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Opinion: Devs, please don't encourage 'teabagging'

Updated: Right as the game industry is finally having a reckoning over toxic cultures of sexual harassment, a decade-old in-game display of dominance that mimics sexual harassment is having a comeback moment.

Quick question for developers working on multiplayer shooters right now: why is teabagging having a comeback moment?

It’s been a long time since I’ve given the act any real thought. My multiplayer game of choice right now is Apex Legends, a game that often doesn’t let the camera linger on your dead body long enough to see what your opponents do to it. I’ve seen the sexually suggestive act occur a few times, but it doesn’t feel like the old days of Halo where it was commonplace.

And yet in the last week, I’ve spotted two different developers seemingly giving a wink-and-nod to the act of teabagging in their multiplayer games: 343 Industries and 1047 Games.

First, a quick refresher for the unfamiliar. “Teabagging” refers to a taunt in multiplayer games where players stand over an opponent’s dead body and repeatedly crouch their character over the corpse. It’s meant to mimic an actual sexual act where one person's genitals come in contact with the face of their consenting partner.

The fact it’s a sexual act notwithstanding, the extra uncomfortable layer is the impression of doing it to an unconsenting person or as an act of dominance. If you did it to an opponent on a soccer field, bowling alley, or arcade, it’d be a straightforward case of sexual harassment.

Teabagging has been around since the days of Quake and Unreal Tournament, and depending on who you ask, it either gained popularity there or with multiplayer for Halo Combat Evolved.

343 Industries’ Halo Infinite tech demo ran this week, showing off the impressive work the company has put into the next entry in the series most well known for its multiplayer.

During the test, where players took on bots of varying skill levels, players noticed something surprising: some bots seemed to be programmed to teabag their opponents. With the aforementioned notion of teabagging and Halo being affiliated with one another, it’s not entirely surprising that someone would think of this as a cute acknowledgment of the game’s community history.

The public reaction’s mostly been one of pleasant bewilderment and amusement, and I’m not surprised! It’s funny to see bots mimic human behavior. There’s no person controlling the individual bot, no one person is trying to show dominance, the AI’s just going “alright someone at 343 told me to do this.”

But there’s no denying it does set the stage for the community’s interaction with the game to come. It feels like a subtle nod from 343 saying “hey, yeah, we get it, this is a taunt, go for it.” August 11th Update: 343 Industries reached out to Gamasutra to clarify that the observed bot behavior in the Halo Infinite tech demo was a bug, and the team did not intend for bots to taunt players.

"Bots are primarily a part of Halo Infinite to help players learn and experiment with the Multiplayer experience," the spokesperson explained. "We want players to feel comfortable making mistakes against bots, because making mistakes means you're improving and working on skills you haven't mastered yet. We never want to punish learning, especially not by having bots engage in behaviors that a player could feel is exclusionary. For that reason, we don't have explicit programming that tells the bots to teabag or taunt you in any way."

It turns out the observed bot behavior was the bots struggling to ascend stairs, and when it occurred nearby dead bodies, it looked like they were crouching repeatedly. "A bot's feet would leave the ground very briefly, then play a landing animation when they failed the jump, and they'd get stuck in an animation loop that could look like crouching rapidly," the spokesperson explained. 

Elsewhere, 1047 Games released a stat tracking system in Splitgate Arenas on its career page that tracks how often players teabag their opponents. In fairness, it’s buried in the menus and is a tracker only individual players can see. You have to care about those numbers to go access them, if you don’t want to engage in teabagging you don’t see other players’ numbers and can keep yours firmly planted at zero.

Not great, not terrible, but the company’s social media team then puts out tweets like this:

I…what?

The cultural weirdness of the rest of the tweet notwithstanding (fun fact it’s a federal crime to punish employees for discussing their salaries in the United States), the social media post in question puts a players’ teabag count on a weird pedestal, making it a treasured number to keep close to one’s chest.

I’m going to be frank, seeing these incidents makes me feel like I’ve jumped realities. I’ve just spent the last three weeks writing about the State of California’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard for allegedly fostering a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Spending weeks writing about that situation and then turning around and seeing chuckles and back-slapping for teabagging jokes is just baffling.

I don’t want to "wokescold" or sound naïve here. I’m not blind to the fact that different groups of people are going to have different tolerances for sexual humor, and that if you have a crouch mechanic in your multiplayer game, someone is probably going to use it to teabag. That horse left the barn decades ago.

And I can’t even good faith ask for tech that slows down crouching to make it difficult to do the move. Crouch-spamming has also taken on new meaning in recent years across different games. In Apex Legends, it’s an occasional way for enemy teams to show signs of friendliness or solidarity, especially during in-game events or when there are only 2 teams remaining in a match.

It’s absolutely reasonable to support players who want to find a way to express joy or dominance after winning a skirmish. Emote animations and sprays have emerged as healthier alternatives that also express a lot of character and flourish.

But let’s be clear here, teabagging is a clear and explicit sexual reference. That means when it’s unwanted or undesired, it’s sexual harassment. Developers encouraging or winking and nodding at the act blunt their own ability to build cohesive policy around other forms of sexual harassment. It’s a bit hard to take seriously the notion that other sexually suggestive insults deserve a ban when this one can roam free.  

Last year, Emily Greer hit the nail on the head in her GDC Summer talk when she said “harassment is only sometimes about sex, but it’s always about power.” We can say the same thing for teabagging.

It’s an act of establishing power, particularly sexual power, over your opponents. It’s ridiculous for developers to support or condone this behavior while the industry tries to figure out how to make safer workplaces not riddled with sexual harassment or abuse.

Updated August 9th: Edited to remove a paragraph that over-emphasized the accusations against Activision Blizzard in comparison with the two examples cited in this opinion piece.

Updated August 11th: Edited to add a note that 343 has confirmed that teabagging in the recent tech demo for Halo Infinite was a bug.

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