In July 2010, San Diego Comic Con was launching into full, chaotic swing. When Anne-Marie “Spectra” Wilson took the Ubisoft stage, the noisy crowds didn’t faze her. As a member of the Frag Dolls, she was in her element.
The Frag Dolls — a team of female professional gamers employed by publisher Ubisoft — helped host dozens of events like San Diego Comic Con every year. Wilson and her teammates routinely destroyed their foes in tournaments for Ubisoft games like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six.
What was different this time around was that Wilson was eight months pregnant. It was unusual for heavily pregnant women to be onstage at San Diego Comic Con, but Wilson didn’t want to miss the event, even though she didn’t look, as she said, “conventionally pretty.” She was excited to get onstage to emcee and dance, and show fans that mothers and mothers-to-be could be gamers, too.
From its inception in 2004 to its dissolution in 2015, the Frag Dolls caused contentious debate. Did the women it employed have real talent, or were they glorified booth babes? Was an all-women team necessary, or did it set women gamers back?
According to Wilson and her fellow Frag Dolls, the answer is simple: The Frag Dolls gave a diverse set of women confidence and career opportunities in a time when few other organisations took those chances. The team enjoyed crushing expectations about how women were supposed to look and act while gaming, and Wilson took pleasure in subverting the ideal of a youthful, flat-stomached gamer girl.
“I felt really empowered because I felt like I was breaking stereotypes,” Wilson said. “I had just as much value as a huge pregnant lady to the team and to Ubisoft.”
The Frag Dolls blazed a high-profile trail for other women who wanted into the games industry. There were no other groups like it.
And today, in 2019, there still aren’t.
Morgan Romine didn’t intend to found a group like the Frag Dolls when she started working with Ubisoft in 2003. But when the publisher hired her to run activities like in-game tournament promotions, Romine began getting pushback for her gender.
“People would be like, ‘Whoa, there’s a girl playing Ghost Recon,’” Romine said. When she told her coworkers, some of her male colleagues laughed. One joked that it would be funny to form a group of kick-butt women who would blow their gaming opponents out of the water.
Romine took her coworker seriously, as did brand manager Nate Mordo and public relations manager Michael Beadle. Unlike some of Romine’s other male coworkers, Mordo and Beadle agreed that a team of truly talented women would be good for both girl gamers in general and for Ubisoft’s brand. In 2004, the three of them co-founded the Frag Dolls as a team with a “mission to encourage more women to play and support those who did,” according to Beadle, who is now Ubisoft’s director of public relations.
Beadle, Mordo, and Romine all collaborated on marketing and strategy, and Romine also became one of the first Frag Dolls under her gamer tag, Rhoulette. The other six women—Katscratch, Brookelyn, Eekers, Jinx, Seppuku, and Valkyrie—were recruited for their top-notch skills at Ubisoft games.
The Frag Dolls were paid around $28 an hour (per Romine’s recollection) to juggle a variety of tasks, from training and competing in Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell titles to writing blog posts and creating promotional videos. Other than Romine, the women worked remotely, except when Ubisoft flew them to competitions and conventions.
Since they were hourly workers, the Frag Dolls’ financial stability was tied to the calendar. The busy summer months brought a deluge of events and billable hours, while December and January were slow.
Thanks to their novelty and a Ubisoft PR push, the Frag Dolls achieved widespread popularity, and sites like CNet and PC Gamer Mag regularly covered their activity.
In 2006, they became the first all-female team to win a mixed-gender esports competition when they took first place at a Rainbow Six Vegas tournament. When Twitter went mainstream, the Frag Dolls were one of the most popular early accounts, with over one million followers by 2009. They were among the first wave of online influencers.
Not all the online reception was positive. “People would be like, ‘Ugh, this is a marketing ploy,’ or ‘Ugh, they’re just models hired to play games.’ Which we thought was hilarious, because none of us were models,” Romine said. From the beginning, they distanced themselves from the stereotype of scantily-clad booth babes: women whose sexual appeal was meant to draw fans to publishers’ convention booths and who had little knowledge about the games they were advertising. “We had on jeans and t-shirts,” Romine said.
At the time, I had doubts that I hardly knew how to voice. The early persona of the Frag Dolls exuded a tough-girl sexiness that played into girl gamer stereotypes even as it dispelled them. In their earliest publicity photos, the Frag Dolls stared down the camera, ghosts of smiles on their lips, some with midriffs bared by their tank tops.
In the mid-2000s, I was just entering my teens, and I was painfully aware of the difference between my own gawky body and the cool, polished allure of the Frag Dolls. They are not like me, I remember thinking, and the thought stung. Did I need to have that kind of beauty to make up for my unfeminine obsession with games?
This was not the idea that the Frag Dolls were trying to convey, according to Romine. “We actually thought a lot about [our image],” she said. “We were threading multiple stereotypes simultaneously.” For Romine and the rest of the Frag Dolls, daring to look good was itself an act of resistance against the idea that women who gamed were ugly and awkward.
“We were proud to defy that stereotype and enjoyed looking good while kicking arse,” Romine said. “We genuinely liked playing with make-up and fashion, too, and had a blast during photoshoots.”
But the Frag Dolls were aware that looking too sexy also risked backlash. They always wore sneakers at events—the result of a Puma sponsorship, yes, but it prevented long days on showroom floors in heels. When Penthouse approached them about an article, Romine turned the magazine down, even though the story didn’t require a revealing photoshoot. “We didn’t want to risk having the Frag Dolls brand associated with Penthouse,” she said.
In Wilson’s opinion, the Frag Dolls looked good in publicity photos thanks to their confidence. “When you have professional people doing your hair and makeup, you’re going to look pretty decent. And then you throw confidence on top of that, and boom! You’ve got a cover girl.” The women were only required to wear makeup during photo shoots, which took place a few times a year. During public appearances, they were free to style themselves however they wanted.
Yet I still have questions about the Frag Dolls and objectification, questions that are tricky to answer. Most of the women were slender yet feminine, with long, shining hair and expertly applied eyeshadow. Only a handful seemed to fall outside that ideal body shape and appearance. I wondered if the way the women looked mattered when they auditioned for the team. Did Ubisoft make beauty a requirement?
When I asked Romine these questions, she offered an emphatic no. The applicant pool did skew towards traditionally attractive body types, but a woman’s appearance would never have determined whether she made the team, Romine said. In fact, she said, most of the women who did win a spot had average body types and were not fashion industry-thin.
This included Anne-Marie Wilson during her pregnancy, and it also included her. Once, a clothing company invited the Frag Dolls for a photo shoot. When Romine arrived, she realised that all the brand’s clothes were too small. Romine wears a size eight, which is significantly smaller than the American average. (According to Plunkett Research, 68 per cent of American women wear a size 14 or larger.)
“They tried to put some of the clothes on me. And it just didn’t work. For a size eight to be considered too big…” She trailed off, still clearly frustrated.
These days, Romine has a PhD in cultural anthropology, so she’s well-qualified to offer a theory on why the applicant pool didn’t look very diverse. “Being in public all the time...probably was a barrier for a lot of people,” she said. No matter how they looked, the Frag Dolls were always going to be subjected to comments from a community notoriously critical of women’s bodies. Women who thought they looked too fat, or too skinny, or too curvy, or not curvy enough may have self-selected out of the application process. This was something Romine wished she could have changed. “If Froskurinn had been around, I absolutely would have tried to recruit her,” she said, referring to Indiana Juniper Black, an esports player and coach with a famously androgynous style.
By 2009, Romine recognised that the Frag Dolls could provide valuable industry exposure for women who might otherwise struggle to get into video games, so she started an internship program called the Cadettes. With this program, the Frag Dolls looked for young women who were already confident, then nurtured their industry knowledge alongside their esports skills.
Melonie “Cryptik” Mac was one of the earliest Cadettes. She’d originally tried out to be a Frag Doll in 2005, but crippling shyness held her back. “I didn’t even get past the phone interview because I was so shy,” she said. “I wanted it so bad… I just choked.”
From there, Mac’s desire to become a Frag Doll only intensified. She started a YouTube channel to practice her on-camera skills. Five years later, when the Cadette program launched, Mac had grown confident enough to win a spot. She made it on the spring 2010 roster.
From there, the gaming world opened up before her. Ubisoft flew her to PAX East and E3 to demo their newest games. “I never had the means to go to a gaming event,” Mac said. “I saw it like a kid views Disney World.” In 2011, she was promoted to full Frag Doll status. Today, post-Frag Dolls, Mac is a GameStop TV host and a YouTuber with more than 330,000 subscribers.
Mac credits the Frag Dolls with her professional success, and she’s not alone. Emily “Seppuku” Ong, Kimberly “Sabre” Weigend, and Renelly “Psyche” Morel were all hired full-time by Ubisoft. Ashley “Jynx” Jenkins founded the news division of Rooster Teeth. Nicole “Daze” Cullop co-founded a talent management agency for esports figures. Krystal “SiREN” Herring is now the event director for Twitch’s TwitchCon.
Ironically, these women’s individual success may have been the team’s undoing. By 2015, the Frag Dolls were gone.
On May 29, 2015, Ubisoft announced that it was dissolving the Frag Dolls.
One implication in the publisher’s official messaging was that women had found their footing in the games industry, which made the group seem unnecessary. In Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico’s goodbye video, she said that women had made great strides in the past ten years. Romine addressed this in her own statement, writing, “We can count it as progress that ‘girls playing games’ is no longer the source of surprise that it once was.”
But according to Quirico, internal politics at Ubisoft played a huge part in the Frag Dolls’ demise. Quirico said that beginning in 2014, Ubisoft began scaling back the team’s billable hours, forcing members of the Frag Dolls to find other sources of income.
When asked this week about the closure, Ubisoft’s Michael Beadle said, “The reason the team ended was a combination of a change of direction for meeting the marketing goals and how Ubisoft supported game launches and activations and that it was just the right time to move on.”
“Internally, there were dynamics that had shifted and the goals and needs for such a team changed,” Beadle added when asked about the reduction of hours.
By May of 2015, Quirico was the only remaining Frag Doll who had not either left or been hired full-time by Ubisoft. At that point, Ubisoft was planning the launch of MatchGrade Nation, a Rainbow Six marketing initiative described as a Frag Doll replacement.
Ubisoft asked Quirico if she would stay on to train the talent they’d hired as the faces of Matchgrade Nation, she said. When Quirico asked for more money in order to take on training and organizational responsibilities, Ubisoft refused. That was when Quirico quit, too.
Quirico said that at the time she felt not only let down at what she saw as management’s disrespect toward the Frag Dolls, she was disappointed that women would no longer have a group like this as a role model. “Whatever some people at Ubisoft were saying about... the all-female intention, [the Frag Dolls] spoke for themselves in creating jobs and opportunities for the women that got involved. I think it was a tool that we lost way too soon,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Frag Dolls Twitter handle was changed to MatchGrade Nation, and the account that had once belonged to the Frag Dolls began posting solely Rainbow Six Siege content. The new brand was “something that really catered more to the hardcore fan base and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege,” said Beadle. The MatchGrade Nation initiative only lasted about a year, going inactive in 2016. Beadle explained that when one of the MatchGrade Nation hosts left for a full-time job in the gaming industry, “that really marked the end of the team—it absolved shortly after and was not reinstated.”
Today, there are no institutions like the Frag Dolls, though a few offer some of the benefits. PMS Clan, co-founded by former Frag Doll Amy “Valkyrie” Brady and her twin sister Amber Dalton, is an online community for women gamers. Its forums have nearly 60,000 members, and it organizes meetups in cities all over the world.
In 2018, Twitch and scholarship program 1DF announced BroadcastHER, a grant of $2,821 meant to help female streamers make professional strides like attending conferences and buying better equipment.
Still, every former Frag Doll I spoke to said they wished the group was still around, not only to act as a public image for women who game, but to funnel women into paid positions in the industry. “[The team] was instrumental in helping a lot of girls get into the game industry, or even realise that’s possible,” said Wilson.
Many fans have hoped that Ubisoft would launch another iteration of the team, but this May will mark the fourth anniversary of the Frag Dolls’ dissolution. That passage of time raises a question: is anyone going to champion women gamers’ visibility on such a large scale again?
“We still need the Frag Dolls,” said Melonie Mac. Over the phone, her voice sounded equal parts nostalgic and hopeful. “We still need that voice.”