Ender’s Game: Important Themes and Motifs

Shades of Grey


Ender’s Game is not a message book, meant first and foremost to portray a particular theme. It is instead a plot-driven novel, focusing on story and characterization. At the same time, however, Orson Scott Card has woven many different themes and motifs through the novel, never preaching but instead asking us to think carefully about the choices made by various characters. Instead of making it obvious who is right and who is wrong, Ender’s Game is a novel with shades of grey, that gives subtle treatment to deep and important concepts. It is impossible to discuss every theme in the novel in one article. Instead, this article describes and discusses some of the most central concepts, those the story returns to again and again.

Note: This discussion draws examples from all parts of the novel, and so contains spoilers for those who haven’t read the book.

Children and Adults

There are not many teenagers in Ender’s world. Instead, there is a sharp distinction drawn between children and adults, who are often set at odds. Adults attempt to manipulate and control children, who they often see as tools they can use to win their own battles. Children, or at least the smart ones, mistrust adults and often see them as the enemy, and are portrayed in many ways as more intelligent and compassionate. Children are also shown having a very real impact on the world: one such example is Valentine and Peter’s manipulation of world events in the middle of the novel.

At the same time, there are adults in the novel who are compassionate and intelligent (such as Graff) and children who are brutal and manipulative (Stilson, Bonzo, Peter), and each group has strong influences on the other. Though many children in the novel, especially Ender, have a tendency to see adults as the enemy, in the end it seems Card is telling us there are really very few differences between children and adults. Children are smaller, but are just as intelligent in their own ways and must be taken seriously because of the influence they can have on the world.

Games and Reality

As is apparent from the novel’s title, Ender’s Game includes many types of games. When Ender is a young child he is often forced to play “buggers and astronauts” with his brother Peter, a game that seems harmless and childish but is really a way for Peter to terrorize and exert influence over Ender. In Battle School life revolves around two games: the fantasy game and the mock combats fought in the battle room. There are also video games of various types in Battle School. When Ender reaches Command School his life is again oriented around a game, this time a space battle simulation that is more real than Ender knows.

When we think of games, we often think of harmless pastimes that don’t mean much. Yet, Ender’s Game suggests we should take games more seriously. Every game in the novel has real-world ramifications, testing and revealing things about its players psychologically, physically, and socially. Games are used as a way to work through and prepare for real-world problems, and are taken just as seriously as reality. In Ender’s final series of games, it becomes clear that the line between games and reality is not always clear, and what we think is only a game can actually be much more.

Good and Evil, Friends and Enemies

There are few if any true ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ in Ender’s Game, nor is it always clear who is a friend and who is an enemy. Peter is set up as Ender’s enemy for much of the novel, but we quickly see there is more to Peter than his ruthlessness. The Buggers are of course the novel’s main enemy, but by the end are revealed to be more complex than the typical ‘bad guy’: in fact, it’s not certain they were ever truly enemies. And it is just as difficult to tell who your friends are in this world. We know, for example, that Graff is in many ways Ender’s truest friend, but Ender does not see the Colonel this way. Ender makes several friends throughout his stay in Battle School, but is never really sure who he can trust and is always alienated from those he wishes to be closest to (especially Valentine).

The clearest representation of this fuzzy line between good and evil, friend and foe is in Ender’s relationships with his siblings. At first, they are set up as polar opposites, with Valentine as all good and Peter as all bad. But Ender embodies aspects of both, and throughout his journey finds Peter’s determination and ruthlessness as valuable as Valentine’s compassion and calm. What Card appears to be telling us here is simply that such distinctions are not easily made. Though in many stories good is clearly different from evil, in the real world this is not always the case. Ender’s task is not only to separate the good parts of his world from the bad parts, but to reconcile the two and realize how they work together and are often found in the same person. In the end, he realizes that he is both his greatest friend and his worst enemy.

The Ends and the Means

There are many ethical considerations in this novel, and several deal with the concepts of ruthlessness and power. Card asks us if the ends justify the means: is it alright to do anything, even kill and destroy others, to reach a worthy goal? Ender at times commits violent acts, killing a fellow child at least twice. He feels guilt over his actions, but because they were done in self defense he eventually decides they were necessary. He is never fully at peace with himself, though, and must deal with the consequences of what he has done.

Ender faces the same dilemma again with the Buggers. If an alien race is possibly trying to destroy your world, is it justified to destroy them first? In many ways the adults who created Battle School have made this decision for Ender, believing that as long as humanity survives anything they do is all right. But this is never so easy for Ender to accept, and the end of the novel deals with his guilt and eventual acceptance of his role in the genocide. Card himself makes no judgments; he only asks us to consider just how far this kind of justification can be taken. It is up to us to decide if the ends in the novel—self preservation, saving the human race—justified the means taken to achieve them.

This post is part of the series: Study Guides for Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a psychological science fiction novel used in classrooms to illustrate a variety of themes and concepts. The series presents guides to help high school students in understanding the novel’s main themes and characters.
  1. Studying Ender's Game and the Hero's Journey
  2. Studying Themes and Motifs in Ender’s Game