for certain: money is nice, but this team would be a whole different story on its own, without a sponsor - an actual clan of unadulterated, beautiful or not, dedicated girl gamers. Then they’d be much better news for the world of real girl gaming.

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