Monday, June 6, 2011

The Beginning of the Age Anonymity: Ender’s Game and the Question of Online Identity

“Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.” 
(Card 231)

Today’s digital age easily allows us to make connections with others who share the same interests. This instant communication has forced us to change the way we consume and connect with literature. Gone is the conventional research paper written for an audience of one. We are able to quickly spread our ideas about a piece of literature and receive meaningful feedback. With the emergence of the internet, and its prominent place in our lives, it is almost mandatory to create an online identity for one’s self. Whether that identity is similar to your own or not is entirely up to you. Our online identities and the way we communicate with each other set the stage for all interactions on the internet. Students studying literature are responsible for sifting through these identities and using the best sources for research and learning. 

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game, was groundbreaking. Amid the story line of a six year old boy, named Ender Wiggen, who leaves his family to train at the Battle School in preparation of the third and final war with the alien race called the Formics, or Buggers, Card created a world where people interacted with each other through the “nets,” a forum-based digital environment where people met to discuss important political and social issues. Students were also given handheld desks used for school research as well as for sending other students private instant messages. While Card got a few of the details wrong (he wrote his novel five years before the first web page was launched (Source)), he successfully captured the essence of what is happening in our digital world today; from the importance of establishing an online identity to the multi-channeled way we tend to communicate. (better transition..)

Instead of focusing on the main character Ender, I wanted to examine two of the minor characters in the story, Ender’s older brother, Peter, and his sister, Valentine. Peter and Valentine have extremely opposite personalities. From the first mention of Peter the reader senses the rocky relationship between Peter and Ender. Card artfully uses Ender’s thoughts to easily develop Peter’s character, a much more effective device than reading an outsider’s description. We immediately pick up on the fear Ender feels and the obvious resentment Peter has toward Ender from the negative connotations and short flashbacks he experiences as he thinks about Peter, “I’m practicing piano, Ender. Come turn the pages for me. Oh, is the monitor boy too busy to help his brother? Is he too smart?” (Card 2). Peter is motivated by his thirst for power, and is ruthless and extremely intelligent. He will use whatever force or leverage necessary to achieve his goals.  “[Valentine] couldn’t think of anything so terrible that she didn’t believe Peter might do it...[but] he would only do it if the advantages outweighed the risks...he always, always acted out of intelligent self-interest,” (Card 125). 

Valentine is his foil. She is full of compassion and would never deliberately harm someone else, but she is also intelligent and understands how to manipulate people and their thoughts, “writing was something Val did better than Peter...[she] could persuade other people to her point of view–she could convince them that they wanted what she wanted them to want. Peter, on the other hand, could only make them fear what he wanted them to fear,” (Card 127). Peter, intent on ruling the world, manages to enlist Valentine to assist him in his plan. They create identities for themselves on the “nets” and use their pseudonyms as a way to share their ideas with others. “They used throwaway names with their early efforts, not the identities that Peter planned to make famous and influential...They were deliberately inflammatory. ‘We can’t learn how our style of writing is working unless we get responses – and if we’re bland, no one will answer,’” (Card 133).  

While Card uses Peter and Valentine’s alternate identities to comment on the capability of  the digital society to manipulate the thoughts and actions of others, he uses Ender to illustrate the need for effective, honest communication. Ender, unknowingly, destroys the Bugger race. We find out later that the Bugger invasion only occurred because of a lack of communication, “We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe... How were we to know? We could live with you in peace,” (Card 321). Effective communication is vital to our society today. Much heartache and confusion can come from simple misunderstandings and the digital age only emphasizes the problem. By applying what Ender learned about communication to our modern predicaments we can avoid similar misunderstandings today.

Connecting to the Digital Age
When I made the connection between what everyone in my English 295 class was doing and what Peter and Valentine were doing, creating online identities, I could hardly contain my excitement. Had we really moved into a time that emulated something from a science fiction novel? I was amazed at the similarities and by the possibilities. Peter and Valentine were children when they gained notoriety, “'Peter, you’re twelve.' 'Not on the nets I’m not. On the nets I can name myself anything I want, and so can you,'” (Card 129), on the internet it is easy to pretend to be anyone...
In the digital age “students exist in both worlds simultaneously with the IOL [Institues of Old Learning] promoting instruction and learning based on a relatively static, restricted set of print texts and using tired, extrinsic motivation approaches tied to narrow, academic, disembodied goals while NLS [New Literacy Studies] and new literacies document  that children and youth are shifting from the page to the screen,” (O’brien). It is important to continue looking toward the future to avoid being trapped in “the increasing gap between literacy practices embraced by schools and policymakers and new literacy practices,” (O’brien). In the digital age, understanding literature goes beyond merely reading and writing about it. We must study and experience it in it's social and cultural contexts. When we do so, we engage with the text and draw more meaningful analysis and conclusions from it. We share these insights with others who are also interested and we become part of an online community. When we interact and share with others our online identities begin to take shape.

Works Cited:

Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLc, 1985. Print.

O'Brien, David G, and Bauer, Eurydice Bouchereau. "Review: Essay Book Review: New Literacies and the Institution of Old Learning." Reading Research Quarterly 40.1 (2005): 120-131. Web. May 27 2011.

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