Here’s where you say, “duh!” That’s what we say, too. Ender’s entire school life is made up of games. But here’s the thing: even when Ender isn’t playing games, people talk about games. Games are closely related to some of the big themes of the novel: youths play games; “game” is sometimes a synonym for manipulating people (check out 13.266); the games these kids play are war games; the kids compete in games; games are tests of strength and skill.
Games are central to the Battle School and Command School: games aren’t just fun, but are also a) for the education of the students and b) for the mental health of the students. Ender learns how to fight in null gravity by playing null-gravity laser tag, and he learns why to fight from the mind game. In the Battle School, the games are “what they lived for” (5.90). As Anderson notes, the game is the source of identity and status for the students (8.11). Dink even says that the “Game is everything” (8.126). It’s pretty much unanimous: games = awesome and important.
When Anderson talks about his upcoming career as a football commissioner, he gives some reason why people might prefer games over real life: “Give me the game. Nice, neat rules. Referees. Beginnings and endings. Winners and losers and then everybody goes home to their families” (15.43). So games are neat, while life is messy.
But that’s not really how it works out with Ender’s Game’s games: no one really goes home here after them. (Well, maybe Bonzo, but he goes home in a coffin, which is… less than ideal. No one goes home in a coffin after a game of Monopoly. Hopefully.) Not to mention, many of these games have fluid rules and no referees to call out cheating. Put simply, the games that Ender faces are serious work.
We should remember that these kids are playing the game for a reason. The game is practice for an actual war. Ender’s dad seems to agree with this when he lets his kids keep the bugger mask: “Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again” (2.30). Of course, the games that Peter and Ender play don’t seem like great practice for an alien invasion. In order to be really helpful, a game has to match the reality a little more closely. But not too closely – in order to be practice, a game must to have no serious consequences. As Ender notes, you die a lot in games until you get the hang of it (6.96), but you can’t do that in life. (Another difference between games and life: despite what Mario teaches you, mushrooms don’t make you taller.)
Which all leads to two funny observations. First, Bean notes that the game isn’t as fun as it used to be (14.293) – which is what happens when you turn a game into work. Second, when Bonzo is attacking Ender, Bernard notes that this is “no game” – which shows that Bernard really doesn’t understand what it means to play games at Battle School. Because games are super serious – and not always fun – in Ender’s Game.