Ever since Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game in the 1980s, he’s been praised for his book’s descriptions of “futuristic” technology. Critics point to Card’s interest in games, computers, and virtual reality and how, in the last thirty years, these things have all become increasingly important parts of life. Children develop a taste for combat by playing violent video games, journalists express their political views to millions over the Internet, and even in the military, soldiers learn strategy by playing virtual reality games. Card essentially predicted the future.
One of the novel’s most important points about games, computers, and virtual reality is that they distance people from the “truth,” and also from each other. As preteens, Valentine and Peter Wiggin conceal their identities using the Internet (Card, writing before the Internet was at all common, calls this the “Net”), and end up using their rhetoric to control global politics. More overtly, the Battle School trains its young students by giving them combat games to play. By relying so extensively on games, the Battle School’s teachers trick students into forgetting the ugly truth: by playing fun games, these children are preparing for the murder of the Buggers. Card notes that every country on the planet encourages its children to play war games—this gives the people of Earth an appetite for violence, while also distancing them from their natural feelings of compassion and sympathy.
Yet the structure of the Battle School reveals something else about games and virtual reality: if people play games for long enough, then the games become reality. The students at Battle School take their combat games in the battleroom very seriously. One of these students, Bonzo Madrid, treats the game so seriously that he’s willing to commit murder when he loses to Ender. Ender is unique in Battle School because he can take a game seriously while also recognizing that it’s “just” a game: in other words, he cares enough to win, but not so much that he thinks of the rules of the game as absolute. Although he’s a brilliant commander, his most impressive victories come when he breaks or bends the rules of the battleroom—for example, when he performs the customary “victory ritual” before he’s actually won—technically winning the game for his army.
Even Ender can’t escape the truth, however: the game is reality, whether he likes it or not. At the end of the book, this is literally true in the sense that Ender discovers that he’s been fighting a real war at Command School—what he thought were computer simulations turn out to be real ships with living beings flying them. The convergence of game and reality is also true in a symbolic sense—Ender has been playing games for the better part of his life, and will be remembered forever because of the ingenious “games” he won. The result is that Ender’s old strategies of “bending” the rules don’t work anymore. When he sends a deadly missile to blow up the Bugger home planet, Ender thinks he’s tricking a computer simulation—it’s only later that he realizes that he’s wiped out an entire species, just as his teachers were hoping he’d do. The reality of this “game” then comes back to haunt Ender for the rest of his life.
For most of Ender’s life, games have distanced him from the people around him: his family, his friends and opponents in Battle School, and even the Buggers. Yet in the final chapter of Ender’s Game, Card makes a final point about games and virtual reality—they can bring people together instead of distancing them from each other. Ender discovers that the virtual reality game he’d played at Battle School, the “Giant game,” actually provided a conduit for him to communicate with the Buggers, unbeknownst to the International Fleet. He realizes that the Buggers have used games and virtual reality to understand his innermost feelings, and as a result, they’ve decided that he can be trusted to repopulate the Bugger species by finding a new home for the Bugger queen. The final irony of Ender’s Game is that the “game” mentioned in the title doesn’t refer to the violent, destructive war games that Ender played in school—games that have a clear winner and loser. The game Ender has been playing with the Bugger queen has no winner or loser—instead, Ender uses games and play to understand his sworn enemy, love her, and help her.
Games, Computers, and Virtual Reality ThemeTracker
Games, Computers, and Virtual Reality Quotes in Ender’s Game
Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid Bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the Buggers came again.
He hadn’t meant to kill the Giant. This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.
“They need us, that’s why.” Bean sat down on the floor and stared at Ender’s feet. “Because they need somebody to beat the Buggers. That’s the only thing they care about.”
“It’s important that you know that, Bean. Because most boys in this school think the game is important for itself—but it isn’t. It’s only important because it helps them find kids who might grow up to be real commanders, in the real war. But as for the game, screw that.”
Only then did it occur to William Bee that not only had Dragon Army ended the game, it was possible that, under the rules, they had won it. After all, no matter what happened, you were not certified as the winner unless you had enough unfrozen soldiers to touch the corners of the gate and pass someone through into the enemy’s corridor.
Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules, if you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.
In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.
And the enemy’s gate was down.