Many of us can remember feeling left out at school, seeing classmates having a conversation we’re not involved in. We listen from the side-lines, scared to say anything in case the bullies suddenly turn.
Many Muslims, like me, carry that feeling every single minute of every single day, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We self-censor and self-police what we say – and how we say it – because of our beliefs, because a seat at the table often feels like it’s enough. We don’t want to stir up a fuss by demanding a voice as well.
It was only after I converted to Islam fifteen years ago that I really started to notice how limited representations of Muslims were across all media. Nearly all the Muslims depicted in TV shows and movies in this time seem to have been cast by those who are either ignorant of or hostile towards the normative practices of almost two billion people. The archetypes have been angry and barbaric if male or submissive and oppressed if female.
This isn’t helped by the fact that there are so few Muslims involved in casting, and the few that are seem to be as influenced by the stereotypes as anyone else. And in today’s video games – an enormous industry with some two billion consumers – it seems like the only Muslims you see conform, perhaps in an even more reductionist manner to the archetypes found on TV or in movies.
It’s been unnerving, too, to read articles, listen to podcasts and watch talks by industry voices talk about such games, while being totally divorced from the experience of Muslims. Anyone who is overtly Muslim is, in effect, excluded from these cultural spaces; their religion is not considered, nor mentioned as a positive influence, if mentioned at all.
“The vitriol I have personally received playing against others online has become so bad I just stopped playing altogether”
And that’s before you even get to the abusive nature of many gaming communities. The vitriol I have personally received playing against others online has become so bad I just stopped playing altogether, their playground insults bringing back to those horrible memories of racism as a child.
These experiences made me quite touchy and provocative when it came to my identity as a Muslim man, and it took me years to appreciate that my defensiveness wasn’t a productive strategy. So when Islamic Relief UK approached us at Ultimatum Games last year to build a new video game, I was hesitant. Then I became intrigued by the idea of finally giving Muslim voices a positive platform in video games. I felt a moral duty to get involved.
And so together we have created Virtue Reality, a game that teaches players how foreign aid works in a fun, engaging, accessible way, using Muslim characters with a range of skin tones and attire, from hijab to hard hat to hoodie.
The player is invited to build projects such as shelters, wells and schools that are all based on real life projects in more than 40 countries across the world, from Pakistan to Somalia. As they click, the gamer accumulates enough ‘DeedCoins’ to build the first phase of a project. These DeedCoins reflect the good deeds that we Muslims are expected to carry out as part of their faith. As Allah says in the Qur’an: “Whoever saved a life, it is as though he saved all of mankind.”
When we launched Virtue Reality at the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, it was deeply moving to see Muslim students recognising themselves on screen. I was deeply moved when I overheard one boy, Ibrahim, saying “that’s my name – and he looks like me!”, while teenage girls were excited to see a woman wearing a hijab building a dam in Mali.
I don’t want to be preachy, and I don’t want to get into a ‘freedom of speech’ debate either – I just want to expand media to include people whose voices we don’t hear. Not just games, but in TV shows, books and films too. It’s time to put an end to lazy stereotyping, which leads only to misunderstanding, demonisation and even violence.
Audiences are better than that, the people playing these games know Muslims are better than the stereotypes they see, and I think people are more tolerant than what the newspapers would have us believe. If you were an alien arriving on earth today, you might think this country is divided into racists who voted for Brexit, or liberal elites who voted Remain, or fundamentalist Muslims in no-go areas who practice sharia law. The reality is of course more complex and more nuanced. The Britain I see is better than that, more tolerant, less fractured.
“Young gamers are told there is only one way for Muslims to be – but that way is not proportionate to the 1.8 billion people in the world who follow Islam”
But the danger is that if you drip feed people misinformation, offering them a singular portrayal of how Muslims think, feel and act, they start to become suspicious of their neighbours, their schoolmates, their colleagues. We’ve had a decade or more of this, and we have a societal problem. I’m not saying we’re going to solve racism and Islamophobia with our game – but we can help normalise what it really means to be a Muslim.
Look at the sporting world, for example, and how people from all races and religions put aside their differences and come together. Now, when Mohammed Salah plays football, and when Sir Mo Farah runs, we celebrate them for their achievements rather than reduce them to one aspect of their identity. My aim is that Virtue Reality can be part of a similar culture shift in the video games world. Young gamers are told there is only one way for Muslims to be – but that way is not proportionate to the 1.8 billion people in the world who follow Islam.
Now we just need the executives in boardrooms to come to this realisation too, and to have the courage to put financial backing behind more projects like Virtue Reality. After all, there’s a market of almost two billion more people you can turn into loyal customers.
Games, like life, are best when they’re win-win.
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