On Ender's Game

Winning and Losing in Ender’s Game

By Hilari Bell

Many years ago, during the Summer Olympic Games, Nike ran a series of ads that made me crazy. I forget most of the narrative, but the tagline was, “There’s only one winner,” followed by a clear implication that everybody else was just dust on the winner’s Nikes. I hated those ads. Everyone who goes to the Olympics is a brilliant athlete to start with. The distance between first and second place, sometimes even first and fourth or fifth or sixth place, is a fraction of a second, a breath, a single missed step. Everyone at the Olympics is a winner, and the difference between them is usually almost nothing. The Nike ads’ statement that only the person who happened to finish first mattered, and everyone else was worthless, made me furious.

I imagined a whole series of counter ads, which told the splendid, heroic stories of the people who didn’t win–who sometimes didn’t even place. Of the distance runner with the injured leg who hobbled into the stadium long after the race was over and the crowd had gone–who knew he hadn’t a hope of winning, but he’d come there to run, even if only his coach and the janitors sweeping up the trash were there to see him limp across the finish line. Of the Iditarod racer who saw an empty dogsled running by, and lost his place to go looking for his fallen competitor–the woman had a concussion, and might have frozen to death if he hadn’t found her.

There are definitions of “winning” that are more subtle than beating an opponent. Simply succeeding, in business or life, can be regarded as winning. So can achieving a high level of skill–as when I said that “everyone at the Olympics is a winner.” But most of those definitions come from our softer modern time. In the old definitions, like the Nike ads, to win you have to beat someone else. Even in the bad old days, though, winning wasn’t always the ultimate goal.

The phrase Pyrrhic victory comes from a battle where General Pyrrhus beat the Romans at such great cost of life and resources that he later lost the war. And there are plenty of modern real-life situations where winning can lose you far more than you gain from it. Arguing with your boss comes to mind. Or your spouse. And have you ever noticed that the people who insist on winning all the time are people no one wants to hang out with?

Ultimately, I ended up writing a pile of novels where winning cost more than losing would have. Or where the hero deliberately chose to lose instead of win because losing gained him more in the end. But I have to say, I have never encountered any book–including my own–in which “winning” is as hollow, as devastating, as worthless, as it is in Ender’s Game.

The first question you have to ask about winning is: Who are you trying to beat? Who is your opposition? Who’s the enemy? In the future Earth of Ender’s Game, the Formic War has reshaped all of human society–and that world-shaking alien threat is still there. But the real enemy in Ender’s Game is not the formics but Ender’s teachers.

From the start, the teachers set out to isolate Ender, first from his family, then from all the friends and allies he makes throughout the book–completely overlooking the fact that Ender’s real genius, his real strength, comes from his ability to build alliances. Even as a launchie, he triumphs over Bernard by making friends, first with the outcasts, Dap and Shen, and then with the other boys, starting with Alai. Yes, Ender hacks the Battle School’s computer system to start the process. And later, he uses his brilliance to win his armies’ games. But the computer and really even the battle games are primarily tools that Ender uses to bring allies onto his side. Allies against whom? The formics, at this point, are so distant from Ender’s thoughts that they hardly register. Allies to help him win the games, certainly. But mostly, in the beginning, what Ender is really fighting for is survival against the world the teachers have created.

It always surprises me that the fictional villains who set out to create genius super-soldiers, who they plan to control by brainwashing and torture, never stop to think that sooner or later their super-powered geniuses are bound to realize that their creators are the bad guys. The super-soldier has been bred/mutated/modified to be really, really smart, right? And the evil creator thinks this genius is not going to figure out that the bad guy has been brainwashing him, and ultimately turn the tables on his creator, why? Haven’t any of them read Shelley? Because, even when, as in Frankenstein, the monster is destroyed in the end of the story, he always takes his evil creator down with him. My favorite example of this theme is in the Lois McMaster Bujold novel Brothers in Arms, where the evil creator has been brainwashing and torturing the (teenage) super-soldier throughout his young life. In the climax, Evil Creator hands the soldier a gun and tells him he has one last lesson to learn; he must learn to kill his enemy. And the young soldier promptly shoots Evil Creator.

How much more likely does this scenario become if the super-soldier/monster is a genius? I’ve designed this monster to be way smarter than me, and I’ve been tormenting him for years to keep him under my control. And this seems like a good idea?

Mind you, brainwashing does work. Fictional heroics aside, humans are pack animals–we have a huge, hard-wired drive to fit in with, and earn the approval of, the people around us. Particularly if we’re placed under stress, we need the support of other humans, so we do what they want. This is the mechanism that lies at the heart of Stockholm syndrome, where victims bond with their kidnappers. It’s also why agents under deep cover for a long time tend to forget which side they’re on and, for that matter, why having high expectations for a class of students brings out the best in them. The human desire to conform to a group, to win and keep a place in it, makes us really malleable by the people around us.

The other side of that coin is that, as soon as the brainwashee gets out from under the thumb of his captor and starts being exposed to new people with new expectations, he starts bonding with his new pack–and the brainwashing wears off. However, in Ender’s Game, this isn’t a problem for the teachers because Ender is never able to escape the twisted, encompassing universe his creators have invented.

But Ender really is a genius, and even living in the worldwide lie his teachers have created doesn’t stop him from recognizing his true enemy. Being a genius, and a profoundly empathetic one as well, Ender sees through his teachers almost from the start. He understands what they’re doing, and why. The teachers really are trying to save the world–they’re just willing to make and break children in order to do it.

In Salamander, Ender befriends Petra, to learn from her, and he keeps his old alliance of launchies together, despite the fact that it’s “not done.” He also watches how Bonzo fails, despite the discipline he imposes, because his soldiers don’t have any independence–they’re obeyers, not allies. And how, because of that, Bonzo’s team loses.

In Rat, Ender befriends the competent Dink. And again, instead of abandoning his old alliances, he keeps them intact, even when past allies become his opponents in the Battle School games. And because of that, they all win, in the softer sense, by becoming better, stronger, more competent, more able.

Dink is the first to introduce the question of who the real enemy is: “These other armies, they aren’t the enemy. It’s the teachers, they’re the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing.”

But Ender, who sees his teachers even more clearly than Dink, doesn’t agree. He believes the formics are real. That Battle School is more than a game–that the threat that drives the teachers is real. Because of that, he’s willing “for them to make me into a tool. To save the world.” Ender becomes a willing sacrifice–because, like the teachers, he believes the ends justify it.

Then one of the games ends in a physical attack on Ender, real injuries are dealt out–and the teachers let it slide, passing off the other boys’ broken bones as an accident. This fight isn’t an abstraction, like saving the world. Faced with real blood and real pain, Ender begins to wonder if Dink might be right.

And then a worse fear that he was a killer, only better at it than Peter ever was, and that it was this very trait that pleased the teachers. It’s killers they need for the bugger wars.

Ender is also suffering profoundly under the teachers’ rule. Too much isolation, too much torment, is how monsters are created. Even as Ender becomes a more perfect killing tool, he hates what the teachers are making of him, and soon begins to hate them as well.

But he does like winning the games. Eventually, with his record of wins unbroken, he becomes almost addicted to the high of winning, of struggling to achieve the victory. He must win every match, no matter what the cost in exhaustion, and in friendship:

“What’s the worst that could happen? You lose one game.”

“Yes, that’s the worst that could happen. I can’t lose any games. Because if I lose any–”

Ender’s constant successes only add to his isolation, making him first a teacher himself, and later a commander. But in order to win the games, Ender is willing to pay that price.

Nike would have loved this kid.

Outside of the games, winning is a different, darker matter. In the real fights Ender gets into, fights that end in blood and pain, he hates the damage he inflicts. Even in the fight that breaks out within the game, which first leads him to doubt his teachers, Ender hates having to hurt anyone. The fight with Bonzo, which comes later, almost destroys him: “I’m sick of the game. No game is worth Bonzo’s blood, pinking the water on the bathroom floor. Ice me, send me home, I don’t want to play anymore.”

There’s another aspect of Ender’s world where winning, and its price, is thoroughly explored–the computer game, which takes images from Ender’s own mind, his own subconscious, and creates a world for him to battle his way through. I frequently find myself calling it “the dream world” because it’s so full of Ender’s dreams and nightmares. And this is a world in which winning, which Ender loves, and killing, which he hates, are remorselessly linked.

The only way to get past the Giant is to burrow into its eye and kill it–Ender’s only choice is between “his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.” Winning this way leaves Ender feeling not triumphant but sickened and ashamed.

Killing the wolf children in the computer world leaves him aching to “go to one of the villages and become one of the little boys working and playing there, with nothing to kill and nothing to kill me, just living there.”

In the world of the computer game, winning means killing–and killing holds nothing but pain and shame. When Ender finally kills the serpent, the face he sees in the mirror is Peter’s face–he sees, in the most graphic fashion possible, that killing is making him into a monster.

Meanwhile, Valentine and Peter have created their own alliance–an alliance of enemies, who are using each other to win, even though they recognize that the other might turn and destroy him or her at any moment. When Ender starts to burn out in despair, one of his teachers goes to Valentine, to make her write a letter persuading Ender to fight on. But Ender isn’t fooled–he recognizes Valentine’s letter as yet another tool the teachers are using to shape him into their weapon.

The one real thing, the one real precious thing was his memory of Valentine, the person who loved him before he ever played a game, who loved him whether there was a bugger war or not, and they had taken her and put her on their side. She was one of them now. He hated them and all their games.

Now, Ender is ready to acknowledge them fully as his enemy. He wants to quit–but trapped in the world the teachers have created, even as he recognizes that he’s been trapped, Ender can’t quit.

Raised to the command of Dragon, Ender sets up his whole team as an alliance, right from the start, creating teams that can act independently while working together to fulfill their common goal. He even makes an ally of Carn Carby and other defeated enemies by sharing his tactics with those who are willing to listen to him, by gaining their respect. Ender is still profoundly lonely, but at this point, he has realized that, as a commander, sometimes he’ll have to sacrifice friendship for alliance–to give up being part of the community to make his army stronger. He maintains his old personal alliances with Dink and Petra, even when he defeats them. And finally, in the ultimate act of alliance, he reveals weakness to Bean, a subordinate–which not only welds Bean to him, but lets Ender begin to rely on his allies’ strengths, not just his own.

“They can’t break you.”

“You’d be surprised.” Ender breathed sharply, suddenly, as if there were a stab of pain, or he had to catch a sudden breath in a wind; Bean looked at him and realized that the impossible was happening. Far from baiting him, Ender Wiggin was actually confiding in him. Not much. But a little. Ender was human, and Bean had been allowed to see.

“Maybe you’ll be surprised,” said Bean.

“There’s a limit to how many clever new ideas I can come up with every day. Somebody’s going to come up with something to throw at me that I haven’t thought of before, and I won’t be ready… I need you to be clever, Bean. I need you to think of solutions to problems we haven’t seen yet. I want you to try things no one has ever tried, because they’re absolutely stupid.”

This is also when Ender first begins to study the formics, to learn not just about them but from them. If your teachers are your enemies, then why not let another enemy teach you?

When Bonzo and some of the other boys plot to kill him, it’s Ender’s friends and allies, not the teachers, who warn him. But Ender still believes the teachers will prevent him from being killed; if they value him, which their training surely indicates, then at least they must need him alive.

However, when Bonzo and his gang corner Ender in the shower, Dink is the only one who comes to his aid, and it’s Dink who gets Ender out after the fight ends. The teachers’ failure to show up to save him is Ender’s final proof that they’re his real enemy. He condemns them for “their stupidity or cruelty or whatever it was that made them let it happen.”

Right after this traumatic fight, the teachers thrust Ender’s army into the battle game against two other armies. And once he’s won, Ender reveals to the teachers that he knows who his enemies really are:

“I beat you again, sir,” he said.

“Nonsense, Ender,” Anderson said softly. “Your battle was with Griffin and Tiger.”

“How stupid do you think I am?”

But even when Ender refuses to play anymore, he still can’t escape the trap, for when he goes on strike, they bring in Valentine to persuade him to go on. She tells Ender that he can win by controlling the teachers, as she and Peter are beginning to control their world. Ender could control the teachers–it’s his ability to understand people, deep down, that lets him win, and he understands his teachers very well. But to understand someone that well, for Ender, is to love them too. It’s that love that prevents him from ever becoming a real monster, like Frankenstein’s monster. Like Peter.

Seeing the teachers so clearly, and having been granted access to films of the last invasion, only confirms that they’re telling the truth about the formic threat. Ender decides to go on to Command School. He decides for himself to “become exactly the tool you want me to be…but at least I won’t be fooled into it. I’ll do it because I choose to, not because you tricked me, you sly bastard.” Because for Ender, the survival of the human race is more important than whether or not the teachers win. This battle isn’t a game.

At Command School, Ender is given access to all available information about the formics, and he begins to know them well enough to love and to destroy them. He’s also given a companion, Mazer. A teacher who is Ender’s avowed enemy from the very start–the ultimate monster maker.

“I am your enemy, the first one you’ve ever had who was smarter than you. There is no teacher but the enemy…I am your enemy from now on. From now on, I am your teacher.”

But as Mazer teaches him more about the formics, Ender questions whether the war is truly necessary–if the humans really have to win.

“So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”

“If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.”

“What if we just left them alone?”

In other words: What if they stop trying to win? What if they stop playing altogether?

But the teachers believe that humanity can’t risk doing anything but fight, and to help him do so, Ender is given back his alliances–the army he shaped so well in Battle School. The games begin again. Mazer, the declared enemy, fights against Ender with all he’s got–and Ender, thinking he’s fighting the worst of his teachers, all the teachers, beats Mazer. Or so he believes.

Ender didn’t understand. It seemed all wrong. They were supposed to be angry…He tried to make sense of this. Had he passed the test after all? It was his victory, not theirs, and a hollow one at that, a cheat; why did they act as if he had won with honor?

Mazer and the rest of Ender’s teachers are acting that way because they did win. Ender learns that, all unknowing, he’s been fighting a real war, with real weapons, against a real enemy. And he’s won. The formics have been destroyed; the humans have won. The teachers have won.

Ender’s victory is devastating, not only to his enemy and the army he didn’t know he was wielding, but to him: “I killed them all, didn’t I?…All their queens. So I killed all their children. All of everything.”

And the teachers even acknowledge exactly what they did: “You had to be a weapon, Ender. Like a gun, like the Little Doctor, functioning perfectly but not knowing what you were aimed at. We aimed you. We’re responsible.”

The teachers told this lie, committed this betrayal, because they knew that if Ender knew the truth, he couldn’t, wouldn’t have done it.

“If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough.”

In winning, Ender has lost. The teachers have successfully used his empathy, his ability to build alliances, his ability to see into people and to love them, to destroy their enemy. And in doing so, they have in fact succeeded in making Ender into a monster. A xenocide. They’ve lied him into becoming Peter.

They made their monster, aimed him like a weapon . . . and won. Unlike in Frankenstein, unlike all the books where the super-soldier–whether he dies or not–takes his evil creator down, in Ender’s Game the bad guys win it all. And those bad guys not only win and survive, they retire, and despite the inconvenience of a court trial–in which they get acquitted–they live happily ever after.

You could claim that when Peter, who truly is a monster, becomes the ruler of the world, the bad guys are getting what they deserve. But Peter has learned to conceal his sadistic streak, to become a statesman. And though I don’t believe for a minute that the world wouldn’t be better off with someone sane ruling it, the bad guys don’t know that.

After this last battle, it’s Ender’s allies, Petra, Alai, Dink, and Bean, who rouse Ender from his depression and bring him back to life. It’s Valentine, fleeing her alliance with Peter, who takes Ender to the formics’ empty world. In that world, among the bones of the Giant who was his first deliberate kill, Ender finds a message that the formic queen he killed has left for him.

He learns the devastating truth that his victory was even more hollow than he’d believed, that once they’d realized that individual humans were sentient, the formics had no intention of killing them. But the message from the queen also offers Ender a chance to reverse his xenocide, to bring back the people he destroyed.

“I’ll carry you,” said Ender. “I’ll go from world to world until I find a time and a place where you can come awake in safety. And I’ll tell your story to my people, so that perhaps in time they can forgive you, too. The way that you’ve forgiven me.”

Forgiveness, the chance for redemption, hope, and peace are finally given to the monster–but not by the winners. These gifts don’t come from the people who shaped him and used him, whose world he saved. The gifts that let Ender go forward healed and at peace come from the losers. The people he beat. The people he destroyed.

In Ender’s game, winning is the province of the enemy and brings only pain. True strength comes not from being the best–which Ender is–but from alliance, teamwork, friendship…and the losers. It’s a very stark world. But it’s one hell of an answer to those Nike commercials.

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