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 Frag Dolls, 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 GameTrailers.com, 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."
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."
In any case, while the auditions will test the women on a number of levels, including their performance in on-camera interviews, answers to game industry-related questions from a panel of judges, writing and ability to demonstrate leadership skills, game play is clearly going to be the most important element as they compete for the job.
There will be game play on Saturday, too, they're told, but it will be unofficial, and free form. The existing Frag Dolls will be watching, looking for the candidates' strengths and leadership abilities.
"Some people are going to be able to improvise off what the leader is doing, and other people are going to be leaders."
--Morgan Romine, Ubisoft employee
But first, all eight women must go through media training with Ubisoft's Beadle--even though only one will ultimately be hired.
Indeed, throughout the training, Beadle refers to all the women as Frag Dolls, likely trying to make them feel comfortable and help them forget that they're in the middle of a competition. In fact, Beadle exudes comfortable, and he seems almost like a den mother to the women.
Later, everyone files into a studio room where eight Xbox 360s are set up for multiplayer game play. As the women listen, Morgan Romine, the Frag Dolls' leader and a Ubisoft marketing employee, explains what the company is looking for in a new team member.
"Obviously, (we're looking for) gaming skills," Romine said. But also, "teamwork and communication. Each person has their own style. Some people are going to be able to improvise off what the leader is doing, and other people are going to be leaders. (It's about) getting along with everybody."
Then the game play begins.
Seven of the candidates are playing with Valkyrie, one of the veteran Frag Dolls. It's team play, four-on-four, and they're blowing each other away in "Halo 2."
The noise of gunfire and explosions are nonstop. But those sounds are overwhelmed by the sounds of the women laughing and talking smack at each other.
The play is spirited, and even though the women know this round of play doesn't count officially, they also know they're being watched. So they're going at it full-bore.
"This is one of the best matches I've ever been in," shouts Shannon Hommerbocker.
Over on one side of the room, six people are gathered to watch Alyson Craghead, a 21-year-old from Mesa, Ariz., play. She's known, I'm told, as one of the best "Halo 2" players around, and sure enough, she is blowing her opponents away left and right.
The banter goes something like this:
"You're lucky, that was lucky," Toyama said.
"That was a double team," Inderied said. "That wasn't fair."
"This is a friggin' beat-down," said Toyama. "You stole my kill."
"Oh my God, I can't aim with this controller," said Heather Boyd, 22, from Vero Beach, Fla.
As the game play continues, Hommerbocker shouts out something that lays out the biggest difference the women here see between themselves and guy gamers, since they sincerely believe they can beat anyone who challenges them.
"The best part of coming into a gaming room (where women are playing) is that it smells good," Hommerbocker said, "because we're all girls and we smell nice."
Up next: Frag Doll candidates battle it out in several hours of formal tournament play.