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The #Millennial Phenomenon of “Text or Shot”

For ages the drinking game has united humans in riotous, often misguided consumption. In our monthly column "House Rules," Drew Lazor explores the history and pleasures of drinking games throughout time and around the world. This month: the unexpectedly existential "Text or Shot."

I generally try to avoid violent existential meltdowns when reporting stories, but this one was inescapable. One moment, I was trying to pin down the particulars of a youth-oriented party activity. The next, I was staring down my own mortality, suppressing the urge to reenact the final scene from the OG Planet of the Apes.

The unassuming alcoholic diversion that helped smoke out my inner Sartre was “Text or Shot,” a drinking game that packs a bonus punch. Like one of those cheeky hucksters who makes bank charming strangers at county fairs, this game predicts, with eerie accuracy, how old you are. That’s because, in my experience, takes on the game fall strictly into one of two camps. Every person in their 20s I interviewed seemed to think Text or Shot was a carefree and hilarious pursuit, while every person in their 30s reacted as if I’d just unlocked a box containing the temporal manifestation of Satan’s will.

The rules of Text or Shot, also known as Cell Phone Roulette, are very simple, and so very #millennial. Participants gather around a table and whip their phones out. After popping their device out of their protective cases and deactivating any passcode protection, everyone places their phone into one big pile in the middle. Each player then receives another person’s phone and is encouraged to dive into that mobile’s contacts and draft a text message to a recipient of their choice. The owner of each phone is then presented with that text—and if they don’t want it to be sent, they must down a shot. You can play with beer, but most Text-or-Shotters seem to prefer hard alcohol. (Inevitably, someone will accidentally send a text before it’s vetted by the phone’s rightful owner; the punishment for that is, of course, a shot.)

If the mere prospect of another drunk human having full access to your phone/life causes a chill to blast up your spine and deep-freeze the back of your brain, you are, like me, probably in your 30s. College-age kids, or at least the ones I talked to, have polar-opposite opinions—and this laissez-faire view of the potential ramifications of off-color SMS is, frankly, fascinating.

“Playing that game as a college kid would probably be fine,” one friend, well into his 30s, told me. “But any older than that and it could likely destroy your life.”

“You can say you can’t text the boss or the parents, but that’s so lame; we don’t do that,” says Kat, a junior Urban Studies major at an Ivy League university on the East Coast. In a recent Text or Shot session, she says, someone decided to let the number labeled “MOM” know that they had a burning sensation in their crotch and they weren’t sure what to do. And that’s pretty tame. In other sessions, fake cries for help (“I’m in a really bad place”) freaked out none-the-wiser friends on the other side; another draft aimed to inform an academic advisor that they’d sent in some nude photos and were eagerly awaiting feedback.

Sophia, a 24-year-old recent graduate from Colorado, remembers one game when a good friend’s boyfriend was informed that he was going to be a daddy, which went over about as smoothly as you can imagine. “He freaked—and was still quite displeased when she told him it was just a game,” she says. Interestingly, Sophia says playing the game with pals on the fringe is often a calmer, albeit less entertaining, experience. “[Strangers] don’t necessarily know all my baggage,” she jokes, while conceding that when “play[ing] with close friends… there’s a better chance they forgive you.”

This laidback attitude toward Text or Shot along the tail-end of Generation Y provides a comical contrast with the near-immediate panic mere discussion of the game elicits in slightly older millennials, like myself. I approached a bunch of different peers to see if they wanted to play as a quickie test run for this piece; every single one of them turned me down, swiftly and vehemently.

“Playing that game as a college kid would probably be fine,” one friend, well into his 30s, told me. “But any older than that and it could likely destroy your life.” He proceeded to run down a litany of doomsday scenarios—filthy sexts to supervisors, nasty notes to fiancées, cruel content designed to freak out poor Grandma—that made that statement seem much less hyperbolic than it initially sounded.

“That makes sense,” Sophia told me when I asked for her opinion on this inter-generational disparity. “People your age tend to be a lot more settled and established… even one little text could complicate their lives.”

This is pretty much when I slipped and fell headfirst into the aforementioned whirlpool of self-doubting strife. Is my existence really so fragile that a single off-putting text could seriously shoot it all to shit? Am I really so humorless that I’d rather condemn a silly party game to hell than risk ruffling a single feather? Is the next logical step for me to carve out my Matrix headjack, sell all my earthly belongings and live out the rest of my days on top of a pillar in the desert like St. Simeon Stylites?

Maybe the key is to stop worrying and start drinking. “If people got too upset about these things, then it wouldn’t be fun,” Kat told me. “You gotta be able to laugh about it. If you don’t want it sent, just take the shot.”

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