Riot Games, a Practicing Muslim, and a Prayer Room - a story about Acknowledgment and Accommodation
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
Last week, I was at a global gathering for all Rioters that happens every couple of years to celebrate what we have done and to get us pumped up about where we are going next. The gathering was a great success from a lot of dimensions, but I’ll explore that in future writings. Today, I want to highlight something very small that happened during the gathering that was a very big deal for a very small number of us.
We had a prayer room! We didn’t share the meditation room or the quiet room, we had a dedicated room for Muslim prayers. For many of you reading this, this may mean nothing, but for me and a small number of others it meant everything. It meant that for the first time we felt seen, we felt acknowledged, we felt that we mattered, we felt that we belonged. And “we” here refers to practicing Muslims which I will talk about in a moment.
Since we have offices in Turkey and Dubai, it is safe to assume that we probably have some number of Rioters who are Muslim given that these are predominately Muslim countries. However, like in many religions, there are people that have the faith and there are people that are more practicing. I am one of those practicing Muslims.
To understand why this is such a big deal, I need to provide a bit of context.
I thought that out of about 3800 Rioters there are probably just 2 practicing Muslims. See, contrary to popular belief, Muslims are not just Arabs, Muslims are white, and black, Asian and European. Islam is a faith, a choice, not a heritage, culture or race. You can't just spot Muslims, and of course it’s almost impossible to spot a practicing Muslim. Seeing people perform the 5 daily prayers (which is the most important pillar of manifesting your Islam) is the one clear sign of a practicing Muslim.
Being a practicing Muslim in corporate America is hard. In corporate America we don’t talk about religion or politics. The conversations around diversity and inclusion are dominated by discussions of gender and race because we have significant gaps for large numbers of people. I understand and respect all this. The result however is a deep sense of reluctance for me to speak up about any accommodations that could make me feel included.
Add to that the general Muslim stance after 9/11. A stance that can be summarized as “stay out of sight” and “be apologetic.” Muslims carry a collective burden that heavily weighs on us. We have to defend our religion on a routine basis against the sensationalization of the media. I’ve personally faced both implicit and explicit discrimination and so many times I just go into defense mode or hiding mode.
So given the fact I believed that there were only 2 practicing Muslims at Riot, there was no way I had the guts to ask for any accommodations for us. I was too shy. I thought I didn’t matter within the majority.
My day-to-day challenges
This next section may sound like I’m complaining or feel entitled, not at all. I’m simply trying to share my context so you could maybe see why having a prayer room was such a big deal. I also want to share this with you as you may be a manager, and have practicing Muslims on your team and this may help you build some empathy towards them which is something we all need to build more of.
Not all, but a number of practicing Muslims eat only Halal meat. The word Halal simply means permissible in Islam. So, Halal meat – is meat that is permissible in Islam, Halal investing – which we will talk about next – is simply investing that is permissible in Islam.
So back to Halal meat. Just to clarify here, Halal chicken and beef is the same as regular chicken and beef, the only difference is that the animal needs to be slaughtered in a certain way – therefore making it Halal meat. It does not need to be cooked in a certain way or under certain supervision, it is more about the slaughtering process than anything else.
In the absence of halal meat, my day-to-day is to stick to vegetarian or anything seafood. Again, in the grand scheme of things, so what, I can eat vegetarian food at the office and meat at home – not a big deal. There is no scenario in my head where I would suggest that our cafeteria (Noms) switch meat vendors for 2 people. It’s the minority mindset – we are too few to matter. Let’s just be happy with what we have.
Another aspect of a practicing Muslim’s day-to-day challenges is Halal investing. This shows up most in the company’s 401K plan since most plans don’t have halal investing options. Again, many Muslims in the company who are not that practicing, this may not be an issue at all, but being a practicing Muslim I need my investments to be Halal. I asked for years if we could include halal investment options, and at the time it was “not possible.” Why? Honestly, I was too shy to ask. However, I never gave up. Every couple of years I brought it up and last year, we changed the 401K to allow people to select different funds and among them were halal investment options. I felt heard. I felt that we mattered.
The 5 daily prayers are my biggest challenge at work because I need a clean, quiet place to perform my prayers in. At the Riot campus, we have a meditation room in one of our 7 buildings. However, since it is not dedicated to Muslims, people come in and out, it’s a bit awkward to pray in the presence of others who are not praying, but it’s OK. It works. After all, I thought there were only 2 of us. So, I couldn’t, and I honestly didn’t want to ask for more than that. I really genuinely appreciated the fact that we can use the mediation room for our prayers instead of trying to find empty corners of the campus or trying to perform our prayers super quickly between meetings when the meeting rooms were empty. However, it was an accommodation we are using, it didn’t acknowledge me and my needs.
Back to the prayer room
So given this context let’s go back to the prayer room at our global gathering.
At the office, I understand that there may be a meditation or prayer room, but it is rarely something you would see at a conference or event. So whenever I go to large events like conferences, by default I assume that I will have to go outside on the pavement and pray, under a staircase or in the corner behind some props or something. Somewhere where I am not seen or noticed. So, you can imagine walking into the hall and seeing a large banner that said “Prayer Room” filled my heart with joy, acceptance, and a deep sense of belonging.
When I walked in to the prayer room, I started to tear up. They had 3 prayer rugs in the carpeted room and they had even placed an arrow showing the direction of Mecca. I could not believe myself. I got very emotional that day because for the first time ever, for the first time in my 21 years as an adult in America, I felt seen. I felt acknowledged for who I am. I mattered.
The way my brain translated this event was that we as Muslims mattered to Riot so much so that they made a prayer room for us instead of just saying of they can pray in the meditation room
This is the difference between being acknowledged and being accommodated. Praying in a meditation room is an accommodation – which I am grateful for. But having a prayer room is an acknowledgment that you matter and I’m going to do something for you.
After I calmed down from the initial happiness of having a prayer room, the minority mindset kicked in again. I started thinking that there were only 2 practicing Muslims I know. I hope they know about it and use it. Since I was part of the conference program as soon as the program started, I got super busy and forgot to tell the few rioters I know about the room.
To my surprise I had Rioters who I know are not practicing Muslims come up to me in delight that there is a prayer room. See, for them it wasn’t that they were going to use the prayer room (since they weren’t practicing) – they didn’t need the accommodation – but they appreciated the acknowledgement. They appreciated being seen for who they are.
My enjoyment was multiplied during the conference when I could go to the prayer room and found other practicing Muslim Rioters in the room praying. I never ever knew we had more practicing Muslims at Riot. We exchanged emails and slack messages and it was awesome. I even heard from someone on the last day of the conference saying that he had only just found out that there was a prayer room, he was hiding in some corner doing his prayers and he wished he knew about this.
My favorite quote was from a fairly new Rioter who I met by coincidence in the prayer room. After we finished prayers together and we were walking about, he said “This is amazing, I have been in gaming and tech for years. No conference, no company ever had a prayer room for us. Riot is pretty amazing.”
Thank You Riot
And that is so true. Riot is really amazing. Thank you Riot for not just accommodating us, but acknowledging us. I have certain names in mind that I know made this happen and I have thanked them personally for this, but in this article, I want to focus on the culture of Riot that made these awesome people do what they did. While I deeply appreciate those Rioters that made this happen tactically, I want to deeply appreciate the culture of Riot that made this possible.
The culture that starts with our mission: “to be the most player-focused game company in the world”. The culture that encourages us to focus on the nuances that will deeply resonate and delight our players. That culture, that is part of our DNA now, is activated when we do events like these where our customers are not players, but Rioters themselves. So, when Rioters planned this event, they wanted it to be “the most Rioter focused event ever.” They asked themselves every day, “how can this be an amazing experience for every Rioter?” When the team decided on the prayer room, it didn’t stop there, I’m sure they asked themselves how can we make this prayer room resonate with Rioters that will use it. That is where the little things like the prayer rugs and the Qibla (an arrow showing the direction of Mecca) come in.
Another small example worth mentioning here is the Halal meat at the conference. I came to learn that Riot actually tried and asked the food suppliers to supply all the chicken as halal chicken but the supplier couldn’t accommodate that. Instead, all the food labeling had Halal on it to inform if the food was halal or not. That is a great example where there was no accommodation (we didn’t have halal food) but the acknowledgment that Muslims mattered by having the Halal sign on the food. Again, thank you Riot for trying to provide us with halal chicken.
Why I am sharing this now
On my way back I was at the airport and as usual, I struggled to find a place to pray. An overwhelming feeling of appreciation hit me and I wanted to share my gratitude for Riot with everyone I know and tell them how awesome Riot is.
Secondly, as I’m writing this, we are just a few days from the start of the holy month of Ramadan, a month where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day for a whole month. There are a number of accommodations companies can do for them (watch this video from Vyond) but what is as important, if not more important, is the acknowledgment. Companies wishing their Muslim employees a Happy Ramadan will make them feel seen and acknowledged.
Lastly, because I want more practicing Muslims and other minorities to be acknowledged and accommodated. I hesitated a lot before writing this. I usually write and talk about Business Agility, not Islam or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion - but I fought that voice, and I wanted to celebrate who I am holistically and share with the world all the dimensions of myself. I was never shy of who I am. I always told my colleagues to give me a few minutes in between meetings to find an empty place to do my prayers. It is that courage to share who you are with those around you that lead to ultimately people around me acknowledging me and accommodating me. It’s the persistence and the overcoming of the minority mindset, to politely and without entitlement ask if there could be an accommodation made. And when the answer is no, I understand that it’s just not the right time and I muster the courage to wait for the right time to try again.
As part of a small minority in the US (practicing Muslims) I just wanted to highlight the different ways we can be included and the difference those approaches have on how we feel. I assume this may be relevant to other minorities as well.
Accommodation is to address a need. For example, as a practicing Muslim, I need a place to pray, so the company dedicates a meeting room just for prayers - that is an accommodation and we should be grateful for it, but it didn’t acknowledge my existence in the greater community. My needs are addressed but I don’t feel seen, I don’t feel acknowledged yet. Calling that room publicly a Prayer Room acknowledges me. So acknowledgment on the other hand is to publicly recognize that a group (and its unique needs or rituals) exist and to genuinely make them feel that they belong — make them feel that even though they are different, they belong. For example, to congratulate Muslims during Eid (their major holiday celebration) is to acknowledge them. To give them/everyone a day off is to accommodate Eid. In my examples earlier, to have labeling for food that includes Halal is an acknowledgment, to actually have Halal food present is an accommodation. A lot of times we focus on accommodation over acknowledgment when acknowledgment could be more powerful.
As the nature of workplaces change after Covid, as we become a more global workforce, as we become more diverse, as the tensions and divides between humans continue to grow and be polarizing, try to deeply empathize and understand those who are different from you. And while trying to accommodate their needs may be beyond your means today, acknowledging them could mean a lot more to them.
And if you are a practicing Muslim like me, be who you are, have the courage to bring your whole self. Sooner or later there will be amazing people around you who will see you, acknowledge you, welcome you, and maybe even have the means to accommodate your needs. Don’t hide.