In Video Games, Teabagging Is the Ultimate Sign of Friendship

New research suggests the practice is less about homophobia and more about trust

Crouching over a fallen opponent and rubbing your cyber-balls across his digitized forehead has long been a hallmark of first-person shooter video games.

“I like to show a little class,” writes supershimadabro in a first-person shooter subreddit. “I only teabag after killing someone who teabagged me.”

The prevalence of teabagging in video games took hold in 2004 with the release of Halo 2, wherein the camera would dramatically linger over a dead body for several seconds after a player was killed. Xbox gamers took advantage of the feature by repeatedly crouching over their victims’ heads in a display of dominance. Briefly dubbed “corpse-humping,” it’s become best known as “teabagging,” popularly defined as “the act of a man inserting his scrotum in another person’s mouth, in a similar motion as when a tea bag is juiced into a mug.”

As seen in this Simpsons episode:

This 2013 commercial for Call Of Duty:

And in the real world:

Straight guys do this to each other? wondered Brian Myers, a graduate student in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, when a colleague — knowing Myers’ interest in both gaming culture and queer culture — showed him a compilation of Halo teabagging highlights on YouTube.

“I thought it was so weird,” Myers tells me.

That’s because teabagging is super gay, evidenced by John Waters’ 1998 comedy Pecker:

Attempting to make sense of it all, Myers surveyed 393 “hardcore gamers” (i.e., the imagined gaming audience of straight white adolescent men) about their opinions on teabagging. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that most instances were homophobic. But he also found something… sweeter: Teabagging promoted intimacy between male friends (in addition to the whole balls-on-the-forehead thing).

I recently spoke with Myers about the origins of digital teabagging; why hard-core gamers look down on corpse-humping; and if, as he suggests, rubbing your digitized scrotum on an opposing avatar’s chin is the ultimate sign of friendship.

Why all of this teabagging?
By simulating the rubbing of their genitals on a defeated opponent, male gamers imply that they’ve penetrated another player, and thus, robbed them of their power. Other players then work to “reclaim” their lost masculinity by retaliating and dominating the player who teabagged them. For instance, I had a ton of responses from male gamers who said they were more likely to target and defeat an opponent who had teabagged them.

How did your respondents feel about teabagging in video games generally?
It varied. More than 14 separate types of reactions to being teabagged alone were identified — including amusement, anger, annoyance, disappointment, disgust, embarrassment, offense, pity, confusion and indifference.

But “hardcore gamers” generally look down on teabagging, right?
Gaming is typically looked down upon by the wider culture for being, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a breeding ground for almost every kind of social ill — violence, terrorism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Hard-core gamers, though, value their hobby and want to argue that it’s worthwhile. They do so in a variety of ways — by saying that gaming can improve hand-eye coordination, that it can develop critical-thinking skills, that it can foster positive relationships, etc. Teabagging, however, which references a kind of deviant behavior (as defined by the mainstream), threatens to undo all of the difficult work by hard-core gamers to insist that gaming is a worthwhile and valuable cultural practice.

You use the term “unlaughter” in your article to describe the reaction of “hard-core gamers” to teabagging. Why?
I got the term “unlaughter” from humor scholars. It isn’t simply “not laughing.” It’s a conscious and deliberate withholding of laughter. For example, in my own life, when people make racist or homophobic jokes, I make a point of not laughing to show them that I don’t approve of those ideas and to distance myself from the joke teller. Hardcore gamers frequently treat gamers who teabag in this way. They don’t just “not laugh.” They deliberately refuse to laugh in order to distance themselves from teabagging and the teabagger and to say, “This isn’t acceptable in ‘proper’ gaming culture.”

Yet you took issue with this. How come?
The issue I had with many hardcore gamers’ dismissal of teabagging was that they weren’t dismissing the practice because it was homophobic. They were dismissing it because it was considered, at best, poor sportsmanship and, at worst, gross and disgusting. This, to my mind, reinforced the idea that queer sex acts were somehow deviant and disgusting. So I wanted to draw attention to how teabagging, because of its unique situation in first-person shooter games, could be a valuable signifier of intimacy between friends.

Really? How so?
Teabagging is a bad strategy in competitive first-person shooter games because it leaves you wide open to retaliation. Consequently, many of my respondents said that, when they teabag, they only teabag among friends who they know won’t take advantage of the vulnerable position teabagging puts them in. So, in a surprising way, teabagging could be used to show that you trust the people you’re playing with. While hardcore gamers may dismiss teabagging as gross and critical gaming scholars may dismiss it as homophobic, I wanted to suspend the impulse to dismiss and be open to the possibility that such practices may have value.

Do they?
In very specific, limited contexts (i.e., when it’s done among friends in first-person shooter games), teabagging could be used to show that you trust the people you’re playing with. This is what I understand “plausible optimism” (a term I got from the scholar Lisa Henderson) to be — an attitude of openness to the possibility that something isn’t all bad. Of course, this doesn’t dismiss the negative aspects of teabagging — I’d be willing to wager that most instances of teabagging in gaming culture are homophobic and do reinforce differences between people rather than intimacy. But there are some contexts where it doesn’t. And if we examine those contexts, maybe we can work to better cultivate and encourage them.

C. Brian Smith is a staff writer at MEL. He last had parents and scouts weight in on the new mixed-gender Boy Scouts.

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