How the Frag Dolls Blazed a Trail for Women Gamers
It started as a marketing plan, but it helped dozens of women get into the games industry.
Frag Dolls at E3 2005. Founder Morgan Romine is in the back, second from the left. Image: Frag Dolls/Facebook
When the all-female professional gamer team Frag Dolls was established in 2004, it didn't just want to show the world that women played games. It wanted you to know that they could kick your ass.
The Frag Dolls accomplished that goal, and while last week the group announced that it's finally disbanding, its legacy lives on.
Morgan "Rhoulette FD" Romine, who founded the Frag Dolls while working as a community manager at Ubisoft and who was team captain until 2011, said it was fun surprising their male competition.
"We thrived on the delight of challenging people's assumptions," she wrote on the Frag Dolls website (now defunct). "We have countless memories of the reactions from people who had simply taken for granted that only teenage boys ever played games competitively. We discovered a deep wellspring of satisfaction in breaking that stereotype, and sometimes seeing perspectives shift, even just slightly."
The Frag Dolls were always meant to promote Ubisoft's games
The Frag Dolls took first place in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas at the Cyberathlete Professional League in 2006, making it the first all-female team to win an eSports event, though nobody was calling it eSports at the time. It was also the first all-female team to earn a semi-pro status from Major League Gaming.
It was originally founded by Ubisoft to promote its first-person shooter Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow, and went on to promote other Ubisoft games for the next 11 years, recruiting 22 members along the way.
It started as an elaborate marketing plan. The Frag Dolls helped Ubisoft sell games to women by showing that these competitive shooters weren't just for boys, and they helped market the same games to men in the same way we use women to market everything from Hondas to Cialis.
In that time, however, the Frag Dolls also served as a support group and invaluable stepping stone for women in the games industry.
In 2004, the mere existence of an all-female team made waves.
"I have this vivid memory of when Halo 2 came out," Romine said. "I pre-ordered it and went to pick it up at a GameStop on the midnight release. They guy behind the counter asked me if I got it for my boyfriend. It was pretty normal to get that reaction I guess, but I was working for Ubisoft at the time and I had to shake my head and laugh."
Romine said in her farewell letter last week that more than 80 former team members and alumni of the Frag Dolls Cadette program have gone on to work at game companies like Electronic Arts, Blizzard, Nintendo, Twitch, Microsoft, Oculus, Ubisoft, and more.
"That's honestly one of the best things we ever did," Romine told me. "It's the lasting legacy that I'm super proud of."
The Cadette program was born out of the huge response to Frag Dolls casting calls. The team started with seven members and kept a limited headcount of 10 members over the years in order to afford their part-time and full-time salaries.
"But every time we did a casting call, we met so many amazing other women who loved games and who wanted to be in the industry and were desperate for this opportunity to get their foot in the door somehow," Romine said. "It was heart wrenching to only hire one even when everyone was awesome, so we decided to create the Cadette program."
That Cadette program offered a six months internship for 10 to 12 women. They'd help the Frag Dolls create content and Ubisoft would bring them to gaming events like E3 and PAX to demo the company's games.
The experience and connections they gained in that time helped them get into an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.
"That seed of misogyny has always been there. I think it's more organized now or it's seen as more acceptable because it's more common."
"That's hugely important," Romine said. "That's how you get jobs in the industry, and when you're a minority you have to boost each other a little bit more. It's become a great support network."
The decision to disband the team comes at a strange time. The last year has been especially nasty to women in games, with an organized harassment campaign wreaking havoc on the lives of developers like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and other women in the industry.
"I definitely remember times when people would say after they met us at an event, 'yeah, I thought you guys were lame but then we met you in real life and you kicked our asses, so you're pretty cool,'" Romine said. "That seed of misogyny has always been there," Romine said. "I think it's more organized now or it's seen as more acceptable because it's more common. But it was a regular part of what we dealt with."
As Romine pointed out, a recent study from the Entertainment Software Association found that 44 percent of game players are women these days, though this figure also counts massively popular mobile games like Candy Crush Saga.
"We're making progress and one of the results is that we're seeing some unhappy weird things over the last year, but another thing is that the Frag Dolls are no longer a novelty," Romine said. "We no longer stand out like 'whoa, they're women and they're playing games,' now it's like yeah, duh, women are playing games."
The Frag Dolls also drifted away from their competitive roots over the last five years, showing off Ubisoft's Just Dance and Assassin's Creed games, which are nothing like the squad-based shooters they were initially known for.
The team has been winding down for a while now, with several members dropping out over the last six months to pursue other jobs in the industry, but the decision ultimately came from Ubisoft.
"They got some new management like nine months ago and they couldn't quite decide on a new direction," she said. "You could try to force things or you can let it take its natural course and we all feel good about where we're leaving off."
Romine doesn't begrudge Ubisoft. The Frag Dolls were always meant to promote the company's games, and they were able to justify the Cadette program by letting them help at events, but the they were also valuable in ways that are harder to measure.
"Ubisoft recognized that they were putting their resources into something that was helping in a way that's not going to be overtly beneficial to their brands, but beneficial to the industry," Romine said. "I know that they got some shit last year for various reasons, but they supported us for 10 years, and did a great job, at least by our industry standards, of supporting gender diversity. I think they've been ahead of the curve on that by taking a risk on us."