Friday, June 08, 2007

Frag Dolls: Friend or Foe?

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a gamer. I've been playing video games for as long as I can remember. My father loved video games and bought a 2600 when they came out. My parents picked up a computer back when they were using cassette tapes as data storage. Given how much I love video gaming, it should come as no surprise that I'm very interested in the intersection between my hobby and my socio-political beliefs. I've been really interested in how gaming and feminism intersect and overlap... if they do.

Women have really gotten a raw deal when it comes to gaming. Historically, games have been made by men for men. When most people think of a gamer, they probably think of either a child, or the stereotypical fan-boy living in a basement eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew (Sorry, Jimmycav). There may have even been a time when that was true, but now? No way. Gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry. It's huge. It's time for the industry to recognize the fact that roughly 43% of gamers are women, and quit churning out the typical sexist fanboy bullshit.

It's time for women to be recognized as real gamers.

It's as impossible to talk about women in gaming without mentioning the Frag Dolls as it is to talk about women in games and not mention Lara Croft, I suspect. When you talk about women gamers with other gamers, the Frag Dolls are almost always going to come up. And why not? They're very visable women gamers who make a living through their gaming. They're like the poster-children for the women in gaming movement.

And yet...
And yet...

I can't help but have reservations about the Frag Dolls.

At least, I have reservations about thinking of the Frag Dolls as particularly feminist. Obviously, they're women. From what I can tell, they're solid gamers, too. They've won a number of tournies, which is great. As for being good for women gamers in general, though? As for sending a positive message about women and gaming? As for being feminist?

Some background, perhaps?

The Frag Dolls are a corporate gaming team put together by Ubisoft, through a craigslist ad, back in 2004. They serve multiple functions: They compete in tournaments, push Upisoft products, and attend industry events. Their main goal, they claim, is to encourage women to play games. They are, they say, trying to change the image of women gamers, and increase awareness of the female market. That's not a bad goal, I think.

And yet...
And yet...

What is it about the Frag Dolls that scratches the back of my brain? What is it about them that makes it so hard for me to say "Hey, great work"? The more I think about it, the less convinced I become that they're really doing that much good for women, the industry, or feminism. Maybe I'm wrong, though. Maybe they're great? Maybe they're really just what we need? Women gamers who make a name for themselves and show that women are every bit the gamers that men are?

And yet...
And yet...

It took me a little while to really start to figure out what my problem is, but I'm getting there. Let's start with the obvious, shall we? I'm hardly the first person to point this out, but I think it's worth noting. It really bothers me that all of the Frag Dolls are pretty stereotypically attractive. There's a reason that they're accused of being glorified "Booth Babes" by critics- Ubisoft has selected a bunch of women who largely conform to acceptable beauty standards. They're all thin, mostly white, and young. Conversations about the Frag Dolls on any given gaming site are at least as likely to be about how hot X member is as they are to be about how talanted they are.

That's troubling.

Of course, Ubisoft is quick to argue that the Frag Dolls are not booth babes. They're not just models, they say.

And yet...
And yet...

When the casting call went out that the Frag Dolls were looking for two more members, they got dozens of responses. They selected only eight for consideration.
Should I be surprised that all eight are... drum roll... thin and attractive? Should I be shocked that the winners were 21 and 19?

I suspect not.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with being attractive. As I mentioned in my other post, I don't think that one's looks should have anything to do with how talanted one is, or how one's accomplishments are viewed. But, when we're talking about a team put together by a business, I think that it's worth noting. Maybe it's a big coincidence that all of their Frag Dolls are thin and attractive? Maybe it's just chance that they're mostly white? Maybe that's all unintentional?

Of course... it's interesting that, according to a former member of the Frag Dolls' Uk team, applicants were required to submit 15 pictures of themselves before being told what the project was all about. The article is interesting, in that it shows how much focus Ubisoft wanted on the women and not on their gaming. From wanting photographs prior to disclosing the project, to making sure that the camera stays on the women and not the games they're playing, to The implication seems obvious to me: While Ubisoft may claim that the Frag Dolls are a way to get more women involved in gaming, the focus is at least as much about getting attention from men, too. The Frag Dolls may not be booth babes, but Ubisoft definately treats them like pin-ups or poster girls.

Or, despite their claims to the contrary... as booth babes. When they make public appearences at conventions or launch parties, they're dressed up, standing in front of the demo, handing out t-shirts and getting their pictures taken standing with male attendees. They play Ubisoft games, and endorse Ubisoft products, and are paid by Ubisoft. That's their job. They're there to shill and promote Ubisoft products to the public. Despite the fact that Ubisoft originally tried to push the Frag Dolls as an Ubisoft sponsored clan, the group rarely do competitions (the UK group hasn't done a single competition since they were formed over a year ago).

So, the Frag Dolls are a group of thin, attractive women who are paid to promote Ubisoft products and spend most of their time in public handing out t-shirts and creating buzz for Ubisoft?

Now... that sounds familiar... Isn't there a name for someone that does that?

Maybe I'm being unfairly harsh?

And yet...
And yet...

Even the name bothers me, to be honest. It's a personal thing, but I'm not comfortable with the whole "women as plaything" terminology. Women aren't dolls. They're not toys. They're not a plaything. Dolls are passive... they're played with and acted upon.

I think that the Frag Dolls have probably been great for Ubisoft. They've got a bunch of attractive women that they're using for sex appeal to draw attention to Ubisoft products. When they go to conventions and tournaments, men line up just for a chance to have pictures taken with them. They hand out promotional photographs of themselves. It's great publicity for Ubisoft.

Is it good for women, though?
Is it good for gaming?

That's what I keep coming back to. Are the Frag Dolls good for anyone but Ubisoft? I just can't get to "yes" on that one. I just can't see how the Frag Dolls are anything but another attempt by a business to use women's bodies to sell products. The Frag Dolls might like playing games, but it's not their talants that are being marketed- it's their bodies.

I can't help but feel like the Frag Dolls just reinforce a lot of harmful imagery. Ubisoft is marketing them as sex, and it seems to me that they're just reinforcing traditional beauty standards. Their value as "dolls" is directly related to how attractive they are. They're there as eye-candy for the men gamers. Sure, they play games, too, but, as I said above, that's not the primary focus of the marketing behind them. They're mostly there to look pretty and draw in men to the Ubisoft products. And that's harmful. They've created a very public face for women gamers, and that face is thin, young, white, and stereotypically attractive.

I also think they're bad for gaming, in some ways. Groups like the Frag Dolls keep reinforcing the message that sexism sells and sells well. It keeps gaming trapped in this area where they give lip-service to the idea that women should be involved, but only if they appeal to men. I don't see that they're breaking new ground or doing anything to help the industry grow and branch out and show that games can be great for men and women. The gaming industry is already plagued by sexism, and I just don't see that the Frag Dolls do anything to challange that. If anything, they reinforce it.

That's not to say that they don't do any good. There are certainly women gamers who've come out because of the Frag Dolls. Any time an article is published about them, there are women who comment too, and who show support for women gamers. There are women who've started their own gaming guilds in opposition to or because of the Frag Dolls. I think that's great. The Frag Dolls, in some ways, brought more attention to women in gaming.

So, consider me torn. My gut feeling is that the Frag Dolls are just one more example of a company exploiting women's bodies to push products, but maybe that's me being cynical? Maybe I'm missing something deeper? Maybe they're really good for the industry and good for women?


Cross posted at 79 Soul.


Stupendousness said...

I saw the picture before I read your post. The first thing I thought was "Sex sells."

Those shirts are obviously at least one size too small for them, so that the material clings to their thin bodies and the hems ride up just enough to show more skin. That style of shirt is going to fit snug no matter what; I know because I have some. But they couldn't get them in mediums and larges?

I'm not torn. I think it's crap. I'm sure each individual woman in the Frag Dolls is having a great time because hey, they get paid to play games! But they're obviously tools of Ubisoft.

This may be a bit off topic, but I'm reminded of the Wii commercials. They have two older, nice Japanese men driving around in a funky little car to spread the joy of Wii around to families in their homes. It's like grandpa coming to visit, with presents!

But I haven't seen all of their promotional materials. And games that objectify women are still being made by Nintendo and for Nintendo.

Angela said...

Saw your shameless promotion on feministing :-)

I'm not a big gamer, so I didn't hear of the frag dolls until they were at a gaming venue in my local movie theatre. I looked at the promotional handout (not actually given to me - it was left at the concession counter) and laughed about it all night. I do believe the advertisement specifically said that you had the opportunity to "meet" the Frag Dolls (utterly ridiculous name) - which implied to me that they were going to be a bunch of pretty girls in tight shirts shilling crap. It sounds like I wasn't too far off the mark.

On the one hand I totally think more women need to get involved in gaming. The Frag Dolls, however, don't encourage women like me to play more (or play publically).

Cara said...

I'm definitely going with "sex sells" on this one, too. Your description of them really screamed SPICE GIRLS to me. Pretty, grouped together by a corporation, highly commercialized, with a thin veneer of "girl power." Did the Spice Girls make some little girls want to sing? I'm sure they did. But that doesn't make them feminist.

Nique said...

Well Cookie-man, I came here through feministing and let me just say that you've renewed my faith in humanity in general and men in particular.
I read so many shitty posts every day about all the horrible things misogynists are doing every day and sometimes it just breaks my spirit. But then I read a blog like this and my will to live is renewed. Thanks dude.

Oh, and also, the Frag Dolls are ridiculous. Sure, they are women and gamers, so they sort of represent women gamers but they are also sex toys, used to sell Ubi products. They are booth babes, plain and simple and it's just icky.

Jimmycav said...

Ok first,

"they probably think of either a child, or the stereotypical fan-boy living in a basement eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew (Sorry, Jimmycav)."

I just want to point out that I never lived in the basement.

Second, and more directly related to your post, I sort of had the same feeling when the Charlie's Angels movies came out a few years back. I remember women (particularly ones being interviewed on talk shows/cable news shows) being excited about those movies displaying powerful female role models. All I could think of was the title itself, "CHARLIE'S ANGELS!" The name itself implies possession...doesn't that lend itself to sexism?

Not only that, but could size -1 Cameron Diaz could really kick the crap out of that many dudes. Maybe I'm being overly critically and not appropriately suspending my disbelief...but come on. I guess I'm going with stupendousness on this one. Sex sells. I wish I could boil it down to something more profound, but it's hard to be profound when dealing with something so dreadfully base.

ShelbyWoo said...

Incredibly long-winded comment alert:

I would say that Ubisoft is using these women target the same old demographic, young males. Being somewhat of a gamer myself, with some female friends that also game, I can safely say that none of us are under a size 12 or under the age of 30. I would be nice if we could move away from this idea that it’s weird for a woman to like playing videogames. You should see some of the reactions I get from folks in my office when I slip up and mention I like to play (nothing compared to the ones I get if I mention D&D!). Then I catch myself saying things like, “Well, I don’t play that often” or “It’s just a silly, fun game.” Why am I apologizing for enjoying a hobby?

Of course, the “young males” that play the games are just as bad. I try to avoid games that have in-game mics. The minute I speak the questions and comments start: “Are you really a chick/girl?” “You sound hot.” “Are you really playing?” “What do you look like?” I try to avoid replying (which has gotten me called “bitch” on more than one occasion). I often give in and reply “Shut up and f*&%ing play!” sometimes that is followed by more name-calling. The name calling inevitably gets worse if I win/beat them. I've been called a bitch, whore, cunt, slut, and much much worse just because I won or was the top player. If we can stop that kind of crap, I think more women would play. Then comes the monumental task changing the industry.

The Sims is the best-selling PC game of all time. The biggest consumers of the Sims are female. We have the power to push a game to the best-selling PC game of ALL TIME (in under 6 years), yet we are treated as nothing more that sex objects in the industry.

A side note: I credited my love of gaming to my mother. I remember falling asleep to the sounds of Breakout, Pac-Man, and Yars Revenge many a night. She always held the high score for those three games. She once spent 8 hrs straight regaining her Yars Revenge high score. She was/is a Principal at a special needs school, a volunteer in the community, and a mother to two daughters (and now two grandsons). And she plays videogames.

We’re out there...and we’re kickin’ your ass!

Roy said...

Thanks everyone!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that this is shadey at best.

Shelbywoo: I know exactly what you're talking about. I used to play CounterStrike all the time, and whenever there were women players, they used to constantly get hit on or insulted. Misogyny and homophobia are both rampent in online gaming. It's one of those situations where I'm not quite sure what the solution is. I think that the industry itself bears some of the responsibility for change, since they've thrived in and encouraged a blatantly sexist heteronormative environment, but I also think that a lot of work needs to be done with gamers themselves. Ubisoft is responsible for using women to sell products, but the players are responsible for their actions, too. I've called people out on their actions before when I was playing, and gotten banned from servers for doing so, but I think that it's important to keep trying. I'm glad that your experiences haven't caused you to stop gaming, though. I think that helps. I sort of hope that eventually people like you and me outnumber the asshats.

And you should definitely be kicking their asses. =D

Anonymous said...

Nice site you have hear Roy. {Bookmarked)

Frag Dolls = Booth Babes.

Sara E Anderson said...

I think it's pretty clear how much they're valuing women when they refer to them as "dolls."

Anonymous said...

In addition to everything you said, the poses in the photo make it overwhelmingly obvious that the Frag Dolls are not exactly liberating women. See if you haven't already.