Sci Fi: Ender’s Desk and the Future of Training and Learning

Ender spends his free time playing on a tablet-like device called a desk. Predicting the prevalence of iPads and laptops is remarkable, but there's an even more interesting prediction behind Ender's Desk.

April 8, 2021 | 5 minute read

Everyone in Ender’s Game owns something called a desk, a device that sounds like a hybrid between a laptop and a tablet. In school, the children use these to take notes and do their assignments. At the battle school, Ender uses one for all of his school work and to communicate with other students. At one point, Ender gets revenge by hacking another student’s desk and posting an embarrassing message on a public forum from that student’s account — perhaps the first prediction of cyberbullying.

So Orson Scott Card predicted laptops and iPhones. So what?

Whether the desk is a tablet, a laptop, or a mix between the two is unclear. But Card does accurately predict the ubiquity of these devices. In every scene where they appear, Ender’s parents are interacting with their desks and only half paying attention to their children. You are probably reading this on something even more powerful and portable than Card imagined.

It’s something we can easily take for granted now. Ender’s Game was published in 1985, before personal computers were really a thing. But there is an observation that Card makes that is really interesting: in their free time, Ender and the other students use their desks to play games designed to train them.

The students think they’re unwinding by shooting a couple of buggers or solving challenging puzzles in a video game. But the teachers are watching the students’ game play and assessing them psychologically. The games are also smart enough to adapt and present increasingly difficult challenges that test a player’s weaknesses.

The pieces for something like this are there, but this part still hasn’t really come true — yet.

Learning Through Play

These are video games that train and teach students without them necessarily realizing.

While people have been working on this for a while, to date no one has really nailed it. What’s more, there’s a lot more potential for this to work really well with the technology that we have. Not just smart phones, but recently affordable VR headsets.

Clue Finders: a series of games based on the US school grade curriculum.

The important point is that Ender feels like he’s playing a game and like that game is real. While the power and potential of the devices that we have is stronger than that of Ender’s desk, no one has really cracked using them for high quality, video-game like education at scale. How can you use these devices to create an infinite number of high quality feedback loops that teach and reinforce some behavior or skill?

Tools like Khan Academy and Brilliant are on the right track, but they only approach one part of the problem. These tools are interesting and engaging. But they’re not significantly more engaging than similar solutions created 10 years ago, like Zoombinis and Clue Finders. They’re also not nearly as engaging as a video game. They’re interactive, not immersive.

Immersive Learning

The real potential for digital learning is to create immersive experiences, not just interactive ones.

In Learning to Lead: Brilliant at the Basics, I described how Jim Mattis lead a program in the Marines to do this kind of immersive training, but in the physical world. He hired Hollywood set designers to construct a training environment in a warehouse that looked, smelled, sounded, and felt exactly like a small village in Afghanistan. He also hired a bunch of actors to play civilians and enemy combatants. Before shipping out, squads would drill common routines and patrol exercises in this training environment. Mattis said in his book that he wanted his Marines to “die” multiple times in this simulation before they got shipped to Iraq.

It sounds intense, but the stakes were really high. It’s much better for a Marine to make a dumb mistake and get hit by a paintball in a warehouse than a real bullet, miles from the nearest hospital. Additionally, when someone makes a mistake in the testing environment, everyone can watch and deconstruct the game tape before running it again. So everyone learns from the mistake.

Most organizations don’t have the millions of dollars to spend on building this kind of highly immersive environment, nor do they even need to. There’s a much more affordable option available now that is still in its early days: virtual reality based training.

Digital Immersion

Virtual reality makes it possible to build these kinds of learning environments. The really amazing thing is that its now really affordable: the latest Oculus VR headset starts at only $300.

If you got a job at Starbucks, instead of a training manual, you could get a VR headset and just run through simulation after simulation. These simulations could focus on practical skills, like making cappuccinos. They could also focus on training for performance, like handling a rush where you have to prepare two or three different kinds of coffees every minute. They could also handle situational/behavioral issues, like bias training to avoid situations like this one.

All of this could happen in a real-enough feeling environment, with two key advantages.

First, performance-based feedback can be automated, just like it is in a game. If you can randomly receive orders and fulfill them correctly, you get to move up to level two. Now, if you can do that while handling incoming orders at a certain speed, you get to move up to level three. It becomes like Guitar Hero, but applicable to a real job.

The second benefit is qualitative feedback from a coach. Literally, watching the game tape and breaking it down with an experienced coach. Simulations could be recorded, rewatched, and analyzed with specific targeted feedback. After reviewing the tape, the learner can jump right in and be coached through it a few times before reattempting the task on their own.


My favorite thing about reading Sci Fi the ideas of what the future might look like. I love entertaining these ideas and then treating them as a specification.

A barista working at Starbucks is just one application of immersive, digital learning. There are many others: sales, legal, and industrial. Imagine if your safety training for an industrial job, like one on an oil rig, wasn’t a slide deck or a video, but a day spent with a VR headset working through different scenarios and practicing safety precautions.

Finally, which sales person would you hire: one with a bachelors degree in sales and marketing from a top tier school, but no actual sales experience, or someone who’s played 1,000 hours of a video game in which the point is to take sales calls, run sales meetings, and pitch clients. The college grad can show you a degree, the gamer can show you their top score, based on the dollar value of the contracts they signed.

The interesting part about this is that neither candidate has “real” sales experience! That’s the incredible potential of game and VR-based training, like the games Ender and his peers played.