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Salman Rushdie, video games and my letter to the Financial Times

By on October 12, 2010
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Salman Rushdie has just written a book for children.

Entitled Luka and the Fire of Life, it’s a fable about a child entering the world of magic to rescue his father.

I should admit that I have not read it. All I have done is read the review from Philip Womack in the Financial Times.

Philip Womack’s primary criticism of the book is what he calls “the computer game aspect”. He says, for example:


“Since Haroun (Salman Rushdie’s first book) was published, computer games have encroached upon the childhood imagination. In a computer game, once you have learnt the necessary skills (usually by pressing some impossibly complex combination of buttons), you can complete a level and thus eventually succeed. They are not necessarily good metaphors for life; although, as Rashid says, they may improve your hand-eye co-ordination (not mine; I couldn’t get Lara Croft on to the first level, let alone through it”

The facile criticism of computer games incensed me. It incensed me so much that I wrote a letter to the Financial Times about it, which they published on Saturday.

My first thought when I read the review was “if this is a book aimed at children which carries a computer game metaphor at its heart, why did they ask some technophobic old fogey to review it? Isn’t that like asking Jeremy Clarkson to review chick-lit or Jordan to review the latest Martin Amis?”

The I did some research and discovered that Philip Womack is in fact 29. So he is not an old fogey. He is just prejudiced and bigoted against video games.

The perfect reviewer for Salman Rushdie’s book? I don’t think so.

The full text of my letter is below.

From Mr Nicholas Lovell.


With reference to Philip Womack’s review of Luka and the Fire of Life (“Game on”, Life & Arts, October 2), I despair at the approach of asking a person who seems to take no joy in computer games to review Salman Rushdie’s new children’s book, which uses computer games as a central theme. The author claims, for example, that computer games which allow you to progress simply by learning the necessary skills “are not a good metaphor for life”.

I can think of no better metaphor. Computer games encourage commitment, practice, lateral thinking and a sense that if your first approach does not work, try a different one. They are ideal training for entrepreneurs, for independent thinkers, for a future generation where jobs for life are a distant memory and where adults will be expected to change jobs and acquire new skills throughout their careers.

James Gee of the University of Wisconsin found that games are embedded with one of the core principles of learning: students prosper when the subject matter challenges them right at the edge of their abilities. Games are perfectly structured to deliver a “regime of competence”. Prof Gee’s interest was stimulated when he tried to play a game enjoyed by his six-year-old son. He said: “I hadn’t done that kind of new learning since graduate school. You know, as you get older, you kind of rest on your laurels.”

Perhaps it’s time Mr Womack started some new learning too.

Nicholas Lovell,

Director, GAMESbrief,

London SW1, UK”

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • TJ

    It’s true that often the challenge / reward structure of traditional games is antithesis to drama and meaningful story telling. Games tend to present success as the inevitable outcome of the player sinking time into them.

    There are, however, some really fascinating indie experiments with the question of success and failure in games at heart. You Have to burn the Rope satirises video games’ simplicity and inevitable win scenarios by reducing them to their core forms. You Only Live Once reminds us traditional agmes are often far removed from what really matters by removing repetition mechanics we often accept implicitly.

    More over, the conclusion of a game is no longer necessarily tied to success. Something like Heavy Rain attempts (and somewhat fails to my mind, but we’re working on it) to make a lose scenario just as rewarding as a success. In short, games are becoming less about high scores and beating the thing as they are about the experience itself. I don’t think anything about that renders games innapropriate as a metaphor for life.

    If anything, in fact, books are far more limited than games in almost every respect.
    There are more smart games here:

  • Thank you very much for your response. If I may, I’d like to post it as a separate post (it will get more exposure than a comment).

    I think that we disagree on a fundamental point: you focus on the “skills” element of games; I focus on the way they can teach to keep thinking about different solutions to the problem.
    Perhaps we should agree that computer games can *sometimes* be a good metaphor for life.

  • Dear Mr Lovell,

    I have read your letter, and I would like to address two points. My first is that I bear no ill will towards computer games – they are great, and fun, and I grew up on them. My point was that as a metaphor for life they are not very useful – in life, no matter how many skills you learn, you don’t always succeed. A computer game has limits: life does not. My second point is that for a children’s book to be based around a computer game – ie, to have no real element of surprise or danger in it – is wrong.

    Yours sincerely,

    Philip Womack