Shooting her way into the public eye
We're used to seeing sports stars branded by Nike or Reebok, but it can take a bit more work for video-game celebrities. As Morgan Romine, captain of the Frag Doll video-game team says, "Gamer culture tends to be very cynical and shy about being marketed to. People are like, 'Oh, you're selling out.' But there's no other way to get paid."
The Frag Dolls are the first all-female team to win an event at a pro-circuit gaming tournament. They're also spokeswomen for video-game producer Ubisoft. Romine will be speaking from her experience with Ubisoft at SXSW on marketing to girl gamers and for girl gaming groups.
It's a necessary experience, too. When it comes to video-game endorsements, the Frag Dolls have to fight two battles. "Gaming is pretty new, especially in the public eye," Romine says. "People know who LeBron James is, and that's the image the company buys. We have a bigger task in that we are trying to bring gaming into the mainstream. Right now people think, 'Oh those girls play video games, and video games are something people play professionally. That's new.' So we represent the movement as well as Ubisoft."
Adding to the conundrum is the way that gamers and game marketers approach advertising. When we actually see LeBron or any of the other nine stars of Nike's "Second Coming" campaign, it's looking hard in stylish white warm-ups or jamming the ball to a bass-heavy soundtrack. The Frag Dolls have to actually talk to people.
"A lot of gamers wouldn't be comfortable with what we do," Romine says. "They wouldn't want to go out and talk to people, but our ability to do that helps us do our job. But that's part of the marketing that gamers are cynical about: 'You're good at talking, so you can't be a gamer.'"
And once the Frag Dolls get talking, it's not just their image they're marketing. It's their word. While it seems like Peyton Manning ads may have finally overreached a saturation-to-plausibility ratio, few people worry whether or not Tiger Woods believes in General Motors.
Gamers, however, seem to actually need to believe their spokespeople. Whether it's in anonymous forum-posting or major daily newspapers, gamers and game journalists dither over how Ubisoft might be tricking them.
"We need them to understand that we don't promote games we don't actually like," Romine says. "Usually whatever Ubisoft puts out, there's at least one person on the team that likes it. If the girls just can't get into the game, they don't work on it. And you can choose which companies you work with. You don't need to lie."
It doesn't help that the women are pretty. They've come under fire for being standard convention-floor booth babes the geek equivalent of auto-show car models instead of legitimate players. LeBron only wishes he had that problem.
"We're always working against sexism," she says, "but we also get a lot of support. People think that because we're female and attractive females we can't be gamers. But it balances. We have a fairly large following, but it's split evenly with people that dislike it."
That sort of split forces the Frag Dolls to compete not just for personal pride but street (and marketing) cred as well. "We have to talk in terms that gamers understand," Romine says. "If people think we're not telling the truth or we're not serious, our job is nullified. It has to be clear we are as intense about loving games as we say we are. The legitimacy is there, and it's crucial."
The prize doesn't come easily, though. The Frag Dolls only first won a tournament event after almost two years of training and playing together. And it's not as if they're slacking.
"The job is to play Ubisoft games, so don't apply for a job you don't want to do," Romine says. "There's always that little bit you have to sacrifice when you turn your hobby and your passion into your job, because it becomes an obligation. Anytime something becomes required, you look at it a bit differently. There are days where we're just tired and our eyes hurt, but it's hard to forget how lucky we are."
And winning that legitimacy doesn't stop when the Frag Dolls step away from their computers. When the World Series of Video Games held a Miss WSVG contest, the Frag Dolls worked with PMS, another all-girl group on the SXSW panel, to host the Mr. WSVG pageant. Both events vanished from the league schedule after the first pageant but not before sparking a round of intense online debate. Likewise, Romine has spoken at the Women's Gaming Conference in Austin, and many of the other Frag Dolls take the time to travel to conferences across the country.
"Part of the reason we're involved in the Frag Doll project," Romine says, "is that we want there to be some visibility for girl gamers, a recognition that there is a reason for girls to play games. We want to walk into a game store and not have people ask, 'Are you buying this for yourself?' We all have a personal commitment to that. That's a personal project for us."
It's a controversial line to walk, being corporate marketers, professional gamers, and independent advocates. And for the Frag Dolls' mission to succeed, they have to do well on all counts. But Romine doesn't seem to think it's that hard.
She explains that while the group's job is to promote Ubisoft, "A lot of the rest is driven by the girls. That stuff comes naturally."
Girl Video Gamers Teach You the Facts About Successful Marketing
Tuesday, March 13, 3:30pm, Room 9C
MORE PANEL PICKS:
Saturday, March 10
The Inside Scoop: Getting a Job in the Game Industry, 3:30pm, Room 9C
Game developing bigwigs share their knowledge with those less-fortunate souls trying to break into the biz.
Sunday, March 11
Digital Distribution: The Way of the Future for Gaming, 2pm, Room 12AB
Downloadable games, with a boost from Xboxes around the world, might not be flashy, but where there's money to be made, there will be a SXSW panel.
Monday, March 12
Gamer's Games: Microcontent and User Creation, 11:30am, Room 9C
If you know what the title of this panel means, you should probably go.
Tuesday, March 13
The Imago Effect: Avatar Psychology, 3:30pm, Room 12AB
The doctor is in, but maybe an avatar is just an avatar.