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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."
Bonfiglio grew up in Long Island and moved to Coral Springs in Broward for high school. She's been gaming nearly her whole life. "My dad got an Atari 2600," she remembers with a touch of nostalgia. Bonfiglio had a lot of cousins nearby. "I always played with the boys. It was like family-bonding time." When asked if she ever left the house, Bonfiglio flares up. "I was always out playing football, baseball ... every sport there was!" she exclaims.
In 2001 she was neck-deep in law school when Xbox made its debut. Halo, one of the first games, was popular because it allowed team play. Halo 2,released three years later, is the only Xbox game to sell more copies.
Bonfiglio liked playing on a team. There was only one drawback: guys. "They do all kinds of things," she says. "When they kill you, they'll crouch over your body and bounce up and down, like they're fucking you as soon as they find out you're a girl." At first she would mute her microphone to hide her gender; she mostly teamed up with young boys.
She had been playing for about six months when she met a young female player named Kitten of Death, who was a PMS member. The two hit it off immediately, and Kitten invited Bonfiglio to practice. Three weeks later, she was in.
Since then, Bonfiglio has become a minor celebrity. At last year's Major League Gaming (MLG) competition in Orlando, she was surrounded by boys who lined up for her autograph. "They were like, öOh my God, it's PMS!'" she recalls, laughing. "I signed hats, I signed T-shirts, I signed somebody's Xbox.... They were like, öOh, I have this PMS girl and this PMS girl and this PMS girl....' because they knew the names, and they were collecting! I felt like one of those Pokémon cards."
Indeed some boys have joined the clan. They're called H2Os, or waterboys. They can't participate in girl practice, but they get to team up with PMS girls in coed matches. In Bonfiglio's division, she enforces a rule that potential H2Os must be known to a clan member for at least six months. "You can imagine," she explains, "there are lots of guys dying to get into H2O because you get access to all the girls."
As Delta overlord, Bonfiglio spends hours she guesses about twenty per week doing clan work. She organizes events, discusses new policies, and talks to underlings on the phone. "We're not just dealing with gaming. Girls come to us with problems kids who cut themselves, kids who are abused. I've had girls call me aside and say, öYou're a lawyer; what should I do about so and so?' I knew at the beginning that I would probably hold a leadership position," she recalls. "I was newly married at the time. But they needed me."
Craig Zaidel is one of very few males who have been to the inner sanctum of PMS Clan practice. The 29-year-old met Bonfiglio online and was so intrigued by her group that he decided to write his senior sociology thesis for the University at Buffalo about its members. Zaidel convinced Bonfiglio to waive the strict girls-only rule so he could attend a session. "It was freaking insane; there were twelve, fourteen people in our little room there, and everyone was talking, and you couldn't hear anything," he remembers. "I was like, öOh my God, how can you guys even hear each other?' And Bonfiglio said, öWe're just excited. We haven't seen each other all day.' All day, she said!
"It's such a weird world to be in," Zaidel continues, "but I can totally see why you would want to be in it. Kinship. Friendship. It's a safe place; it's a home."
Bonfiglio would like to create a local cadre of PMS members. Places like Scorpico are a start, she says. But they don't foster local talent the way a major tournament like MLG in Orlando, which drew thousands does. Also PMS can't afford to sponsor many teams. "When it comes into gaming season, those girls are run ragged because they're running from one tournament to another."
She wants local companies Miami-based software company Alienware, for example to step up and sponsor local competitions. "The market's there; the people are there," she insists. "I'd love it if every Friday night was competition night. I'd love it if we had a local team and our team could compete."