Looking for more out of your real world life? Finland’s cleverly branded Muxlim, a network of English language social media sites, has launched a beta version of Muxlim Pal, a virtual world geared toward Muslims (and non-Muslims), similar to the popular interactive virtual world Second Life or The Sims computer games.
For those of you unfamiliar with virtual worlds (perhaps most of you under 30), these games allow you to adopt an online persona in the form of a customisable avatar in an interactive community with different meeting places, such as beaches, concert halls, and… erm, mosques. Muxlim Pal’s Flash-based interface allows users to communicate with each other and perform a number of actions (walking, sitting, eating) that resemble everyday activities.
Muxlim Pal is in trial release only, meaning that functionality, graphics, and virtual space is limited, though a full version with expanded capabilities is expected next year as user input is incorporated. The site insists it is not religious, but rather aimed at promoting a “Muslim lifestyle,” though there is obviously a link between the two. In the version online now, your avatar can stop what they’re doing anywhere, roll out a prayer mat, and pray. Avatars can be customised to include Muslim aspects, such as dress, beards, and hijabs – though they can also wear western clothing and leave hair uncovered. Users have private rooms which they can embellish and invite others to (careful there, habibi).
Still, Muxlim’s own market research shows that Muslims “have a lifestyle that is not so different from everybody else,” so, clearly, a fine line is being drawn to keep Muxlim Pal appealing to Muslims yet inclusive of others without seeming contradictory. Ultimately, a “family-friendly” online experience is sought, a safe space for Muslims in the West who might feel excluded from the real world outside. Presumably, those who value such an environment will find much to like in the experience.
But as with anything related to Muslims, this may be a more challenging task than expected. Within 48 hours, the site was shut down temporarily (and new accounts suspended) when it was quickly taken over by “griefers“, people who sign up to online games only to cause mischief (such as walking into rooms and screaming “Die, infidel!” and “Where my sand niggers at?” during our sample run). Part of the appeal of virtual worlds (as with being online in general) is the ability to do things one would not normally do, using anonymous personas. Not surprisingly, there is a strong pull towards taboos and anti-social behaviour. The Internet and collaborative gaming are awash with hurt feelings.
It is expected that future attempts at disruption will be handled by policing, though this approach struggles to work on other, less restrictive platforms. Unfortunately, having a meeting place for Muslims (or those sympathetic to them) will attract those looking for targets for their wrath. And as a business, closing access to new members or monitoring a sizeable community risks profitability. The site will depend on virtual money and advertising to enhance the user experience. If Muxlim pulls this off, they deserve enormous credit for providing an environment that many parents struggle to create for their kids’ online activities.
But this challenge is not for the timid. The darker side of human nature online has yet to be overestimated. Art – and virtual worlds – will continue to imitate life, as always.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.