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It's Sunday evening, and Scorpico gaming center at Sunset Place in South Miami is quiet. Six or seven lanky preteen boys sit huddled in a corner, swearing, deeply involved in a PC fantasy game.
Dianne Bonfiglio walks in late for practice. The pretty thirtysomething settles at an Xbox 360 in the rear and extracts a pink rhinestone-encrusted controller from a sports bag. Her toenails are painted a matching pink. She dons her headset and pops in the disc for Halo 2.
Standing nearly six feet tall with an athletic figure and sporting a tight, attractive tee with a pink logo across her chest, Bonfiglio is the only female gamer here.
"Hi, girls," she says, facing the screen, which is lit up with names of nine teammates.
"Hi, Hot Chief," they reply.
Halo 2 is one of Xbox's most beloved games. It's a futuristic, first-person shoot-em-up that can be played with others over a network; there are currently more than two million users worldwide.
The girls warm up with a few practice rounds. The atmosphere inside the bleak, postapocalyptic virtual world is surprisingly cozy. The girls ranging in age from teens to late forties hunt each other down with rifles, congratulating one another on a good kill, yelping happily when they screw up.
After the game, Bonfiglio decides to do some "matchmaking," in which an online service matches players against teams of strangers with similar skill ranking.
The girls appear in pink, their opponents in blue. Otherwise all characters are identical. The match is barely underway when the trash talk begins: "What up, bitches?" says a male opponent in his late teens or early twenties named Trav. "You gonna get raped now."
"Fucking bitches," he jeers to a teammate a few seconds later. "Hey, you get that ugly-ass bitch over there?"
After the match, Bonfiglio smiles. "You deal with shit-talking every day," she says. "You learn to ignore it, but it makes you want to kill them more."
By day Bonfiglio is a lawyer and forensic accountant who lives in Boca Raton and works between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. But at night, she's Hot Chief, overlord of the Halo 2 Delta Division of the PMS Clan, a girl-gaming group that claims to be the largest in the world. She's on a mission today to spread the word about the clan in Miami, where the girl-gaming scene, she says, is sparse.
About a third of videogame players are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a national trade group, but only a sliver of them plays violent games like Halo 2. Partially because of harassment and real-world stalking by male players, some of these women band together in groups like PMS, the War Sisters Clan, the Girlz Clan, and the Frag Dolls.
PMS is both accomplished the girls have placed in the top eight in six recent tournaments across the nation and marketing-savvy. (They changed the name from Psychotic Men Slayerz to the tamer Pandora's Mighty Army.) Visit their Website, and it's impossible to overlook how astoundingly gorgeous many of the ladies are. It doesn't exactly hurt that the clan's founders and most visible members San Antonio, Texas twins Amber Dalton and Amy Brady are a couple of buxom, blond, 30-year-old babes-and-a-half.
The twins started the clan in 2002. Dalton a.k.a. Athena Twin is their mother superior, their Pachamama. She refers to her legion as "my girls," and they speak of her with reverence. She is a dedicated visionary. "It's my entire life," she says. "I quit a full-time position as a manager for a multimillion-dollar company. It was a six-figure job."
Until recently she sponsored PMS pro teams out of her own pocket. She has spent some $38,000 on plane tickets and hotels. Now the group has more than 500 members worldwide. Recently she received sponsorship from Verizon, and with her twin, Brady, who's less active, she's incorporating. The two are even buying a place in Dallas to use as "a pro-gaming training house," Dalton says. "We'll be bringing top teams of girls from around the world to do boot camp."
Sex appeal is not central to their plans. "We are not ashamed of our gorgeous girls; we are not ashamed of our not-so-gorgeous girls," Dalton says. In fact PMS Clan imposes strict rules on its members, detailed in a 28-page recruit handbook. "We don't allow vulgar talk, offensive talk," she says. The clan even forbids members to post the PMS tag on overly racy MySpace pages.
Still, it's difficult to deny that the PMS girls have gotten traction from showing skin. Their images abound on the Web often showing them wearing tight tees, striking hot poses, and pointing their fingers like pistols at the camera. Although Dalton adamantly denies rumors that Playboyapproached PMS (the magazine approached her once, she says, but not the clan), she confirms that Maxim has made overtures. She says the girls won't be donning any bikinis or underwear, but "Would we do a hot racer-girl outfit, or a football outfit, or army-girl? Yes, that would be possible."
Beauty also has its drawbacks. Bonfiglio oversees the PMS Delta division, which includes about 30 girls. Some of them have been stalked in real life. "In two years," she says, "I've had three of them." One case involved a seventeen-year-old. "This one guy talked to everybody he possibly could until he gathered enough information about her. He hacked her MySpace. I think he hacked her AOL. He got her first name, he got her state, he found the school she went to.... He got all that stuff and showed up at her house."