In Ender's Game, promising children are taken to Battle School to be groomed as potential military leaders. The primary method of training is a team-based sport in zero-gravity. The kids train to fight effectively in this environment, mostly by using pistols.

But as we find out later, Ender is ultimately being trained to remotely coordinate fleets of starships light-years away, and these ships already departed many years ago. While the game did teach leadership skills, why go through making it about physical combat? Why not just have them play EVE Online or something that is already a computer simulation, and devote time to developing leadership skills through that instead of physical combat?

That said, I really enjoyed reading about the zero gravity game and wouldn't want it removed from the book.

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    This is a convenient trope, used by the author to establish the protagonist as The Ace without having to outright say "Oh they are so awesome you just won't believe how utterly awesome they are!". Compare for instance Quidditch in Harry Potter, archery in Hunger Games...
    – MichaelK
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 7:01
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    I saw the point as being to develop tactical skills where the players might actually care about their team members (at least to some small extent). This caused Ender to 'harden up' and come to the conclusion that sacrificing some of your own team / soldiers was justifiable in order to win a battle or the war. Of course the hardening up seemed to ..not work for Ender once it came down to it. But hey, they (the high level commanders) pretty much achieved their ultimate goal. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 7:14
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    @MichaelKarnerfors I'm more interested in the in-universe explanation for this. Besides this is different in that Ender was trained with this game to become a fleet commander, whereas Harry and Katniss didn't plan on their skills being anything more than fun diversions. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 7:15
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    It's made clear that they do also do the other stuff; maths, science, history, etc
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 9:58
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    Who do militaries still practice formation marching, when it's been irrelevant to combat for at least 150 years (or has never been relevant in the case of navies and air forces)? Seems like you'd have a lot of overlap with that question and yours. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:03

7 Answers 7


In short: Battle School is a more effective, versatile, and multi-functional teaching tool.

Why not just have them play EVE Online or something that is already a computer simulation...

Command School is actually very close to what you're describing: it was indeed all about playing a simulated spaceship combat game to develop their grasp of tactics and coordination. Command School, however, had some flaws. It had to be near to the fleet communications systems, and for various reasons, that can lead to the revealing of secrets that the IF would rather keep (as we saw in the book). For this reason, Battle School has the dual purpose of training those who show promise while filtering out those who don't, to limit how many get close to the secrets.

A framework for teamwork

Battle School's structure is all about armies. This teaches those who can climb the ranks how to be a good commander; how to gain the respect and loyalty of those beneath you, how to be useful to those above you, and how to work within the structure of a ranked hierarchy. It also teaches those who can't climb the ranks how to get along in a military force; how to take orders, how to work as part of a unit, how to recognise when to improvise and when to seek further instruction.

Pressure brings out a person's nature

Battle School is very competitive. This sort of environment is good for spotting who gets bogged down in scoring points and building their ego, and who can stay focused on the bigger picture. It shows who can be ruthless and sacrifice others - or even their own success - when the objective demands it, and who is willing to sacrifice others purely for personal gain. These are very important things to know about someone you're putting in charge of military forces, and doubly so when the cost of failure is high and you won't get a second chance at it.

Standings and scores! Instead of fighting the battle at hand, those scores made soldiers and commander alike more cautious, less willing to experiment. That's why the ludicrous custom of fighting in formations had lasted so long - Ender can't have been the first commander to see a better way.

Ender's Shadow; Chapter Nineteen: Rebel

Battles as a microcosm

At the heart of Battle School is the battles themselves. These are fought in three dimensions with fixed points in amongst empty space, which mirrors how the war in space is fought. To succeed here requires a solid grasp of how things move in that environment, of how visibility works, of three-dimensional thinking. The lasers take longer to affect a target the further they are from you, which means you can see enemies some time before you can effectively engage them, which also mirrors real space fleet combat.

"Something most soldiers don't realize is that the farther away your target is, the longer you have to hold the beam, within about a two-centimeter circle. It's the difference between a tenth of a second and a half a second, but in battle that's a long time. A lot of soldiers think they missed when they were right on target, but they moved away too fast."

Ender's Game; Chapter 7: Salamander

Physical difficulty as a teaching tool

Physical combat also has a whole load of additional strains and pressures that you don't get from a computer game. To win, you need to be able to keep thinking all the complex things we've already mentioned, while also doing something complex with your body - moving about in null g, aiming a weapon, keeping an eye on your surroundings. This tests how well you can think while distracted, while tired, and while full of adrenaline - all of which prove to be very important. It also requires you to fully internalise the concepts; it's one thing to have an academic understanding of an object's trajectory in null g, but it's another thing entirely to grok it well enough that you can push off a wall, spin, shoot a moving target, and land where you intended, all while under fire and pressed for time. Do that, and you demonstrate that you understand zero-g motion far better than someone who can quote the equations of motion on demand. A similar argument covers other aspects, too - commanding over voice-only communications is very different to commanding a room full of people when you can see their facial expressions, and they can shout, posture, or even start a fight with you. Being physically present with your troops gives you access to way more information about how they're feeling, and raises the stakes for failure, so that those who succeed are only the very best.

Now, as we see in the book (and in Ender's Shadow, which I do recommend reading if you haven't already), the system isn't perfect, and some less than ideal candidates do seem to do quite well in it, but in general, that's the theory, and it works well enough.

  • Greate answer. My only objection is to the phrase "The lasers take longer to affect a target the further they are from you". While technically true, the effect is negligible because they propagate at the speed of light. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 15:50
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    @MadPhysicist The beam travels at the speed of light, but lasers still suffer from inverse-square falloff. Lasers lose significant amounts of power over distance, especially small-aperture ones with limited beam coherence.
    – UIDAlexD
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:36
  • I misunderstood your statement as meaning that the laser took longer to reach the target. If I remember correctly (not guaranteed), getting hit in the mock battles led to instant disabling of limbs regardless of the actual energy delivered. Of course you are right about losing power over distance in an actual space battle (although the vacuum would help mitigate that some). Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:41
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    @MadPhysicist it's not just the inverse square law or the lightspeed propagation delay; it seems there's something in the triggering mechanism. See the quote I added from when Petra is teaching Ender to shoot. Overall, the point is that you can see the target well before you can effectively shoot it, which is often the case in hard(ish) science space combat, not just because of various kinds of energy falloff, but also because the distances involved mean that by the time your shot has reached the target, it's had ages to dodge. Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 19:31
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    Were there any more quotes that you had in mind? I wanted to see if you would add any more before selecting an answer. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 5:44

It was more about the social structure and the zero-G aspect than about the physical combat

The purpose of Battle school was to build social/leadership skills and to identify who was better fit for command. Their performance in Battle School was what determined whether they advanced to Navigation, Combat, or Pre-Command school.

"Yeah, funny, but no joke. I got nowhere here. I'm getting big now. They're going to send me to my next school pretty soon. No way it'll be Tactical School for me. I've never been a leader, you see. Only the guys who get to be leaders have a shot at it."

"How do you get to be a leader?"

"Hey, if I knew, you think I'd be like this? How many guys my size you see in here?"

Ender's Game - Chapter 5

This was done through practically every aspect of the school, from the Army divisions to the games to the meals.

The choice of the game also served the additional benefit of getting the kids used to zero-G combat where all three dimensions are relevant. ("The enemy's gate is down".)

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    This is exactly correct. In the military you practice marching in sync, rigorous (borderline obnoxious) cleaning, and numerous other practices that are not "directly" involved in warfare. These all have their purposes however. Everything you do is about a mentality. In the case of physical combat it is about being comfortable in a situation where you know you are going to get hurt and you must hurt the other person in order to either avoid that or stop it from happening. Though it is ship combat in this series the same aspect still applies. For humanity's pain to stop you must strike back.
    – Odin1806
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 13:09
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    Im' too lazy to post an answer of my own, but you may want to add that physical combat was not very relevant - Ender won the real fight during Free Practice against bigger and more physicaly fit kids. Never mind Madrid Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:35
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    The only thing I would add here is that these kids are extremely valuable, and using physical combat as a means to train their tactical abilities was also a convenient way of teaching them to defend themselves against the threat of other humans/governments. We see that this came in handy a few times for Ender.
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 16:09
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    In addition, the end "simulations" can be very fatiguing. GM Magnus Carlsen (current #1 chess player in the world): "These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are every tiring, especially at the end. If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration you will be the one who will profit from your opponents' mistakes." He runs on a treadmill as part of his chess training.
    – Ghotir
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 17:56

The military needed a mad genius to direct the fleet, and they didn't know in advance how to detect this quality in their trainees. Computer simulations are limited by their programming and by the biases of the programmers. The real environment of the zero-gravity games gave the trainees practice in visualizing three-dimensional movement and allowed Ender to develop devastatingly unorthodox strategies such as the

tethered slingshot maneuvering and "the enemy gate is down".

Ender learned to rely on his creativity, which played a key role in the final battle.


Something that hasn't been mentioned yet is that Ender could have lost.

Sure, they hoped they picked the right kid to end the Formic threat, but there was no guarantee. If Ender hadn't ended the war(s) once and for all, then Earth would have had to prepare for another invasion.

In which case, physical combat would be a useful skill. We see physical combat against Formics plenty in the Formic Wars comics (and the First Formic War novel trilogy adapted from those comics), including Zero G conditions:

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The other answers address many of the behavioral or training reasons, but we also need to keep in mind that there was still a war, and having a Plan B is in the military's best interest.

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    Needs more freehand circles.
    – ibid
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 1:51
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    The cover art is too pretty for freehand circles (and it bugs me that the first one is half filled with ORSON SCOTT CARD!) Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 5:43
  • And... with this in mind... There was close-combat when the Buggers took over Eros... and there's nothing saying that the ships that got sent "out there" didn't do close-combat...
    – WernerCD
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 23:26
  • @WernerCD For clarification, these books actually cover combat on Eros!
    – user31178
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 23:44
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    @joshuadrake _ it bugs me that the first one_ ... I see what you did there. :)
    – Paul
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 9:10

While sacrifice has been touched upon in other answers I think deserves far more importance than it has been given.

The outcome of the final battle all came down to one thing: Whether Ender would fire upon the planet. While they had to portray this as a wrongful act, a large amount of his training and the other actions that happened outside his training (note that the movie omits this whole aspect of it!) were aimed at making him take the path of firing on the planet.

One aspect of this had to be to inure him to the concept of sacrifice. The battles were all done in a fashion where death was temporary, at the end of the battle everyone was fine. When the only path to victory was to kill every member of his force (again, the movie got this wrong) he had to do it with any more thought than we pay to lost chess pieces.

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    +1 for bringing up this interpretation - it's an interesting take that I didn't see mentioned in the other answers. Might it be worth expanding on this with quotes or elaborations about how other aspects of his training and non-training experience were likely to condition him to be willing to sacrifice? I think it was somewhat subtle or not necessarily obvious that this was the intent, and people who haven't read the book recently or carefully might not remember it vividly.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 1:12
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    @mtraceur It's been too long for me to recall the details that well but as a child he killed multiple bullies. The government was watching and did not intervene, either to help him or to punish him for force that crossed the line into murder. This was specifically discussed in that he must feel utterly unprotected, the only safety is through his own actions and when faced with a threat he must use enough force to ensure it doesn't recur. Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 5:25
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    Ah, I thought you were talking about different parts with regard to willingess-to-sacrifice. Since stomping a bully to death isn't exactly "sacrifice", unless he actually enjoyed the bully being a part of his life... I agree that that was definitely part of the whole theme of needing to be willing to end a threat definitively, just doesn't fit the word "sacrifice" for me.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 15:34

The students grow up "in gravity". They have no zero-G combat experience of any kind.

Besides all the other functions of the sport itself (in terms of things like teamwork, leadership, planning, learning to follow orders under fire, innovation in the heat of the moment, etc etc and helping to reveal who might be suited to the fight they're ultimately looking to use them in), the students get direct physical (visceral) experience of tactics in zero-G.

Their bodies are ultimately proxies for ships, their pistols proxies for ships weapons. A frozen body is like a disabled ship, which they learn to treat as tools in the fight (in various ways) rather than simply ignoring them as one might more naively do. They get a gut-feel for the physics and tactics of zero-G engagements that simulation would give much less directly.

Later, in actual combat they're mostly working "at a higher level" -- commanding groups of ships -- but they have a solid understanding of how that level works, both in terms of simulated and physical experience of operations in zero-G, so they're able to use those ships more effectively, and more instinctively (rather than intellectually, for which there's not enough time in combat) than they would otherwise.


My understanding was that the game wasn't so much about teaching the children, but observing them. The game wasn't a teaching tool, but a testing tool. Team-building, resourcefulness, ruthlessness, strategic thinking, response against overwhelming odds, all exhibited for the instructors to evaluate.

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    It was all of the above: Teaching, conditioning (Military still had close-combat... with Buggers and between the "nations"), observation, selection (Tactical school, etc), etc
    – WernerCD
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 23:29

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