Playing Games with Ender

In order to save humanity, Hyrum Graff and other military leaders believe they must manipulate a prodigious child named Ender Wiggin. As they isolate him and lie to him, one questions if this is the best way to create a hero. Knowing that most stories, including scripture, link a protagonist’s maturity with their victory, we can draw conclusions about Graff’s end purposes. Spoilers follow.

Estrangement and Deceit

In Ender’s Game, author Orson Scott Card creates a future in which humanity has fended off two invasions of an alien insectoid race officially known as the Formics. Preparing for the third invasion, Colonel Graff identifies six-year-old Ender, and brings him and peers to battle school. Believing that the child can lead humanity to victory, he prepares him to lead the human fleet, regardless of how it will hurt him. Consider Graff’s own words:

“Of course, we are [going to screw Ender up]. It’s our job. We’re the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive.”

When asked how he’ll persuade Ender to join the battle school, Graff responds, “I’ll lie to him.”

“With Ender, we have to strike a delicate balance. Isolate him enough that he remains creative… At the same time, we need to make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead… I’ll have him completely separated from the rest of the boys by the time we get to the school.”

“I told you. His isolation can’t be broken. He can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out. Ever.”

In response to concerns over the emotional health of the children, “We’re trying to save the world, not heal the wounded heart. You’re too compassionate.”

While Graff places a compassionate hand on Ender’s shoulder, he tells him the first of many lies.

Graff and the other adults lie to Ender from the beginning to the end of the novel so he’ll do what they want. As Ender overcomes the problems created for him, they soon give him new challenges. This includes driving wedges between him and other children or separating him from newly made friends.

Graff even allows Ender into a situation where another student named Bonzo Madrid tries to kill him. Although Ender wins the fight, he’s left with PTSD from the experience (and Bonzo dies). As a result, Ender suffers from nightmares, depression, and self-hatred.

While Colonel Graff cares about Ender’s mental health, he only sees it as a means to an end. Rather than care about the boy as a person, he only needs his hero stable enough to defeat the enemy.

The Mature Hero

World mythology would disagree with Graff’s methods. As Joseph Campbell outlines the “hero’s journey,” most of the story focuses on the maturation of the hero. While the climax of their journey benefits others, achieving “the ultimate boon” as described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the journey culminates in the hero’s self-actualization and freedom from fear.

All people, and especially heroes, need community for emotional well-being and maturity. Consequently, consider how many epic tales emphasize friendship as a central theme critical to the success of good over evil. Lord of the Rings immediately comes to mind. As the fellowship of the ring breaks apart at the end of the first book with the same name, the hero’s quest appears hopeless.

In The Return of the King, ultimate victory over Sauron comes from Samwise’s devotion to Frodo as a friend.

The Star Wars saga also emphasizes the importance of family and friendship. The Jedi Order (like Graff) took children at too young an age, separating them from their families and healthy attachment, which led to the rise of Darth Vader. In contrast to Yoda’s counsel, Luke prioritizes friendship in Empire Strikes Back, and the first act of Return of the Jedi entirely ignores galactic politics as friends prioritize an individual.

Friendship and Truth in Scripture

Scripture portrays a God committed to our wholeness. In contrast to Graff’s treatment of Ender, consider how Jesus leads his followers:

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)

Jesus seeks a relationship with us. Unlike Graff, he’s honest with us, telling us what God is doing and how we can participate.  He upholds fellowship and truth, not estrangement and deceit.

Of course, Jesus does not need us like Graff needs Ender. He does not regard us as a means to an end or weapon he’s crafting (as Graff describes Ender). Christ works in our lives to make us like himself, filled with his love and sharing it with others. He treats us as persons, not tools.

Means and Ends

The difference between Jesus’s and Graff’s means reflect their end purposes. Jesus restores people into relationship with God the Father and himself, whom he identifies as truth itself. Of course, his methods would be relational and truthful.

Though Graff’s ultimate goal is noble—saving humanity—his penultimate goal is not. He’s using Ender to attack the Formic homeworld, to annihilate every last one of them, committing genocide (or more accurately xenocide). To perpetrate this atrocity, he needs to lie to Ender repeatedly, knowing the boy’s empathy would prevent him from knowingly killing the aliens, not to mention the entire species.

A pre-production image shows the human weapon committing xenocide.

The novel raises an intriguing question. If you believe you must use immoral means to achieve your end, what does this say about your end? If Graff needs to lie to Ender, deprive him of friendship, and “screw him up,” shouldn’t this serve as a red flag for his plan to annihilate the alien species?

I must clarify. While it is possible to use bad means for a good end (such as the ultimate end of saving humanity),  I argue that if one believes they need to use bad means, they should reevaluate their end goal.

Don’t Make Graff’s Mistake

Learning from the positive examples in our favorite stories and the negative example of Hyrum Graff, let us apply this reasoning to our own lives. Are you doing anything that you know is wrong in order to achieve a positive end? If so, maybe you need to question the morality of your desired goal.

As we have ethical responsibility for the politics and politicians we support, we must consider the means that we justify. For instance, if you believe keeping the country safe from immigrants requires separating children from families, maybe the end goal of keeping the country safe from immigrants is also immoral?

Instead of merely avoiding evil, let us wholeheartedly seek what is good, choosing just ends and just means. May we always pursue truth over deception and friendship over broken relationships.

Consequently, I find Christ’s offer to follow him most enticing. Not only do I have the opportunity to work towards his end goal of helping people experience the love of God, Jesus’s means include using truth and community to make me more like him.

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