Study Guide

Ender's Game Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Orson Scott Card

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

A Short Note Before Starting

If you haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s introduction to Ender's Game, you might take a look at it, if only for the part where Card says that he avoided all the literary tricks that make reading hard (Intro.32). (You can read his introduction here.) But that doesn’t mean that Card avoids symbolism. Mostly, it tends to mean that his symbolism is rather clear. For instance, when Ender’s character in the mind game can’t play on a playground, that kind of seems like a symbol for his lost childhood.

There’s a curious thing we noticed, though: it’s hard to pin down any single image that runs through the whole book. What we generally have in this book are larger categories, like “games” – it’s not like Ender’s life is symbolized by any particular game, but games are all over his life. We’re going to talk about our top four categories for symbols/images that are pretty common in this book.


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.


How many times does someone say that the enemy’s gate is down in Ender’s Game? Oh, maybe, nine times or so. (Here are a few of them: 7.255, 7.277, 7.281, 10.57, and 14.352.) Well, we could say that the phrase just appears a lot and that’s that. But we think there’s something bigger behind the phrase: an interest in perspective. That is, one of the big issues in this book is point of view.

For instance, check this out: what’s the first line in the book? “I’ve watched through his eyes” (1.1). Wow. That pretty much proves it, right? We could just stop there. But, no, we’ll go on.

One of the big issues with Ender is that he can see the world as his enemies see it. This causes him all sorts of problems because then he sympathizes with his enemies. Ender has this super power so much that he can almost empathize with the buggers before he’s even met any: when he puts on the bugger mask in Chapter 2, he realizes that, to them, this mask is a face and they must see the world differently than we humans do. Sounds like an issue of point of view to us.

Actually, Ender’s siblings seem to have this power also, which is how they’re able to manipulate people: Peter understands what people fear and Val understands what people want. This ability also helps Val to get more into the role of Demosthenes because she can see things through this “character’s” eyes (13.39), though she doesn’t always want to.

Point of view is really related to identity. Or at least, that’s what it seems like when Ender tries to figure out the center of the bugger fleet: he eventually notices that “the eyes of the fleet” are the same as “the I of the fleet” (14.122). And the ending of the book comes when Ender starts to understand how the buggers see the world – which they can tell him because they’ve seen how he sees it (through his memories and dreams).

In other words, maybe Graff is right. Graff notes that peace can be made when you can tell the other person your side of the story – when you can make the aliens see things from your perspective. We think that’s good advice even if aliens aren’t involved.

Fairy Tales

Compared to games and perspective, this is a tiny issue, but it comes up in at least two scenes that we think are interesting to bring together.

The first is the blink-and-you-missed-it reference that one of the military administrators makes. When describing his job, this guy (Graff?) puts it in fairy tale terms: “We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive" (2.10).

The second is harder to miss; it’s that Ender finds his way to Fairyland in the mind game. Unlike Ender’s guess that Fairyland will be stupid – some sort of “three-year-old’s Fairyland that probably had some stupid Mother Goose or Pac-Man or Peter Pan” (6.109) – Fairyland turns out to be the not-stupid place with the dead giant’s body and the wolf-children on the playground. And getting through fairyland is how Ender reaches the End of the World.

OK, once we notice these two references, what can we say about them? First, they’re very serious even if they seem silly at first. That is, the military man is joking when he compares them to the wicked witch, but it’s not a bad comparison: they both take children away and put them through some terrible situation. And while Fairyland is in a game, it’s a game that tells Ender some serious things about himself. So how about this: just like games, fairy tales are something that may be related to childhood, but that are also very serious here.

Second, in these references, we find that things aren’t how we expected them. For example, the adults in the military aren’t saving Ender from the witch – they are the witch. And instead of having the children eaten by wolves, in Ender’s Fairyland, the children are the wolves. This is a subtle point, but it’s one that we should remember in this book: sometimes, things aren’t the way we suppose they’ll be. This sets us up for another unexpected twist: the Third Invasion is not the buggers coming to Earth, but the humans going to the bugger homeworld.


Peter looks like Alexander the Great (2.14). The children at Battle School “act like – history” (7.10). Peter chooses the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes after two big historical figures (9.126). Val thinks Peter might be a little bit like Hitler (9.91). And there are a few more times when characters are compared to history and historical figures. What do all these historical shout-outs mean?

Honestly, we’re not entirely sure that all of these references together mean anything really big, but we did notice that these comparisons pop up. Here’s one thing, though: these historical comparisons do help remind us that these youngsters are actually doing something really important. After all, once she’s done helping Peter take over the world, Val starts to write a history of what just happened and what they all did. They may just be kids, but what they do will affect everyone on Earth. (And possibly some people off Earth as well.)

Now, that said, we also might want to pay attention to the particular comparison and historical references. For instance, when the military administrator says that the kids act like history, he offers two pairs: Napoleon and Wellington, Caesar and Brutus. Now, these pairs are not actually people who worked together – they were huge enemies, which reminds us of how tense the relationships are at Battle School. (Like, Bonzo and Ender are never going to be friends.) Also, when Ender thinks that Peter looks like Alexander the Great, we could connect that to his sister’s pen name of Demosthenes: in real history, Demosthenes was a big enemy of Alexander the Great. Although she ends up working with Peter, Val is never really comfortable in this role and ultimately ends up getting herself and Ender away from Peter’s power.

What else can these historical references tell us about this book?

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