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I was recently discussing Ender's Game in The Reading Room, and I mentioned that I reread it because I felt that there were things that I had not understood. One of these things is the Mind Game.

According to the game's Wikia page,

The Mind Game, also known as the Fantasy Game, was an advanced computer program that was played by Battle School Students. The Mind Game adapted to the interests of each student, and was used by the Battle School staff to analyze the student's personality and psychology.

Each student had their own slightly different flavor of the game, as it adapted to the thoughts and actions of each player. Card devotes a lot of time with Ender in his Mind Game, and when I read it in high school, I didn't understand much of it.

If I remember correctly, when Ender visits the Bugger world, he finds that the aliens had constructed a life-size replica of parts of the Game for Ender to find when he came to visit. He also had vivid dreams of playing different parts of the game while fighting the aliens (although I think the aliens had forged an ESP-style connection with Ender, and planted those dreams there. My memory of a lot of the finer details is a little fuzzy, and I don't have a copy of the book on hand.)

The only useful analysis that I found through a quick Google this morning was this side note in Shmoop's "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). [...] 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.

The Giant's Drink, especially, seems to be somehow important, but I can't figure out why. On one level, it's obviously a tool that Card uses to develop Ender's character (and ability to think laterally), but it seems to me (when I read the book years ago, and still today) that the dilemma, and Ender's solution, must have some other symbolic meaning, besides.

What is the symbolism of the Mind Game, and the various areas and activities therein (especially the Giant's Drink)?

  • A lot of the Google results for "Ender's game computer game" concerned the real-life computer game adaptation, for example gamespot.com/articles/enders-game-game-ended/1100-6285427. I didn't get a lot out of Google for this one, but maybe you will have more luck than I did. – Shokhet Jun 18 '17 at 15:58
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    For a question like this you'll have better luck with Google Scholar. (Why this tool isn't better known is a mystery to me). – user111 Jun 18 '17 at 16:55
  • @Hamlet Good idea. I use it all the time for medical/scientific papers; it never occurred to me to use it for literary analysis. I'll give it a whirl. – Shokhet Jun 18 '17 at 16:57
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I can't address the entirety of the Mind Game, so I will just deal with your more specific question: the symbolism/meaning of the Giant's Drink. For Ender's Game I have the paperback Author's Definitive Edition (1991), and for Speaker for the Dead I have a paperback (not sure which edition). Both are from Tor publishing.

Ender's Game online table of contents, and Speaker for the Dead online table of contents (scroll down and expand)

First, let's establish what the Giant's Drink is intended to be by the adults who run the school. It is supposed to turn children away and make them give up. Surrendering in the face of overwhelming odds is seen as the good, rational decision.

But the game had no victory conditions--no matter what the child did, his analogue died a gruesome death. The human psychologists measured a child's persistence at this game of despair to determine his level of suicidal need. Being rational, most children abandoned the Giant’s Drink after no more than a dozen visits with the great cheater.
Speaker for the Dead, Chapter 11: Jane, page 192

Ender himself knows that the Giant’s Drink is an impossible game. Despite this, he feels an obligation to try it, and is unable to keep away and call it a loss. He doesn’t make the expected, “rational” choice of giving up.

Not through the mousehole this time, he told himself. I'm sick of the Giant. It's a dumb game and I can't ever win. Whatever I choose is wrong. But he went through the mousehole anyways.
Ender’s Game, Chapter 6: The Giant's Drink, page 62

The game itself is a representation of how the adults who run the school can’t fathom any options besides the binary choose how to die/choose to give up. Additionally, they expect every child who attempts the game to accept that there are no other options, without question.

the Giant only played the guessing game. Stupid computer. Millions of possible scenarios in its memory, and the Giant could only play one stupid game.
Ender’s Game, Chapter 6: The Giant's Drink, page 63

But Ender does not accept these assumptions. The adults who created it only saw two choices, Ender attacking the Giant, then, is a clear repudiation of the rules and boundaries the officers try to set.

And instead of pushing his face into one of the liquids [the choice he's supposed to make], he kicked one over, then the other, and dodged the Giant's huge hands as the Giant shouted, "Cheater, cheater!"... and as the Giant screamed, Ender's figure burrowed into the eye
Ender’s Game, Chapter 6: The Giant's Drink, page 64-65

He tried to get his onscreen analogue to do outrageous things, things not "allowed" by the rules of that portion of the Fantasy Game... finally, one day, the boy surpassed the program's ability to defeat him
Speaker for the Dead, Chapter 11: Jane, page 192

But there’s more to Ender’s choice than it simply being unexpected by the creators of the game. Ender considers his third option immoral, even though it was the option he chose. He is disgusted with himself to resorting to gruesome violence. He feels betrayed, as it “was supposed to be a game” - the Mind Game, living up to its name, suddenly becomes very real to him through how his actions affect his mental state. To win, he became ruthless. Just like his hated older brother, Peter.

He had made it. He ought to explore. He ought to climb down from the Giant’s face and see what he had finally achieved.
Instead he signed off, put his desk in his locker, stripped off his clothes and pulled his blanket over him. He hadn’t meant to kill the Giant. This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.
Ender’s Game, Chapter 6: The Giant’s Drink, page 65

So, to recap: the Giant’s Drink

  • Is expected to be unwinnable
  • Prompts Ender to make an choice not expected by the creators of the game
  • Leads to Ender being disgusted with himself for making that choice

Therefore I would say that the Giant’s Drink, and especially Ender’s attacking the Giant, symbolizes his unorthodox decision-making. He at the same time embraces a cold, ruthless side of himself to win the game, and is disgusted with himself for his action within the game.

Hmm…. that sure sounds like another part of the book, doesn’t it?


Or multiple parts. The lessons of the Giant’s drink serve as the main symbolic parallel for the whole book. I’ll list the parallels in chronological order through the book.

In Chapter 1 Stilson, a bully, challenges Ender to a fight. No adults are around to protect him. There seems to be no good way out. Ender makes a completely unexpected choice and not only defeats Stilson but destroys him, beating on him even after Stilson is down for the count. Then he leaves feeling disgusted with himself for such violence. He knows that what he did went against the etiquette for such fights, but he felt that he had to do so to win.

In Chapter 4 Bernard harasses Ender while the two are in the shuttle. Again, no adults to help. Ender again goes for the “overreaction” and pulls Bernard out of his seat, throwing the boy across the shuttle. He is again surprised at himself for how much damage he does, though in the moment he saw it as the only way to “win”, to stop the bullying then and there.

In Chapter 12 Bonzo tries to hurt, and possibly kill, Ender. Ender again does the unexpected and beats Bonzo hard enough to kill. Though he doesn’t know that Bonzo dies at the time, he knows that he used more violence than necessary and is, again, disgusted with himself. He is aware that the “rules” for such a fight do not allow for such damage as he inflicted.

Right after that, still in Chapter 12, Dragon Army is forced to fight against two other armies at once. The traditional means of winning (take out all enemy soldiers, and then pass through the gate) is no longer viable. So Ender breaks the rules again. With the idea that “the enemy’s gate is down” he sacrifices the majority of his army to distract from a few sneaking to the gate. The fact that the adults broke their rules by pitting two armies against one, and the trauma of his fight with Bonzo, leads to him giving up on the game, on th school, on the future where he is the star commander of the Bugger war.

And finally, in Chapter 14 there is the climatic battle. The final battle, at the Buggers’ home planet, is expected to be impossible to win. The adults running the program can see no options that result in victory. But Ender makes an unexpected choice - sacrifice every ship just to get close enough to the planet’s surface to deploy the Little Doctor. With that he oversees the (almost) total genocide of a species. When he finds out what he has done, he is horrified with himself. He didn’t want to win if it came at such a high cost.

In none of these situations does Ender do the "rational" thing and give up. In all of them he finds an unexpected paths that he hates himself for taking. The Giant's Drink is the epitome of the idea that while taking a third path may be necessary to "win", it will still hurt to go against one's morals.

So the Giant’s Drink is the main symbolic parallel for the entire book. Over and over again, the motif of Ender being forced into a rule-breaking choice and then regretting it deeply comes up. Over and over again Ender finds a loophole and is disgusted by himself for doing so.

  • Great answer, with so much material to support your claims. I love this 👍 – Shokhet Nov 17 '20 at 18:00
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the giants drink is the Kobayashi Simulation from Star Trek, which is an unwinnable battle involving a rescue attempt while engaging a superior force in close combat ; it is essentially a no-win scenario, which is a well-known concept. To touch on what stood out as the essence of the question, to study how the mind acts once it has 'divided by zero' or had a 'cascade failure'...testing the mind's plasticity seems to be the goal of the giants drink...brb still editing

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    Hey Ben, welcome to the site. You say that the Mind Game is like the Kobayashi Simulation, but to be perfectly frank I've never heard of that simulation. Can you edit your answer to add some detail about what it is, and how you're using it to explain the Mind Game? Also, there are plenty of part of the Mind Game (Ender spends a lot of time in the playground, for example); your answer seems to explain only the Giant's Drink. Am I right in assuming that's the angle you took with this? – Shokhet Jul 14 '17 at 22:08
  • I saw your edits, `@Ben, thanks. I'll be away from the site for a while, but if you need to tell me something or want to update me when your answer is complete, leave a comment here and add @Shokhet to it. – Shokhet Jul 14 '17 at 22:17

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