This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.
Last week I watched the Halo Infinite gameplay reveal. I have a long history with the series, and some of my greatest multiplayer memories in particular coalesce around Halo 2 and Halo 3. Which is probably why I found it amusing to see one fan, in the YouTube comments, bemoan that we didn’t get to see an example of teabagging in these visually stunning environments.
I had a chuckle then realised, hey, they’ve kinda got a point. For many Halo fans the campaign is what matters, but I’m that subset who love Halo for the competitive multiplayer. It means I’ve had a lot of experience in the dos and don’ts of online Halo over the years, and part of that is undoubtedly teabagging (or as 343 euphemistically describes the practice, “victory crouching”). Everyone will have different thoughts on the practice, and no doubt some find it disgusting and deplorable. I certainly agree it’s immature, it’s not nice to be on the receiving end, and the gaming world would be a nicer place if players never did it.
But they do. I’ve been teabagged, and I’ve teabagged in return, more times than I can remember. Partly it comes with the environment you play in: Halo multiplayer is perfect for teabagging because, like many other competitive shooters, the camera remains on your avatar’s crumpled form for several seconds after death. Without this there is no teabagging, because essential to the teabagging act is that the defeated player sees it.
I remember, sweet spring chicken that I was, being confused in Halo 2 about why certain players would kill me and then crouch up and down. I wondered if it was something to do with weapon-switching, maybe the game was glitching … but as the behaviour repeated, it became obvious this was a diss.
The actual meaning of teabagging has a sexual element to it, which Jimmy Wales can explain for us here, but it was many years before I realised this was the case or that the action was even called teabagging. I always thought it was about sticking your bum in someone’s face, a kind of childish ‘smell my farts’ thing, which seems rather quaint.
I say that because to draw a straight line from the real-world meaning of the term to how it’s used in games seems a little too simple. Teabagging in games doesn’t sit in my mental category as the suggestion of a sexual act, because there’s really nothing less sexy than playing competitive Halo 2 on an Xbox. For me it’s much more abstract than that, not least because the reason for teabagging’s existence is that it was one of the very few non-verbal communications possible in early 3D games.Â All that the character models could do in terms of movement was wiggle side-to-side, rotate, or crouch, and maybe it’s just my sick mind but crouching on the corpse of a recently defeated player seems like an obvious way to say ‘hahaha’. I’ve always seen teabagging as what we in the U.K. might call sledging: teasing your opponents, usually with good humour.
To briefly pause, I’m not saying the above is the whole story, just my own experience. As with any online behaviour, teabagging can be used in nasty ways, and I’m sure many people who do it might have that intent. And of course I’m a man, so am much less likely to get harassed in general over things like voice chat. There is definitely a large bad side to teabagging which needs to be acknowledged.
That said, it fits in the sledging category for me because it seems like the digital equivalent of a bevvy of verbal behaviours I’ve seen in competitive environments. I used to play football, rugby, cricket, and row to some standard, and in every competitive match or even training there’s a bit of chat going on in and between the teams. You do get the dickheads who take things a little far and get aggressive, of course you do, but almost always it’s good-natured back-and-forth with some shared laughs.
I always found this kind of verbal jousting funny, enjoyed the little edge it gave the experience, and shook hands at the end of the match (seems like a different galaxy, eh). I associate that kind of human interplay with competition, it’s part of my mindset and seems to be like that for many, and so some element of that carries over into digital competition.
All of which is to say that there are many ways to interpret the teabag but, for me, it’s a bit like when you stick the ball in the net of some keeper who’s been giving it this and that, then give him a little wink on your way back. It’s a jab, a bit cocky, it adds spice and, depending on how the game goes, has the potential to completely backfire.
I don’t teabag much these days (though we’ll get to the exception) but in the Halo glory years it was all over the place, and particularly in my chosen speciality of Halo 2 Team Doubles. This is a more intimate mode than Team Slayer, four players as opposed to eight, and many fights end up with both members of one team dead and a chunky respawn timer. There are prime teabagging opportunities here, in other words, whereas in Team Slayer you run a higher risk of getting shot.
Myself and my partner-in-Chief got very good at Team Doubles, to the extent we were in the low 40s of a ranking system that topped out at 50. One of the most interesting things about teabagging is that, in my experience here, it happened a lot more at lower rankings. In the 20s it happened in pretty much every match, to the extent it never even felt particularly targeted, and you’d do it almost thoughtlessly as a natural response to someone doing it to you.
We worked through these ranks quickly before hitting the 30s, where matches felt a lot more consequential and we started playing a lot more cautious. This just by itself removed the appeal of teabagging, because players were better at surviving engagements, and when one is still on the field it’s it’s an unnecessary risk as well as a waste of time.
Which is why, when it does happen, that’s when it feels more like an insult. Teabagging is a behaviour where the situation is everything: if everyone else in a match is doing it, and you join in, well who cares. But if you’re playing against an equally matched team for high stakes rankings, and someone suddenly drops a teabag with a few minutes to go, then it becomes an affront. Then, the teabag has more power, it feels more directed, it feels more like it needs a response.
It even feels like there’s yet another meaning in LAN environments. There’s something about sitting next to your mate andÂ teabaggingÂ their avatar that’s just hilarious, and as soon as someone starts then everyone’s in. I once had a job where, on the lunch hour, we’d all scarf down a sandwich then hop on the 360 for 45 minutes of Halo 3 splitscreen. Teabagging was the rule, not the exception.
That’s the thing about this behaviour: it’s so contextual. I can well imagine that some people reading this would think I’ve minimised the sexual aspect, or the potential for such trolling behaviour to be considered harassment, and it’s true I don’t have the experience to speak to that. My experience is that of someone who enjoys competitive games, is comfortable with a bit of good-natured sparring on the mic, and sees teabagging as this weird behaviour that crops up everywhere and, in different places and different times, means different things.
You can observe this through just player-watching on deathcams. Some players are hyperactive, rushing around the battlefield and stopping for a split-second squat on every corpse they see. This is bizarre behaviour but surprisingly common, and something impossible to find offensive because the teabag is so removed from having any meaning or bite. Trash talkers and trolls teabag, and that’s easy enough to ignore too. The ones that get you are when it’s unexpected. When you’ve been having a good clean game against an equally-matched side and, just as things are heating up, someone drops a teabag.
Now I’m a Mature Gamer, this is the only time I ever get pulled back into teabagging. At the moment I’m playing a lot of Valorant, Riot’s excellent Counter-Strike competitor. Generally speaking the community is quite nice, and I tend to play on teams with two or three IRL buddies. We’re all similar types, dads in their mid-thirties who can’t game as much as we used to, and most of our matches are chilled-out affairs.
This is one of the things I find funny about teabagging, because it can create another mindset, and completely change a match’s atmosphere. When I’m playing Valorant and someone on the other team teabags one of us, the voice chat without exception explodes.
“Did that prick just teabag you? What the hell!”
Then righteous fury unfolds as my team of middle-aged dads chase down the upstarts in every round and start mass-teabagging in concert when we win… in order to express our anger at teabagging? For revenge? I don’t know. All I know is that we don’t teabag anyone but, if someone teabags one of us, It’s On Motherfucker.
It’s like some low-level collective frenzy, and not unenjoyable.
The real etiquette of teabagging is: don’t do it. Not cool. Not what we want. But if some godless random ever does it to you, then here’s the gospel: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and, most of all, a teabag for a teabag.