THE WASHINGTON POST – Rami Ismail travels a lot.
In ordinary times, the video game developer and co-founder of the Dutch studio Vlambeer adhered to a busy schedule of jetting around the world for meetings and conventions – one that earned him the Game Developers Choice award for the Ambassador award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2018.
The announcement of the award specifically cited his travel to parts of the world with “emergent development communities,” including Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, among others.
But because of this arduous schedule, Ismail had rarely been able to adhere exactly to the common experiences of Ramadhan, the Muslim holy month of fasting from sunrise to sunset every day.
In ordinary times, to celebrate the convening and breaking of fast during Ramadhan, Ismail would gather with friends at their homes or in unfamiliar restaurants in various countries.
When that wasn’t an option, he would seek out the lone Muslim-owned pizza place open before dawn in an otherwise-closed foreign neighbourhood.
But these are not ordinary times, and for now, Ismail is grounded. Ramadhan has always been a social time of the year for Muslims, bringing together families at their local mosques, community centres and each other’s homes to feed one another and commiserate on the hardships of fasting all day.
Now, many are struggling to accept what may be a new normal, with families breaking fast just among themselves or turning to video chats or other digital methods to incorporate others. But while a number of Muslims were reaching for recognisable technology like Zoom to help make the formerly community-driven Ramadhan experience feel ordinary in an extraordinary world, Ismail – ever the ambassador – decided to look at other virtual avenues.
On his popular Twitter account, Ismail posted a picture of his Animal Crossing: New Horizons character sitting peacefully at an outside table with multiple place mats.
“I made myself a little Sahur/Iftar spot in Animal Crossing for Ramadhan this year,” he tweeted, referring to the time before sunrise when Muslims eat a meal before beginning their daily fast, and the time after sunset when they break their fast with a meal. Ismail’s tweet solicited his followers to message him privately for invites.
Animal Crossing only allows seven guests on a host’s island at any one time, and Ismail expected to get just a few responses. He did not expect to have to create an online sign-up form connected to a calendar due to the entire holy month getting booked up immediately.
I asked to join one of Ismail’s Sahur sessions and when I arrived I was prompted by the island’s owner to join voice chat. I entered mid-conversation to hear other Muslims in different parts of the world criticising the game’s localisation of Sahara, a desert camel who visits players to sell them rugs and speaks in broken English.
Players brought food – their own islands’ native fruits – to eat alongside Ismail’s real-life meal in his Western European time zone.
Some of the visitors removed their shoes from their characters’ feet and placed them on a tarp near the entrance before walking to the table. Ismail mentioned to me beforehand that people sometimes brought gifts, so I grabbed something from my house’s storage upon receiving the invite and dropped it on the ground somewhere it could be found later.
Ismail took us seven guests on a tour of his house and his town, explaining that he wanted to set up a mosque but ran into sticky theological questions along the way. Prayer is done in the direction of Makkah, but in the virtual space of Animal Crossing, how does one decide which direction that is? This led Ismail to talk about theologians instructing the United Arab Emirate’s astronaut on the do’s and don’ts of fasting and praying in space over voice chat. All the while, his guests poked around the house, admiring the knickknacks and multiple sinks per room.
“I think the main thing about Animal Crossing is that it’s a place,” Ismail told me. “Animal Crossing is tied to the real-time clock and date of the user. So, the moon is the moon, right? Ramadhan is based on the lunar calendar, Animal Crossing reflects the real moon, and you can talk about the moon above while in the game. The sunrise itself is just about to start in the game while we’re talking. It’s a place and a time.”
For an hour, the eight of us talked about video games, about being unable to function during the workday abstaining from coffee while fasting, and about finding community in the times where it’s most needed. Having grown up Muslim, the experience struck me as outright familiar – regardless of how abstract the little avatars eating apples on the screen may seem to outside observers.
For Ismail, the biggest benefit is that he’s not alone during inarguably trying times. This gets him a little closer to the real thing.
“Animal Crossing definitely isn’t the same as sitting in a room together with people,” he prefaced, “but the fact that you can not only talk but also emote at each other, that you can wiggle in your seat, that you can talk about things that you’re seeing in the game, we had falling stars the other day, right? That you have this shared reality that you’re part of for a moment, doesn’t it make it feel more real?”
It did leave me wondering how my parents would have taken this alternative to a community potluck every week, a bit of socialising they prized before lockdown, or how the more traditional members of their mosque would feel about supplanting the aspect of community, even out of necessity.
“My father, I would say, is not a very virtual man,” Ismail said as we talked about our respective upbringings. “He’s not somebody that would normally be very easily swayed to a virtual equivalent of school or a virtual equivalent of a mosque as valid. But in these circumstances, he seemed very excited to see that spread. He doesn’t have a Switch, he doesn’t play Animal Crossing, but I send him screenshots of every Sahur and Iftar I did, and of another person doing prayers in Animal Crossing, and he just seems to think it’s a good thing.
“Maybe this time circumstances are just better for something like this right now. Maybe that’s a very good thing. Maybe it’ll also allow for even better things in the future.”