Ender's Game Analysis

  • Ender's Game raises questions about the ethics of war, its psychological effects on soldiers, and the danger the military poses to democratic government.
  • Ender was born Andrew Wiggin. His nickname stems from a mispronunciation of Andrew, but the word "Ender" has other fraught connotations. For instance, it could reflect one of Ender's fundamental character traits: that he ends conflicts using oftentimes brutal strategies.
  • Locke and Demosthenes are allusions to John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker, and Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator. In Ender's Game, Locke and Demosthenes are assumed political personas: Locke is a pacifist and rationalist, whereas Demosthenes supports war efforts.

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Analysis

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Ender’s Game was published as a novel in 1985, though it is based on a short story that appeared in Analog magazine eight years earlier. It is the foundation of a long saga, with five further novels telling the story of Ender himself, and the universe established in Ender’s Game—sometimes referred to as the “Enderverse”—has given rise to comic books, computer games, manga, and a feature film.

Although the world depicted in Ender’s Game appears to be a futuristic version of our own world, the author does not spend very much time on exposition or physical description, preferring to concentrate instead on the psychology of the characters, particularly Ender himself. This renders the technological and political differences between our world and Ender’s less important, directing readers to focus instead on the universal ways in which humans think and endure mental suffering. Ender’s thoughts are described with such meticulous realism that, although he is a young and sympathetic character, the reader is not particularly surprised by his capacity for sudden ferocity.

Each chapter opens with a third-party discussion of Ender’s abilities and progress. The third parties in question are initially anonymous, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are Colonel Graff and Major Anderson, Ender’s instructors at Battle School. Though Anderson, the junior officer, is the more compassionate of the two, they are both relatively indifferent to Ender’s personal welfare in their quest to create the perfect soldier. At the beginning of chapter two, Graff remarks: “I like the kid. I think we’re going to screw him up,” and Anderson coolly points out that this is their job. Their dispassionate, analytical discussions of Ender serve to highlight a recurring tension in the novel between the desirability of preserving one’s own humanity and the desirability of saving humanity as a whole. Ender is often referred to as a tool or a weapon, a comparison that dehumanizes him but also invites readers to consider the nature of an individual’s obligation to mankind: if the survival of the human race is at stake, does personal happiness or freedom matter?

The idea of playing games and the interplay between games and reality are central to the plot. Of course, the most obvious example of this is when Ender, accustomed to a gamified style of training and education, is tricked into destroying an entire planet, thinking it is just another simulated game. All the cadets at Battle School are taught to regard war as a game although, paradoxically, the more ambitious among them, like Bonzo, view the games quite literally a matter of life and death. These values appear to reflect those of the wider society, as even outside of Battle School, every country on earth now trains children to play war games. Though the games in the book are deliberately crafted to mold children into soldiers, it is also suggested that games can be subversive, as when the Buggers communicate to Ender through the Mind Game in an attempt to bring a peaceful end to the conflict.

Since the Bugger’s first devastating attack seventy years ago, all the aggression in the war has come solely from the human side; despite this, Ender is one of only a few characters who seriously question whether the Buggers still pose a threat, and his musings over whether there might be some way to communicate with the Buggers are quickly dismissed. Ender’s aggressive destruction of Stilson impresses Graff precisely because it is in accord with humanity’s strategy against the Buggers: to protect oneself, one must not only win the first conflict, one must prevail in all possible future...

(This entire section contains 1229 words.)

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conflicts by permanently handicapping the enemy. In the end, however, Ender learns from the surviving Bugger queen that the future attack humanity intended to guard against would never have come, meaning that Earth’s actions were unnecessarily aggressive. This terrible realization reveals the inherent problem in Ender’s strategy with Stilson and mankind’s approach to war: in seeking only to irreversibly destroy an enemy, one necessarily overlooks and eliminates any possibility of peaceful reconciliation or understanding. 

During his time in Battle School, Ender wins his conflicts by breaking the rules everyone else takes as read. He does this not only in the Battle Room but also when he plays the Giant’s Game, mounting a surprise attack on the Giant himself rather than choosing the one of the options proffered by the game. Though Ender regularly employs creative problem solving to thwart the adults who try to exploit him, he—perhaps surprisingly—never truly refuses to play the games themselves. This is most obvious in the final battle, when Ender, frustrated by the unfairness of the “simulation,” decides to rebel against it:

If I break this rule, they'll never let me be a commander. It would be too dangerous. I'll never have to play a game again. And that is victory.

In rebelling, however, Ender plays right into the hands of those who seek to control him, executing a risky yet brilliantly creative strategy that destroys the Buggers when he could have simply refused to take part in the exercise at all. Ender’s own culpability for the events at the end of the novel is therefore complicated. Though it would be easy to view Ender as just a child manipulated by adults, such an interpretation is too simple. Throughout the novel, Ender is keenly aware that his instructors seek to influence and use him, yet he cannot resist continuing to play their games, even as he begins to question the aims of the war:

I'll become exactly the tool you want me to be, said Ender silently, but at least I won't be fooled into it. I'll do it because I choose to, not because you tricked me.

Competing and winning appears to grant Ender a false sense of control, blinding him to the larger and more concerning ways in which he has surrendered his own agency to those whom he does not fully trust. This suggests that rather than a strength, Ender’s desire to “win” may actually be his greatest weakness.

Given that the story takes place in a dystopian world where tyrannical and militaristic governments vie against each other as well as against extra-terrestrial enemies, the ending is curiously optimistic. Colonel Graff enjoys a new lease of life as Minister of Colonization, a less adversarial and destructive role than his former military one. He also shows compassion for Ender’s family by keeping the polemical identities of Peter and Valentine a secret. Ender himself manages to avoid a conflict with Peter, who eventually becomes conciliatory once he has achieved the political power that was so important to him. Finally, Ender is given the opportunity to atone for his crime in wiping out the Buggers’ society by establishing a new one. The conclusion of his search is left open-ended (though this is explored further in the sequels to Ender’s Game), but Ender is hopeful and glad to have a mission which employs his intelligence in a productive fashion rather than a destructive one. Traveling with Valentine while Peter remains on Earth allows Ender to reconnect with the most positive influence he has ever known, one which may hopefully help him move on from the trauma of his violent past.

Analysis

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Most of Ender's Game is told by a third person narrator with the exception of the discussions between the military men. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader is allowed to eavesdrop on these conversations as though listening to a wiretap. Only the dialogue is provided, set off from the rest of the text in boldface type. The speakers are nameless at first, but later identify themselves. These conversations serve almost as a Greek chorus, letting the reader know what is coming. After the first chapter when Ender is separated from his family, the action in the chapters alternates between Ender and Valentine/Peter. The reader is made a participant in the military secret-keeping because the reader has information denied to the children. Because the reader has access to Ender's thoughts, which the military does not, the reader understands Ender's decisions made with only the input allowed by his military keepers. Ultimately, this arouses the reader's compassion for the child groping to do the right thing without moral guidance or practical knowledge.

Historical Context

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The Cold War in the 1980sEnder's Game takes place in Earth's future, one in which all countries are cooperating together to save the planet from alien invasion. Nevertheless, the novel does suggest that the international conflicts of the twentieth century will not be forgotten, as an American hegemony (a group of nations dominated by one) will be pitted against a Second Warsaw Pact, led by the Russians. In this world, Russia rules Eurasia from the Netherlands to Pakistan. Peter believes that Russia is preparing for a "fundamental shift in world order." Once the bugger wars are over, the North American alliances will dissolve, and Russia will take over. This conflict may have seemed inevitable in the early and mid-1980s, when the novel was written. Since the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had engaged in a "cold war" which involved military buildups but no direct military confrontations. Almost forty years later, this conflict showed few signs of being resolved peacefully.

The two sides of the Cold War were led by the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact, signed in 1955, established an alliance among the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. It served to defend the group against any potential military or economic threats from the West. It also strengthened the Soviet Union's hold over its Eastern European satellites and prevented them from making close ties with the West. On the other side was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which bound Western Europe and the United States together in defense against the communists. From the end of World War II, both the Americans and the Soviets increased their nuclear arsenals, each trying to prevent the other from gaining a military advantage.

The tenseness of the 1950s and 1960s had given way in the 1970s to a limited "detente," or lessening of friction between the two sides. By the 1980s, however, the Cold War began heating up once again. The Soviet Union had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in 1979, leading to increased U.S. fears of spreading communism. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 on a platform that included promises of a tougher stance against the Soviets. Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and his administration planned for 1.2 trillion dollars in new military spending. The government also proposed a "Strategic Defense Initiative," commonly called "Star Wars," a space-based defensive system that would intercept incoming nuclear missiles. These actions were in contrast to public reassurances from the Americans that they wanted to proceed with arms reduction treaties, so the Soviets remained nervous of American intentions. It was not until after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 that tensions eased between the two nations. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, along with the Soviet Union itself, in 1991.

Science and Technology in the 1980s
One of the most startling technological revolutions of the 1980s was the growth of the personal computer. While large mainframe computers had been in use for many years, they were mainly limited to large research facilities. Advances in design made computers smaller and more affordable, and computers became available to a broad spectrum of businesses and individuals. Apple Computer introduced the Apple II, a system designed for home use, in 1977, while IBM countered with the PC (personal computer) in 1981. "Computer literacy"—a familiarity with how computers worked— became a coveted skill among workers, and schools began offering classes in programming. In 1980 there were only 100,000 computers in schools throughout the United States; by 1987, that number had increased to more than two million. In addition, the internet of the 1980s was just a loosely organized system that helped academics and researchers send messages to each other; it was only in the mid-1990s that it became a powerful media available to any home with a computer and a modem. The use of computer games, simulations, school programs, and "nets" in Ender's Game reflects the growing influence that computers were coming to have in the 1980s.

A technological revolution was also happening on the biological frontier during the 1980s. Technical advances in the 1970s had led researchers to better understand how an organism's DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) influences its development. In the 1980s, scientists began applying that knowledge to manipulate the genetic makeup of organisms to create new and improved strains of plants and animals. While this "genetic engineering" led to more productive, disease-resistant crops, people worried about its possible application to humans. The world's first "testtube baby"—a baby conceived outside its mother's womb—had been born in 1978, and the first U.S. clinic opened two years later. If people could now use science to aid conception, critics wondered, might they not also use it to create babies with "designer genes"? Moral issues surrounding the birth of children also figure in Ender's Game, as Ender's character seems to be a deliberate combination of his two older siblings, ordered by the government to produce the military genius they need.

Religion in the 1980s
The 1980s saw people searching for ways to reestablish traditions in their homes and lives. The 1960s and 1970s had been a time of experimentation and free-style living, and church attendance declined as people began exploring spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion. In the 1980s, however, many individuals wanted a return to a simpler existence, one in which there were fewer surprises They wanted to be able to believe in something that was never-changing, something dependable around which to structure their lives. Religious conservatives, who became prominent in the 1980s, offered one route toward accomplishing that goal. Increase in fundamentalist faiths increased in the 1980s: a Gallup poll in 1986 showed thirty-one percent of respondents classified themselves as evangelical or "born-again" Christians. This increase was reflected in a growing conservative Christian political movement, which sought to bring moral issues more into the political mainstream. For many people, however, religion became more of a personal expression, and this was reflected in the growth of the "New Age" movement. Interestingly enough, the world of Ender's Game is a world where one's religion has become a matter for embarrassment or even persecution. Both of Ender's parents have had to renounce their faith in order to conform; Alai's whispered "Salaam" similarly seems something outlawed. Ironically, however, this persecution seems to have made their faith even more precious to the characters.

The background of Card's own faith, Mormonism, includes its own bouts of persecution. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who published the divine revelations he claimed to have received in The Book of Mormon. The most controversial of Smith's precepts was the practice of polygamy, and Smith and his followers were driven out of communities in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. A large Mormon settlement was established in Utah in 1847 by Smith's successor, Brigham Young, but they continued to be feared and mistrusted by outsiders, including the federal government. The Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887 dissolved the Mormon Church as a corporate entity, and then leaders had to renounce polygamy before Utah could gain its statehood in 1896. Since then, the Mormon Church has increased ties with more mainstream faiths and has grown considerably; by the end of the 1980s, membership within the church had risen to over seven million members. Nevertheless, Mormons still sometimes suffer prejudice from outsiders who stereotype them or misunderstand their beliefs. Understanding this background can provide an interesting insight into the way religion is portrayed in Ender's Game.

Social Concerns

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The major social concern in Ender's Game is the danger of reliance on a military force, even if it is made up of allied troops from every country, because winning at all costs is not moral. One sub theme of the novel is the danger of state-enforced population control which undermines religion as a social force. Another is (in 1985!) the danger of the "information highway" being used by computer-literate demagogues as a means of shaping and controlling public opinion.

Andrew ("Ender") Wiggin is a "third," a child conceived by parents in defiance of strict population control ordinances that limit couples to two children and deny civil rights to any further offspring. Ender's parents are allowed an exception to the rule because top officials in the International Fleet (I.F.) that protects Earth from an alien species known as the "buggers" are convinced that they have the genetic capacity to produce a military genius to fight these aliens. Ender's older brother and sister had almost measured up to the standards set for the military genius desired by the Fleet, the one deemed a shade too cruel, the other a bit too passive. Officials figured the third child might just have the right mix — hence permission for Ender's conception. There is, however, a price. Ender is monitored and tested by the Fleet almost from birth. When he is found acceptable, his parents must fulfill their agreement and send Ender off to the Fleet's military school at age six. At the school, Ender and his classmates are treated sadistically to prevent them from relying on an outside force for help. Ender in particular is repeatedly isolated from his mates and often forced into very real kill-or-be-killed situations. By the time he "graduates" at age 10, he has, unbeknownst to him, killed several classmates. He is then sent to Command School where he undergoes training which includes what Ender thinks are video strategy games. Upon being told that he has in fact wiped out the "buggers," Ender is devastated by the deception, especially when the commander admits that the buggers were almost certainly innocent of any intent to harm Earth. The commander of an earlier successful mission against the buggers tells Ender why he was the perfect candidate: "Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn't know. We made sure you didn't know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It's what you were born for."

The other Wiggins children in Ender's Game are also used by the military. Peter and Valentine, Ender's older siblings, create personae on the Internet (although Card does not use this term) to control the political climate of the world. Hiding their ages behind the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes, Peter and Valentine manipulate peoples' political opinions by creating a debate between Locke/Peter, a conservative, and Demosthenes/Valentine, a warmonger. The Fleet is aware of their maneuvering, but decides not to interfere as long as they are useful. Because it suits their ends, they do not stop the cruel Peter even when it is clear that he will become a despotic ruler, Clearly the lesson is that absolute military power can be misused — and it is the innocent, particularly the children, who will suffer.

All three of the children are placed in their untenable positions as a result of their parents' decision to abjure their religions and sever ties with their families to get the benefits of a society that accepts the two-child stricture. Both parents suffer guilt for their decision. The father is Catholic, the mother Mormon — both religions that abhor artificial birth control. As the director of the Fleet Battle School explains to Ender, his parents wanted the benefits of the two-child rule, but were never as happy about it as they thought they would be. That is why they were willing to sign the papers giving Ender to the Fleet even before his conception. Their decision also means that the children are not given any religious instruction and do not have the security and guidance often provided by an extended family, particularly grandparents. Ender and Valentine are innately compassionate and empathetic, but can be manipulated by others because they have no sense of ethics. Ender goes to battle school and accepts the military tenet that he must win at any cost because it accords with his survival instincts. It never occurs to him that there is any other choice. Valentine cooperates with Peter in their game of world domination fully understanding that she is helping a monster, but also driven by the need to win at any cost. Peter is a sociopath who is motivated to control his sadistic impulses because he knows he will not be able to gain the power he craves if anyone finds out about his cruelty before he is in an unassailable position. Ender is psychologically devastated by his experience and voluntarily exiles himself, wandering in search of absolution as a "speaker for the dead" while searching for a way to recreate the buggers. Valentine also seeks purification by joining Ender off-Earth and writing a true history of the bugger wars. Peter never really repents, but at the end of his life, he does ask Ender to "speak" for him and Ender agrees. At the end, Valentine tells Ender: "Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is fill the roles given you by good people, people who love you." If Ender and Valentine had had the type of moral and religious upbringing denied them by their parents' decision, they could have chosen rather than been manipulated. Perhaps they could have stopped Peter. Certainly they would have been spared much undeserved personal pain.

Literary Precedents

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When reading the chapters about the Battle School, the reader cannot help but think of the boys in Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954). Like Golding's boys, the trainees at the Battle School are not demon-children, but human children acting in accordance with their instincts rather than an externally imposed code of ethics. On a lighter note, the video war games recall the motion picture The Last Starfighter (1984), based on a science fiction book by Alan Dean Foster, where an Earth boy is recruited by aliens to be a starfighter based on his winning an arcade video game placed by the aliens.

Media Adaptations

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Mark Rolston narrates Ender's Game in an abridged three-hour audiotaped version adapted by Audio Renaissance Tapes, Inc., in 1991.

Card has authored a screenplay based on Ender's Game; as of 1998 he was working with Chartoff Productions and Fresco Pictures to produce the film.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Orson Scott Card, Introduction to Ender's Game, Tor Books, 1991.

Michael Collmgs, review of Speaker for the Dead,Fantasy Review, April, 1986, p. 20.

Tom Easton, review of Ender's Game, in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. CV, No. 7, July, 1985, pp. 180-181.

Review of Ender's Game, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LII, No. 21, November 1, 1984, p. 1021.

Roland Green, review of Ender's Game, in Booklist, Vol. 81, No. 7, December 1, 1984, p. 458.

Gerald Jonas, review of Ender's Game, in New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1985, p 18.

Dan K. Moran, review of Ender's Game, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2, July/August, 1986, p 20.

Michael Lassell, "A Youngster Saves the Planet," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, p. 11.

Elaine Radford, "Ender and Hitler Sympathy for the Superman," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 10, No. 5, June, 1987, pp. 11-12, 48-49.

For Further Study
Orson Scott Card, "Rebuttal," Fantasy Review, Vol. 10, No. 5, June, 1987, pp. 13-14, 49-52.
In this response to Radford's negative assessment of Ender's Game, Card takes issue with the critic's comparison of Ender with Hitler. He suggests the critic has misinterpreted the novel by overlooking the complex way in which it addresses issues of empathy and violence.

Orson Scott Card, "Characters and Viewpoint," Writers Digest Books, 1988.
Taking a general approach to writing instruction, Card details the creation, introduction, and development of characters in long and short fiction, and explains the various points of view available to the fiction writer.

Orson Scott Card, "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy," Writers Digest Books, 1990.
Card provides the aspiring science fiction writer with tips on creatively devising other worlds, peoples, and magical occurrences.

Orson Scott Card, "Hatrack River. The Official Website of Orson Scott Card," http //www hatrack.com.
This website contains a wealth of material on Card and his work. It includes an area for student research as well as a queshon-and-answer section on writing with the author himself.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 44, Gale, 1987.
This entry collects criticism focusing on Ender's Game.

Graceanne A. and Keith R. A. Decandido, "PW Interviews Orson Scott Card," Publishers Weekly, November 30, 1990, pp. 54-55.
An interview with the author in which he discusses the belief system behind his work, his explorations of moral issues, and his use of violence.

Janrae Frank, "War of the Worlds," Washington Post Book World, February 23, 1986, p. 10.
This author questions the religious imagery at the climax of Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker For the Dead, and she wonders whether this recurring motif might be a sign of some personal conflict.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Dutton, 1974.
Originally published in 1762, this work is credited with being one of the first to explore how a child's mind differs from that of an adult. The author is one of the world's great social philosophers, whose ideas directly influenced the Declaration of Independence.

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