Ender’s Game: The Trouble with Empathy

(there may be spoilers, this is your alert)

Orson Scott Card’s classic young adult science fiction text – yes, I think I’d argue that this one is mostly science fiction with hints at dystopia (that all controlling military force and the ennui of life on earth) – has been made into a film. I’ll be reviewing and commenting on both the book and film, though more generally an overall of Ender’s Game and it’s troubles.

Ender’s Game is the winner of the 1985 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is a rich text for discussion, it is both fascinating and appalling, as many great dystopias are – thought this one troubles the genre dystopia a little, I think it lies more heavily in the science fiction sector mostly because of the alien warfare in space, however the advanced technology and genetics play between the dystopic and the sci-fi.

In order to develop a secure defence against a hostile alien race’s next attack (this is sort of a pre-emptive defence scheme), government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. The brilliant Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a third child, something uncommon and which makes the question of his purpose and role in both the family structure and the warfare intriguing. He was bred to be a genius, he was bred to go to battle school and to command. He lives with his kind but distant (and kind of dippy) parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter, the sadistic, and Valentine, the empathetic, were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut, and so Ender was created. Ender is the perfect blend of these two traits, he has the empathy he needs to be a leader but also the harsh sadistic qualities he needs to defeat his enemy. The intention behind his breeding feeds into his rationale for accepting his invitation to battle school, it is what he was created for.


Ender quickly becomes a leader at school, he dominates in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity – but he has an inner battle to win as well, his battle with empathy. The book revolves around what it takes to make (and be?) a leader, and as we learn at the beginning of the story, Ender possesses the ideal genetic balance: intelligence, audacity, ruthlessness, charisma, imagination, and empathy. It is Ender’s empathy that is both his strength and weakness, he has a need to understand people, because once he does he knows them and can defeat them. He wants to know why his brother hates him, he wants to know why he is being picked on at school, when he plays ‘buggers and astronauts’ with his brother he takes the role of the bugger to, on one hand, allow his brother to vent frustrations, but on the other, to try and understand the bugger perspective. He questions motivations. The novel teases out this battle brilliantly, though the film, I think, doesn’t quite get it.

The novel demonstrates how Ender’s capacity for empathy develops alongside his capacity for leadership. Empathy and leadership make him understand his enemies, and bring him close to the brink of madness, in a series of well-developed sequences and encounters he demonstrates his adaptive abilities, he overcomes the various stigma he’s given, and he earns the trust and loyalty of his soldiers, but above all he suffers increasing isolation as his reputation and authority grows. The film, though, skims over  most of those experiences in favour of having his adult keepers say repeatedly that his empathy makes him brilliant, and, unfortunately, having all of the admirable female characters exude empathy in an effort to compensate for how the men are sadistic (Peter vs. Valentine, Graff vs. Anderson, and also Petra vs. Bernard).

The moment from the novel—replicated faithfully in the film—in which Ender confesses to his sister that his ability to love his enemy is what makes him so effective at destroying them, comes after a long series of protracted war games at the orbital Battle School.

“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. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

Empathy is tragically problematic. For Ender, this moment of clarity always precedes the destruction of the enemy, because by understanding the enemy, you know how to defeat them. The secondary storyline in the novel is a philosophical debate between Ender’s siblings Peter and Valentine wherein they create secondary identities. Peter chooses to be Locke (after the philosopher not the Lost character) and Valentine chooses Demosthenes – in essence, in order to defeat each other they choose to take on each other’s arguments. In a way they exercise their own empathy as ender did when he played the bugger, but really they want to see if they can find a flaw in the other’s thinking and therefore ‘win’ their own game on earth. By “swapping positions” and both playing
devil’s advocate, Peter learns that the successful demagogue must learn to recognise the existence and autonomy of other people. This is an important element of the book which is eliminated in the film. Peter, so powerful a character in the novel, is reduced in the film to a few moments of screen time, enough to establish his violent and abusive tendencies. Valentine plays a larger role as the paragon of empathy—they are representative in the novel of Ender’s violent and empathic tendencies and so become little more than ciphers in the film.


What makes Ender’s Game such a good novel is its complexity, on one hand it refuses to glorify violence and warfare but on the other it works to justify it in so many ways. Empathy is important for both hands, without empathy there is only blindness, one must understand all sides of a situation. Battle takes a constant toll on Ender physically, emotionally, and psychologically – but this is what he was made for and he must do it (he thinks) in order to save humanity on Earth. At the same time, we see the machinations of the military as they manipulate Ender and his fellow recruits, not only by simply changing the rules of the battle games on the fly but by tricking them into thinking the whole thing is a game… They aren’t changing the rules, the buggers are adapting. While some officers (Anderson) have scruples, others (Graff) acknowledge the monstrosity of their project, but all agree that if they are to defeat the alien threat, what they are doing is a necessity. In the novel, Colonel Graff resigns himself to facing charges of war crimes … if they win the war. In the film he phrases it more bluntly, barking at his adjutant that destroying Ender psychologically will matter not at all if they’re all exterminated by the aliens.

Ender’s Game, is an extended ethical debate: what is the cost of survival? The final bait-and-switch, in which Ender destroys the aliens’ home world while under the illusion that he is playing just one more training simulation, carries so much more force in the novel precisely because we have been witness to his ambivalence and anxiety about his own monstrosity. In the end he becomes a monster in spite of his ambivalence—that doesn’t get to choose and this is the final, most egregious injury dealt him by those in command. Ah, the power to choose, this is what, I would argue, makes Ender’s Game a little dystopic. The loss of free will.


Of course, on Earth we are seeing that celebrating free will creates chaos and sparks turmoil, but it is free will that might have saved a whole race of creatures. The problem of empathy is a slippery one and I don’t know that the novel (and certainly not the film) offer a clear answer, the solution is peace – but the cost of peace is so high as to make it an undesirable answer. Killing your enemy is tactically easier when you understand him, but emotionally harder. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When your enemy is horribly stereotyped and viewed as inhuman, emotionally it is much easier to kill him.

Ender’s Game is a terribly complex book and rarely done much credit by summary. I think the film did a good job in general and the acting was wonderful. However, by eliminating the debates between Peter and Valentine the flip side of the empathy debate was deleted and the moral ambiguity is diminished. The film works in binarys: child vs. adult, good vs. evil, empathy vs. ruthlessness,male vs. female. This is problematic because one of the fundamentals in the book is how difficult it is to empathize with some (like Peter) but how they are still people and therefore capable of being understood and therefore still lovable.


I could go on, but I will end with a little comment on the author, Orson Scott Card. A lot of reviewers and critics have expressed frustrations regarding how a novel that celebrates Ender’s capacity for empathy with an alien species while its author seems incapable of similar empathy for certain fellow humans (he is anti-gay). How do we deal with a novel whose author expresses a hateful worldview and advocates criminalizing a sexual lifestyle practised between consenting adults? Why are we making a film of this? As with my argument about The Hunger Games (where the film is ironically showcasing what the book set out to disrepute) I have to wonder if the controversy over Ender’s Game is, perhaps, ironically useful. Bringing to light a book who’s message is one of empathy, of understanding all sides of an argument brings an interesting perspective to difference and makes the human/bugger relationship one that can be located right here on earth, right now.