Ender’s Zero-Sum Game
Thanks to some recommended reading from one of my sisters, I’ve come to read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in an entirely different light. In “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention, and Morality,” John Kessel offers a fascinating reading of the moral ambivalence, and even potential immortality, of Card’s novel.
In Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, Kessel sees the construction of an ostensibly “innocent killer” merely; in other words, that Ender, though guilty of tremendous atrocities by the novel’s end, is written off as simply a product of his circumstances and thus justified rather than morally culpable. At the end of his piece, Kessel quotes Elaine Radford: “We would all like to believe that our suffering has made us special — especially if it gives us a righteous reason to destroy our enemies.” Kessel then adds, by way of conclusion, “But that’s a lie. No one is that special; no one is that innocent.” Similar to Radford — who, in 1987, wrote an essay comparing Ender Wiggin to Adolf Hitler (and to which Card wrote a rebuttal) — Kessel is less than impressed with Ender’s Game. After his own damning character analysis of Ender, Kessel concludes, “If I felt that Card’s fiction truly understood this, then I would not have written this essay.”
Indeed, with no writer being a perfect moralist (despite some trying oh so terribly hard to be), Kessel may be quite on point here. However, perhaps it’s the post-modernist in me, but I hesitate to a degree to wholeheartedly accept either Radford or Kessel’s conclusions as sacrosanct or infallible. This is not at all to say they are off the mark — in fact, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a consistent, deep, and disturbing monstrosity hidden within Ender. That said, and I’m tempted to say that Radford and Kessel may likely agree, I am not yet prepared to toss all copies of Ender’s Game — and Card with them — onto the pyre, cultural or otherwise. Instead, rather than a zero-sum condemnation of Ender’s Game, I believe Radford and Kessel’s critiques offer readers an additional layer to Card’s novel — though not at all necessarily one Card himself may have noticed or even intended.
Kessel describes the narrative of Ender’s Game as cyclical, following a fairly consistent pattern: Ender is inhumanly bullied by those around him, yet is able to see clearly the inhumanity of his bullies; Ender is presented with some kind of challenge, in which he has no other option than to resort to violence, but he is presented as deeply remorseful and self-aware in the aftermath, and thus ultimately good. This pattern dictates much of the narrative, from Ender’s grade school conflicts, to his turbulent home life, to the military academy, all the way to his own final mission. According to Kessel, this cycle of challenge, reluctance, violence, and remorse serves to bring the reader over to Ender’s side of the novel’s game: “As a mechanism for producing sympathy, this scenario is brutally effective.” However, it is here that I would like to suggest an additional point to Kessel’s own sharp analysis, one I find in Ender’s final mission.
After his graduation from Battle School, Ender and a team of his choosing — classmates he has befriended to some degree throughout the novel — are taken to another military facility and put through “simulations” and additional “training exercises” to prepare them for their eventual “real” encounter with the alien invaders. These exercises lead to a final test of sorts, one which Ender is told will either qualify or disqualify him for further advancement in the military. His final “test” is an end-game scenario: an all-out invasion and destruction of the aliens’ homeworld itself. Overachiever that he is, Ender leads his team through the “test” to a stunning and decisive victory, destroying the alien homeworld and the hive mind controlling them — only then is he informed that this was not a test. Rather, Ender and his team had just led an actual autonomous strike on the aliens’ home and had indeed destroyed their center of operations. This was no test to prepare Ender for war — it was in fact the end of the war, and ultimately the genocide of the aliens themselves.
I first encountered Ender’s Game as a middle schooler, and, while I was not a terribly deep reader then, I do remember being entirely taken aback by this ending. On the surface it seemed hopeful: what a surprise, we actually won, out of the blue! But I also remember an underlying aftertaste of melancholy: the deceit and subterfuge of the human military was now in full view, as was what Ender had actually done in eliminating an entire species. Rather than Ender’s guilt, what struck me was the futility of the situation. This was what Ender had been training for, for virtually his entire life, and now that it had come and gone, the victory felt rather bitter. Thereafter, Ender is psychically called by a surviving alien, who gives him an alien embryo, entrusting the remnant of the aliens’ species to the very child who ended it in the first place.
This seems to be a good example of what Slavoj Zizek has in mind when he asks politically revolutionary individuals to consider what happens the day after the revolution; in other words, one can become so caught up in chasing a goal that they never even realize the goal is neither terribly specific nor necessarily even desirable. In fact, one may find it was the chase itself rather than the catch that was all they ever wanted. This is the space within which I believe Ender finds himself upon learning that his “test” was in fact the decisive final strike on the aliens’ homeworld. But I do not believe he leaves this space after accepting the alien embryo and fleeing into deep space. Moreover, I do not believe Ender enters this space only upon learning of the military’s deceit; rather, I believe he realizes then and there that he has always already been in that space. I believe it is at this moment that the true game Ender has been playing becomes clear to the reader, maybe even to Ender himself: not a game of training simulations, nor even one of subterfuge and intrigue on behalf of the military-state, but a game he has been playing with himself — an illusion in which he has placed himself.
A common characteristic of childhood developmental psychology — and one must not forget that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is indeed a child — is zero-sum thinking. Whether in morality, talent, love, or any other ostensible competition, the child sees themselves as in a kind of contest with others. We may think of this logic like a pie: if we are to split a pie between the two of us, however much I take is however much you cannot have; the pie is finite, and thus my gains are simultaneously your losses. In a moral sense, this zero-sum game plays out like this: half the pie delineates “good” while the other half of the pie delineates “evil”; the more of the “good” half I have is directly related to how much of the “evil” half you will end up having, and vice versa. In the child’s psyche, in order to be “good,” all others must be to some related degree “evil”; and if others are “evil,” especially towards you, then that makes you in fact “good.” One can see this same mental pattern evolve in adult developmental psychology, such as in a persecution complex or other forms of narcissistic grandiosity.
This is an important aside for the fact that, though Ender’s Game is written in third-person, the narrator is not omniscient — rather, the narrator is locked into Ender’s own perspective. Thus the reader is not granted an objective analysis of Ender Wiggin’s rise from bullied grade schooler to war hero to tragic redeemer, but a subjectively skewed view of this journey from the inside. Rather than a bird’s-eye-view, the reader is given Ender’s view: Ender’s childlike means of interpreting — and indeed coping with — what he is experiencing. Thus, in this rereading, one may be tempted to say that what Radford and Kessel are critiquing is not necessarily the morality of Orson Scott Card (though they may indeed have hit the nail on the head, still), but that of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.
Zero-sum thinking comes naturally to children; no one is born with nuanced reasoning skills, but develops them. Maturity comes by way of immaturity — always. But it can be a symptom of deep-seated psychopathology for someone to take this childish thinking with them into later life. Morally-charged zero-sum games are the stock and trade of pathological narcissists, people one may accurately describe as having psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. In a manner of speaking, these individuals are psychologically (perhaps in some cases neurologically) incapable of registering distress in others; additionally, they also tend to lack self-awareness and the tools necessary for healthy introspection. Children who grow up in especially traumatic environments, whether deliberately abusive or simply turbulent, can develop similar symptoms. Perhaps this is the root of Ender’s neuroses: his deeply violent relationship with his brother, his unhealthy dependence upon his sister, to say nothing of the emotional distance of his parents. Ender Wiggin, in a manner of speaking, is indeed a product of his upbringing. However, this is not to excuse him as an “innocent killer”; as both Kessel and Radford show, “innocence” is no longer an option for Ender, if it ever was. Rather, it is to reveal what I believe could be the central message of the book, whether Card himself intended it: that Ender Wiggin, for as hard as he has tried to hold himself separate from the world around them — whether as its victim or its savior — is just as culpable and corrupt as anyone else.
Kessel illustrates this well in comparing Ender’s violent encounter in the showers with Bonzo Madrid and his gang, on the one hand, with Ender’s final attack on the aliens’ homeworld, on the other. Following the aforementioned pattern the novel utilizes throughout, Bonzo is presented a merciless and senseless monster — a true villain: “For other boys it might have been enough that Ender had submitted; for Bonzo, it was only a sign that his victory was sure.” In juxtaposition, Ender is presented as cool, level-headed, even perceptive: “Ah, thought Ender, he loves to have someone recognize that he is the one in control, that he has power.” However, this zero-sum evaluation disintegrates quickly when Ender, even after having overcome Bonzo, continues to assault him — to really “teach him a lesson,” as it were.
Kessel summarizes this well:
“Like many scenes of personal violence in this and other Card works, this fight is painfully intense, ending with Ender kicking Bonzo in the crotch, ‘hard and sure’ (p. 231). Though he does not know it at the time, Ender has killed Bonzo. But lest the reader be repulsed by Ender’s pursuing the fight until Bonzo is dead (which an observer might see as vengeful, unwarranted, or vicious), the narrative insists that it is done for entirely rational reasons, not out of a personal desire to lash out. ‘The only way to end things completely…’ Ender thinks, ‘was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was stronger than his hate’ (p. 231).
“Ender generalizes from this situation that the only rational policy to insure safety in the world is to be ready always to cause excessive pain. No authority, law, ally, or social structure may be depended upon. ‘The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you’ (p. 232).”
Read from a third-person omniscient perspective, Ender’s Game itself is psychopathic; however, read from within the mind of Ender himself, readers find themselves swimming in the stream of consciousness of a psychopath. Though which reading one should take to Ender’s Game — or, perhaps more accurately, to what degree both readings should be applied — is certainly debatable. However, the novel — or this pericope, anyway — does seem to present a mostly stable image of Ender’s psychopathy. Even when one of Bonzo’s gang, Dink, attempts to stick up for him, Ender still looks down upon him, while even finding time to glory (if only seemingly ironically) in his own messiah complex: “You’ve killed me with those words, Dink. Bonzo doesn’t want to hear that I might save the world.” Finally, when Ender becomes cognizant of what he has really done — when his imagination ruptures and he is made to see the reality: that he has murdered Bonzo — he recedes into himself, his mind already quickly at work weaving together reasons for why Bonzo’s death is ultimately not his fault.
Once more, Kessel expresses this best:
“Despite his settling on this martial philosophy, after it is all over we are assured again that Ender is at heart a pacifist. When Dink justifies Ender’s beating up Bonzo (Bonzo meant to kill Ender, Bonzo was a troublemaker, he had superior strength and size), Ender breaks down and cries. ‘I didn’t want to hurt him!’ he insists. ‘Why didn’t he just leave me alone!’ (p. 233)
“It is not until pages later that we learn Bonzo isn’t just hurt, he’s dead. Also, it is only at this point (240 pages after the event) that we learn Ender killed Stilson [one of his grade-school classmates from the novel’s beginning] in the analogous fight that occurred when Ender was six years old. The officers have kept the facts of these deaths from Ender. But the effect is to keep these killings from the reader as well, divorcing the consequences of Ender’s violence from the acts, and thereby reducing the likelihood that the reader might judge Ender at the moment they occurred. And as if to additionally insulate Ender from our judgment, a few lines after we learn that Bonzo and Stilson are dead we are assured by Graff that, ‘Ender Wiggin isn’t a killer. He just wins — thoroughly’ (p. 247).”
Of course, this theme of obscurantism — seen especially in the military’s decision to hide Ender’s own murders from him — saturate the novel, down to Ender himself, whose own unconscious mind cannot allow its conscious agent to truly realize what he has done. Interestingly, Ender’s unconscious does not simply tell the conscious Ender that he is an innocent victim, but it also reminds him of his previous bullies (some of whom were even Ender’s own victims, ironically, though he denies this): Stilson and Peter, for instance; and, of course, Bonzo, though murdered, is simply made to join this pantheon of wholly-evil persecutors.
Though dated, Freud’s tripartite model of the psyche may help explain this psychological phenomenon. In this schema, the human being, as an infant, begins as id, or a cluster of unconscious needs and impulses. However, as these needs and impulses are progressively frustrated, the id develops ego, a deliberate agent charged with mediating the id’s relations with its external world, ensuring the former has its needs met. In addition to this, the ego develops super-ego, social and cultural norms instilled in a child as they develop. While the id remains largely vague throughout life, the ego is a distinct set of adaptive mental and behavioral patterns, formulated in response to whatever environment in which a child may grow up. Yet, after an ego sets its patterns, they are remarkably difficult to alter, becoming largely unconscious and automatic with age. In a manner of speaking, the child brings with them into adulthood the home environment in which they developed, remembered in the behavioral patterns of their ego.
Francine Shapiro, founder of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, describes the ways in which one’s past can unconsciously affect their present. In Getting Past Your Past, Shapiro describes the brain as an intricate web of memory networks, constantly drawing in new content from the experiences of one’s day-to-day life. The task of integrating new memories into a pre-existing network is called processing. Under normal circumstances, one may neatly process a memory, able to then recall that memory with minimal affective reaction or emotional upheaval. For instance, remembering what one had for breakfast this morning is not only easy but an entirely neutral memory. In the case of emotionally-charged memories, however, such as trauma (a broad term in this case), the memory is not so neatly networked in with other memories, remaining unprocessed. Metaphorically, if one’s memory network is like a bookshelf, each memory a book, then a traumatic or unprocessed memory is like a book with crumpled pages, shoved haphazardly into the wrong place on the shelf.
The environment in which one spends their earliest years — the very universe itself to that child — conditions the brain and nervous system of the child in question, causing the child to formulate specific and repeatable response patterns they believe will help them cope with that environment. These patterns are structured analogously to a tree, where the root system is the memory, and the trunk and branches are the response pattern itself. Suspended and unconnected with other processed memories, traumatic memories are more readily recalled, bringing with them the raw affect of the original experience they represent.
For instance, a child who grows up with an exceptionally abusive parent may cope with this situation by learning to fear and thus avoid that parent; this may appear in later life as a tendency to distrust and defy authority figures in general, whether teachers, spiritual leaders, law enforcement, as if reliving their original encounters with their abusive parent in early childhood. This traumatic memory or set of memories can then cascade into one’s behavioral patterns, unconsciously affecting how one operates, even if one does not necessarily connect such effects with the traumatic memory at their root. EMDR therapy seeks to identify traumatic memories at the root of one’s neurotic behavioral patterns, and — through careful supervision and a neurologically-stimulating method unique to EMDR — help the patient to properly process the root memory: taking the book from its incorrect position, flattening out its pages, and placing it in the correct spot. The result is substantial: extending the previous example, while one may have been triggered into reliving their negative experience with a dog by merely encountering another dog, after processing the initial traumatic memory (such as through EMDR) the old memory is properly networked with other related memories, stripped of its affective immediacy. In short, it’s all the difference between reliving the experience and simply remembering one had a turbulent childhood, or feeling the need to keep those memories far away and using them as tools to help construct a healthier environment for oneself in the present.
This, Shapiro explains, is why therapies such as EMDR are so critical:
“Changing the memories that form the way we see ourselves also changes the way we view others. Therefore, our relationships, job performance, what we are willing to do or are able to resist, all move in a positive direction.”
— Shapiro, Getting Past Your Past, 24
Narrative therapy works in a similar way, helping patients to place traumatic memories into a broad, coherent narrative in which they can make greater sense of their experiences. Traumatic memories are thereby processed, transforming from emotionally corrosive to potentially useful memory. Unfortunately, throughout the novel, Ender remains in a pre-therapeutic state of unprocessed trauma, with devastating effects loosed upon himself and others. The narrative pattern Kessel identifies — that of challenge, reluctance, violence, and remorse — is not only an abstract literary structure, but a neurotic response pattern called up from the depths of Ender’s unconscious time and again, rooted in previous traumatic encounters.
As Kessel points out:
“ Kate Bonin, in her article ‘Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card,’ points out how the killing of Bonzo prefigures Ender’s eventual destruction of the buggers. The history of the war against the buggers follows the pattern of the fight against Bonzo; in fact, just before the final battle in which Ender exterminates the buggers, he explicitly compares his confrontation with them to the unfair fight in the shower (p. 322).”
In reality, Ender is a child with numerous psychopathic tendency, such as narcissistic grandiosity and and hyper-violent outbursts; in Ender’s own mind, however, he is merely repeating on ever greater scales the same patterns that caused him to survive, even if only neurotically, his initial childhood traumas from his home life (embodied in Peter) to his school life (embodied in Stilson).
The rub of this reading is that, once the traumatic memory is linked to its resultant neurotic response pattern, an unavoidable cognitive dissonance occurs. Ender’s own response to this internal conflict is self-deception; this is only one good example of why a therapist may be such a crucial component in psychological development, especially when addressing trauma and outright neuroses — or even, in Ender’s case, psychosis.
This, I believe, is what makes the novel’s final revelation so powerful.
On the surface, Ender spends the novel ostensibly as the tragic hero, bullied to no end, only to become the genius protege of the military. Yet the final twist puts him into a harsher light, when he learns that all his “training” and “simulations” were actual battles, leading to his own deliberate genocide of the alien invaders on their own homeworld. This revelation is powerful because because it seems to reveal to Ender the unnerving underbelly of his own psyche to a degree even he cannot deny: rather than the tragic-overcoming antihero, he is as much a psychopath — if not more — as everyone else he has encountered, only perhaps a good deal more intelligent. And not only has Ender been used, he realizes, but he has used others, as well. In short, as Kessel points out, Ender is not special, only especially useful to the overarching systems of cruelty and conquest he grew up in, and apparently of which he was always already a part, without realizing it.
The novel ends with Ender taking the last surviving remnant of the alien race he destroyed — an embryo — into deep space to somehow find a way to redeem himself, with the subsequent series of novels essentially driving home the point that Ender cannot rescue the alien survivor from the human militancy that destroyed its species for the simple fact that he, Ender, is always already part of it. Much like the bastard Edmund of King Lear, Ender begins as a justified rebel, simply lashing out at a well-deserving world, only to find that he himself has always already been part of the evil that created the world against which he rages; and though, unlike Edmund, Ender does not physically die for his actions, one may posit that his flight into deep space, chasing a futile “redemption” — the last gasp of his zero-sum game — may be a kind of psychological death from which the reader is left wondering if anyone can be resurrected.
Perhaps Ender’s Game is a book-length explication of a saying attributed to Jesus: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (cf. Matthew 25:29-30), with the added implication of just how damn hard it actually is to pluck out one’s very own eye, and therefore just how deeply rooted “sin” is in each and every person — oneself included. The truth is that, because zero-sum thinking — including in morality — is a hallmark characteristic of childhood, each and every one of us is already affected by it, and, neurotic or not, the tendency follows us well into adulthood to one degree or another. And though none of us — presumably — may be killers, we still starve for innocence, to see ourselves and to be seen by others as superior in some sense, as worthy and valuable. Zero-sum thinking is perhaps so natural because it simply requires us to play a comparative game; to be good is to be better than the nearest competitor. And perhaps only clinical work can effectively reveal to us the great lengths to which each and every one of us will go to maintain that illusion of innocence — perhaps even in genocide.
There’s very little if anything I can add to Radford and Kessel’s analyses, but I believe one can accept their conclusions (so far as they go) without anathematizing either Card or Ender’s Game. Because — once again, whether Card himself realizes it —Ender’s Game may be valuable, not as a manifesto of self-justification for resentful bullies, but as a mirror into which we may to some degree see ourselves staring clearly back. The psychopathy of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, rather than merely a fatal flaw discovered in literary criticism, may in fact be the meaningful time bomb waiting for the reader to discover it — either in its pages or in themselves.
- Kate Bonin, “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card,” New York Review of Science Fiction, 172, 15, 4 (December 2002), 17–21
- Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1985). [Kessel cites this edition in his paper.]
- John Kessel, “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention, and Morality”; according to Kessel, “This essay in slightly different form appeared originally in Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 33, Number 90, Spring 2004, copyright © 2004 by the Science Fiction Foundation, on behalf of the contributors.”
- Elaine Radford, “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman (20 years later),” 26 March 2007
- Francine Shapiro, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy (Rodale Books, 2013)