LOS ANGELES — Traditionally, the only women in video games were digital. Think busty, pistol-packing Lara Croft of "Tomb Raider," or the scantily clad walking pinups in "Grand Theft Auto."
Beyond these stereotypical male fantasies, women were all but absent from the billion-dollar gaming industry. But that's changing, thanks to a core female gamers who are increasing women's visibility and influence.
These women are programmers, designers, tech students and members of all-female gaming groups that compete against guys for cash and corporate sponsorships. And experts say the industry stands to benefit.
"For this industry to mature and move on, it has to grow beyond just that 13- to 35-year-old male demographic," said Anthony Borquez, a professor who teaches video game production at the University of Southern California. "From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense to engage women more."
Besides, sisters are doing it for themselves.
Amber Dalton and twin sister Amy Brady created the PMS Clan in 2002. Boasting international membership of nearly 500 women and girls, PMS — which stands for Pandora's Mighty Soldiers — is a competitive group that plays Xbox, PlayStation2 and PC games. Its members range in age from 9 to 58, Dalton said, but most are adults.
Learning about the Clan was "an epiphany" for game designer and devotee Felicia Williams.
"Finding a community where you can say that you play games was kind of like a confessional," said the 24-year-old New Yorker, who owns "every system ever released." "Having a support group out there that loves what you love, and seeing such a diverse group of successful, wonderful women is just hugely beneficial."
Clan members compete with each other and band together in professional tournaments. They also challenge the online harassment doled out by male gamers. PMS Clan rules prohibit "belittling or attacking others in any way, even in retaliation," according to its 30-page member manual.
Guys can be "vicious," said Dalton, 30.
"They say, `You must be 300 pounds with a mustache,'" she said. "They hide behind the anonymity of (the game). Our group has a strict code of conduct. It takes someone showing the example."
The Clan's classy manners and tournament-worthy skills caught the attention of Microsoft.
The company hired the PMS Clan in April to represent Xbox Live. Rather than relying on public relations pros or "booth babes" to demonstrate its new games at May's E3 electronics expo, Xbox gave the duties to Clan members. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
"They set great examples, not just for the female gamers, but for everybody," said Aaron Greenberg, a spokesman for Xbox Live. "They're serious. They practice. They're strict about being good to gamers."
Competitive female players also make gaming more social, he said.
Borquez, the USC professor, agreed. "They're creating unique ways of being able to communicate in games," he said. "Before it was all trash-talking."
Microsoft isn't the only company looking to competitive female gamers to promote products. Ubisoft, which produces games, assembled its own women-only gaming group, the Frag Dolls, nearly two years ago.
The seven-member Frag Dolls team touts new titles and competes in tournaments for the company, said spokesman Michael Beadle.
It was a surprise to find women who enjoyed hard-core gun-wielding games, he said, "and a pleasant surprise that they were really good."
"You only pick up these games to be real competitive," Beadle said.
Dalton said Clan members are also competitive in sports and business. Video games are just another outlet, she said.
Most members play about three hours a day. "Halo 2" and "Ghost Recon," both war games with male soldiers as main characters, are the top choices.
Role-playing games are also popular, said game designer Williams, adding that off-putting images in games that have women "portrayed as whores" may have kept some female players away.
Games reflect their designers, she said. But as more women enter the gaming industry, she expects to see more positive female characters.
Borquez has already seen creative contributions from the handful of female students in his video game classes. Their designs include sophisticated story lines, female characters and "shopping games of course," he said.
"It's hard to have a middle-aged male trying to design a game that would hit the interest of female gamers," he said. "For the industry to continue to develop, there needs to be innovation from various demographics. Having a female element is such a great added value."
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.