This weekend is Eid, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan. For most people, coming together isn’t possible. But at least we have Animal Crossing.
The popular video game is a little hard to explain if you haven't experienced it. The most recent installment came out on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s basically a cutesy life simulator. You can plant trees, build a house (and then rearrange the furniture), and sell fruit to a raccoon.
That all might sound supremely mundane, but when people are stuck inside, heading out to an adorable island with your friends starts to sound like a good idea – and the game has been massively popular since its March 20 release.
One of the most exciting things about Animal Crossing is seasonal events. Previous installments of the game feature a visit from Jingle the Reindeer on December 24, which the game refers to as “Toy Day.” (So, Christmas.) And this year, from April 1-12, Animal Crossing held an in-game “Bunny Day” event – a clear reference to Easter – when you could find eggs and give them to a giant bunny to earn special rewards.
Thus, Rami Ismail was hopeful that Animal Crossing might also give the 2 billion people worldwide who follow the tradition of Ramadan a slight nod of recognition. But the nod never came.
So Ismail, who also happens to be a game developer, decided to do it himself. He tweeted out that he’d be hosting gatherings inside Animal Crossing for both Iftar, the post-sunset meal, and Suhoor, the pre-sunset meal. Immediately, he was flooded with requests to come hang out on his personal virtual island.
Visitors come from all over the world. Half of them, Ismail says, are Muslims who, like him, are gamers who are missing the personal connection that usually comes with breaking a fast with friends or family. Ismail is especially feeling that now, because he’s unable to visit his father, who lives nearby.
But the other half are non-Muslims, and Ismail is very happy they're visiting as well, because it means he gets to share his culture with them. In that way, Animal Crossing is actually a blessing in disguise. Non-Muslims “normally feel like it's impossible to join in on this tradition because, you know, you have to go into people's houses or know people well enough to have breakfast or dinner with them at, like, 3 a.m.,” he says with a laugh.
When the event starts, everyone gathers around a picnic table, in an outdoor area that Ismail said he crafted around memories of growing up in Egypt. The conversations range wildly from what everyone’s eating to how to get a certain kind of in-game flower to grow, to in-jokes about various characters on the island.
But there are also stretches of silence, says Ismail: “Your mouth is full because you're trying to eat before the sun rises or after the sunset.” Just like regular old Ramadan.
VICE News dropped in on Ismail’s Animal Crossing island to see how some Muslim gamers are connecting during the pandemic.