War of the Future

11.01.135:45 AM ET

‘Ender’s Game’: The Military’s Sci-Fi Manual

Ender’s Game isn’t just routine Hollywood fare. It’s based on a book with a cult following among America’s military brass and is now required reading for new Marines.

The trailers for Ender’s Game, a new movie hitting theaters Friday, make it seem like standard Hollywood fare—another big-budget epic featuring spaceships, evil aliens, Harrison Ford’s drowsy monotone, and planets exploding. But alongside the sci-fi fans and action-movie buffs that turn out for this sort of film, don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable contingent from the military in the ticket line.

The book Ender’s Game, on which the movie is based, is smarter and more interesting than the film’s promos suggest and has developed a large military following over the years. Copies of the paperback have been passed among troops eager for a good adventure read and who admire the fearlessness and ingenuity of the story’s child hero. The brass has also picked it up and formally assigned the book for educational purposes.

Written by Orson Scott Card and published in 1985, the book foreshadowed the way that virtual interfaces and interactive simulations would become fundamental parts of social life, politics, and war. It’s this last point, the book’s prescient glimpse into the future of warfare, that has led the Marines to adopt it as a teaching manual. 

The Marine Corps’ official reading list, as you might expect, contains a lot of books with tiles like American Spartans: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq, and Maneuver Warfare Handbook. But next to the primers on combat leadership and tactics is Ender’s Game.

From the Marine Corps’ blurb describing the book: “In this science-fiction novel, child genius Ender Wiggin is chosen by international military forces to save the world from destruction by a deadly alien race.” Not the most obvious choice for a military professional reading list.

The alien race in the book is the Buggers, insectlike creatures who appear to operate as a hive following the directives of their queen. Threatened with extinction by the Buggers’ attacks, Earthlings band together to fight back by selecting the most brilliant children from around the globe to train in an elite military academy on a distant asteroid. And that’s just the setup; it’s at the military academy where the story really gets good. The training that the children undergo in Battle School consists of a series of computer games and a zero-gravity variation on capture the flag, played using laser stun-guns that immobilize their targets on impact.

Ender excels at beating the games because he alone understands that games’ rules can be bent and broken—the point is to win, not to be best at the honoring the game’s conventions. It’s these qualities, Ender’s tactical innovation and his singular focus on victory, rather than trying to please his superiors, that has earned the book a following in military—traits the military has long praised and sought to foster, but that it has also been quick to punish and stifle in practice. 

Card, like all good science-fiction writers, based this projection of the future on a discerning look at his own time, with keen insights into the far-off consequences of technologies that were already in use when he was writing. He dramatized a future full of what seemed like fantasy gadgets in 1985, but are now the mundane appliances of our own lives. Students in the story work and play on desk computers that are essentially early imaginings of the tablets we’re using. Two children in the story rise to become world leaders through a series of brilliant blog posts on a version of the Internet. And war, in Card’s sci-fi future, is not just mediated through the technologies that armies use to wage it; it has become inseparable from those technologies.

The defeat of the Buggers isn’t accomplished by space troopers storming Martian beaches and blasting aliens with laser zap guns. In the Bugger war, both the training and the battles are carried out through videogames. Young soldiers man consoles, maneuver holographic avatars in combat, and so decide the fate of the world.

Speaking with The New York Times in 2003, just after the start of the Iraq War, Michael Macedonia, director of the Army's simulation-technology center, said “Ender’s Game has had a lot of influence on our thinking,” which at the time included developing “…a simulation that allows people to play in that world for months or years, participate in different types of roles, and see consequences of their decisions.”

For the vast majority of the military, this is all still a long way off. A line medic treating a casualty in Afghanistan has no problem telling the difference between training and combat.

Ender’s Game’s vision of the future may not be a reality yet, but in the modern military the lines are being blurred along the lines that Card envisioned. For some specialized jobs the simulation increasingly is the combat. The essential difference between war and training for the ideal drone pilot is only measurable by what happens on the far side of the screen. It’s this aspect, perhaps as much as its profile of leadership, that has led to the book being studied by the military.