The concept of a game is the novel’s major theme. All of the other important ideas in the novel are interpreted through the context of the games. Ender wins all of the games, but it is not so clear what that means. He thinks for a large part of the book that the games are no more than they appear, and he does not realize the real meaning of his final game until it is far too late. The difference between what is a game and what is reality becomes less and less clear as the story unfolds. The very first game played in the book is “buggers and astronauts,” a game that Peter makes Ender play, and it is a game that all kids play. However, in Ender’s case the game is more than it seems, because Peter’s hatred for him is real, and he inflicts physical pain upon Ender in the course of the game. This is one game that Ender never wins.
At Battle School, Ender faces two different types of games. On his computer he plays the mind game, a game that even its creators do not properly understand and one that effects Ender’s life in direct ways. It is through the mind game that Ender is able to come to terms with the changes that are occurring in his life and it is the images of this game that the buggers use to communicate with Ender at the end of the book. In the battle room Ender plays war games. These games are everything to the kids at the school. Their lives revolve around playing games, and so the meaning of the word itself shifts from a voluntary fun experience to a necessary and crucial aspect of life. These games and their implications cause Bonzo’s death and create rancor and jealousy throughout the school.
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Finally we come to the greatest games that Ender plays, while he is the commander of the Third Invasion. Playing these games is debilitating to Ender’s health. He cannot sleep, he barely eats, and he is forced to be a leader and not a friend to those whom he cares for. Ender destroys the buggers because he wants the games to end, and he is successful, but if he had ever known that it was not a game he never would have participated. In the end it is not very clear how to separate a game from reality, for the playing of a game can have a profound impact on a life, and sometimes the game itself is reality.