Ender's Game Themes

The main themes in Ender's Game include the abilities of children, empathy and alienation, the qualities of leadership, and technology and virtual reality.

  • The abilities of children: The children in Ender's Game are intelligent, creative, and ruthless, which is precisely what makes them such valuable soldiers. 
  • Empathy and alienation: Despite his alienation from others, Ender has a strong sense of empathy, which is what makes him a skilled strategist.
  • The qualities of leadership: Through careful observation, Ender learns what traits make an effective leader.
  • Technology and virtual reality: The advanced technology in Ender's world distances the children from the reality and destruction of war.

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The Abilities of Children

Orson Scott Card has been highly critical of the way in which children are usually portrayed in fiction (whether the works in question are written for children or not). At no time in his life, he says, has he ever felt like a child. The children Card writes, therefore, are no less nuanced than his adult characters. From the moment Ender is introduced at the age of six, his thought processes are shown to be sophisticated and complex. Understanding this, Colonel Graff treats him in exactly the same way as he would an adult and even speaks to him privately to give him information that he does not share with his parents. Indeed, the three brilliant Wiggin children seem to grow up with minimal involvement from their parents, whose intellect and personality appear lackluster in comparison.

When Peter suggests to Valentine that they should write articles to influence their country’s political direction, he accepts that they will have to adopt false identities and pretend to be adults if their plan is to succeed. However, they are both confident that they have the abilities necessary to convince adults in high positions that their views are the correct ones, and this confidence proves to be well-founded. This lack of inhibition and uncertainty is repeatedly shown to be an area in which children outperform adults, and it is the primary reason that children—particularly Ender—are used to end the war. The children at Battle School have never been exposed to the horrors of a real war and are thus able to see battle strategy as a game. In this way, their innocence is precisely what makes the children ideal soldiers and commanders: they are creative, ruthless, and courageous, unafraid to take risks that would make adults hesitate.

Empathy and Alienation

Of the three gifted Wiggin children, only Ender is selected for Battle School. Instructors felt that Peter lacked the empathy necessary for leadership, while Valentine lacked the aggression and ruthlessness necessary for military command. The Wiggin family is allowed a third child precisely because the government hoped a “third” might possess the perfect balance of empathy and ruthlessness, a wish that is fulfilled in Ender. As Ender tells his sister, Valentine:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

This statement not only identifies the reason for Ender’s success but also demonstrates the challenge confronting Colonel Graff: empathy is necessary for victory, so he must find a way to turn recruits into killers without destroying their empathy. This turns out to be an almost impossible task, even in such a paradoxical case as Ender’s, where a strong sense of empathy coexists with a powerful sense of alienation and anger. Graff and Rackham’s need to deceive Ender might itself be taken as an admission of defeat in their attempt to cultivate a balance of empathy and aggression in their star pupil. Although Ender’s aggressive actions allowed the human fleet to destroy the Buggers and emerge victorious, it is clear to the reader that his empathy would not have allowed him to make this call had he known what he was really doing. 

Despite his ruthlessness, Ender is never indifferent to the suffering of others, and the adults around Ender must manipulate him to prevent his gentle nature from inhibiting the mental qualities that make him an effective strategist. Ender is kept deliberately isolated for much of the book, as his instructors feel that Ender performs at his best when he believes no one will...

(This entire section contains 1160 words.)

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help him. This treatment—though effective in its objective—has damaging consequences, leaving Ender alienated from his peers and feeling disconnected from the very world he is trying to save. After eradicating the Buggers, Ender is consumed with guilt; however, it is ultimately through his strong sense of empathy that Ender finds a path forward toward redemption.

The Qualities of Leadership

Early on in the story, Ender’s aggressive yet strategic destruction of one enemy, Stilson, earns him a place at Battle School. A similar event, in which Bonzo Madrid attempts to bully Ender ends in much the same fashion: with Bonzo destroyed and Ender promoted, this time to Command School. His swift, decisive, and strategic response to attack marks Ender out as a leader, and his leadership abilities are further honed by his experiences at Battle School, where he critically and objectively analyzes the flaws of other commanders to methodically determine how an ideal leader should act. Bonzo Madrid, who commands the Salamander Army, is arrogant, inflexible, and generally disliked by his cadets, whom he abuses. On the other hand, Rose, the commander of the Rat Army, is weak and lazy, and thus he does not have the respect of his troops. Recognizing these weaknesses, Ender knows he must steer a middle course between these extremes, and so he deliberately combats his natural tendency towards isolation and creates a bond with his troops, though he is careful to never become so close to them that he forfeits their respect. Over the course of the novel, Ender discovers that leadership is a carefully calibrated balancing act and that a successful leader must be able to understand and decisively prioritize the competing traits, interests, and needs of those under his command.

Technology and Virtual Reality

Given the prescience of Orson Scott Card’s descriptions of technology and online communication, many readers may be surprised to learn that Ender’s Game was written in 1985. In particular, Card is astute in his examination of the psychological and moral effects of technology, which he depicts as distancing people both from one another and from any sense of objective truth. This is most evident in the pivotal scene of the narrative, when Ender destroys an entire civilization without intending to or even knowing that he is doing so. Graff and Rackham believe they have prepared him for this act of destruction through countless simulated battle scenarios; however, Ender has retained a sense of the gap between reality and virtual reality in a way that his instructors and his fellow cadets have not, hence his horror when he finds out what he has done and his attempts to atone for it throughout the remainder of the book.

Ender’s ability to separate reality from the “games” the children play at Battle School is shown to be somewhat unusual, as many of the other recruits appear to be permanently altered by the realism of the technology they use and the war games they obsess over. This has the effect of desensitizing them to violence in real life while simultaneously making them murderously intent on the results of computer games and battle simulations. Bonzo Madrid, representing a common psychological type at Battle School, is thus perfectly willing to commit real-life murder to restore his honor after he loses a “game.”


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