Searching for the next Frag Doll

Eight women travel to California to compete for a coveted spot on Ubisoft's professional video game team. The first of three parts. Photos: Frag Doll wannabes

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.--It's Saturday, April 1, and I'm at the famed THX Labs here to watch auditions for the Frag Dolls, video game maker Ubisoft's all-women professional video game team. No, this is not an April Fools' joke.

Ubisoft received dozens of Frag Doll applications and has invited eight women to compete for a slot on the team. If chosen, they'll join six existing , each of whom spends much of the year traveling on the team's behalf, playing in video game tournaments and promoting Ubisoft and its games.

The eight candidates and the six current Frag Dolls, as well as a host of others, including a crew filming the event for, have gathered here at 9 a.m. Everyone is milling about a giant warehouse space in THX's headquarters.

Because Ubisoft had granted GameTrailers the right to produce an episodic series about the event and the eventual winner, I was granted access to the event only after agreeing not to publish this story, or two that will follow it, until after the corresponding GameTrailers episodes had run.

As the candidates grab breakfast from a buffet of fruit, cereal and juices, a group of them gather in a circle of chairs to play "Mario Kart DS" wirelessly on Nintendo DS handhelds. Two of the devices are silver, one is pink and one is blue.

Strangely, even though the women--who range in age from 19 to 27, and who hail from Washington, Florida, Arizona, New York, Texas, Maryland and Oklahoma--are competing against each other for the Frag Dolls gig and though mostly, they have only met each other within the last day, they act like old friends.

"It's way better than I thought it would be," said Kari Toyama, a 21-year-old from Seattle. "It's much less nerve-wracking now that I've met all the girls. I've been walking around the hotel thinking, 'What am I doing here?' (But) we're all going to leave here friends and we all have personalities that match. It's not about competition in my mind."

Frag Dolls competition

Asked why that would be the case, and why the women already seem so close, Toyama continued, "Our circles, our friends, aren't gamers. They think we're weird. (So) we all have the same obsession with games."

Indeed, these women are serious about games. They refer to each other by their gamer nicknames--Nin9tyNin9, PerfectDark, Moe, Gypsy and so on--and they all claim to have been playing games since almost as long as they can remember.

On her resume, Gypsy, otherwise known as Monica Inderlied, a 21-year-old games writer from Norman, Okla., lists 140 games that she has played and/or "beaten" on consoles like the Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, GameCube, Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable.

Since last summer, when the "Grand Theft Auto" scandal hit, a cloud has hung over the video game industry as politicians and pundits alike have charged it with being too sexually graphic. In the months following the scandal, E3, the annual giant industry convention in Los Angeles, announced it would no longer allow "booth babes," the scantily clad models hired to promote games and their publishers.

As a result, groups like the Frag Dolls are constantly dealing with the charge that they are about promoting sex more than good game play.

But as hard-core gamers, the candidates here scoff at that notion. Michael Beadle, Ubisoft's public relations manager, acknowledges it's something each woman deals with anytime they play games in public.

"They wouldn't be here if they didn't have (serious) commitment," he said. "It's not just fun and games. It's a level of commitment that's kind of demanding sometimes. Plus, they're girls. They understand the nature of being girls in the space. We need to build bridges more than anything."

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