A Serious Game to Train Supply Chain Professionals


“We wargame because we must. There are certain warfare problems that only gaming can illuminate.” – Robert Rubel, Professor Emeritus, Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College (LinkeIn profile – https://www.linkedin.com/pub/robert-rubel/11/80b/549)

Military organizations have been using games to train their officers and predict possible outcomes of future battles since the Prussian Army began using the game “Kriegsspiel” some 200 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriegsspiel_(wargame)). This shouldn’t be surprising if we accept the notion that games are a biological adaptation in mammals to gain survival skills. In nature, play is the activity of practicing survival skills in low-urgency situations that can then used in high-urgency, life-and-death situations. This is exactly the way the military uses wargames.

Could we use games to explore different supply chain options, just as the military uses games to explore different strategies? Could a supply chain game show us the best supply chain solutions the same way wargames show the best strategies? If so, what would that supply chain game look like?

Wargames are Serious Games

Let’s start by noting that there are two kinds of games: games designed for learning real-world skills – serious games; and games designed for having fun – entertainment games. Entertainment games are about fun, not about making us more skilled. And as a result, game design techniques used for entertainment games and for serious games differ in significant ways.

This article highlights some valuable techniques learned from a well established category of serious games – wargames. It shows how these same techniques can be applied to create a serious game for educating and training supply chain professionals.

Philip Sabin, is Professor of Strategic Studies in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London UK. In his book Simulating War (2014, Bloomsbury Publishing, http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/warstudies/people/professors/sabin/simwar.aspx) he explores using wargames as teaching tools and he describes effective techniques employed by wargames.

He explains wargames began as complex board games. And many of them still are. The game board they use is a map, and the game pieces are military units of different sizes and capabilities that are moved about on the map in order to achieve certain objectives. An example of such a game is shown in the picture at the top.

Professor Sabin prefers these board games when teaching strategy to students and he claims they’re better learning tools than video games (Simulating War, pg. 23). Many of these board games have been digitized to make them more convenient, but they still work like the original games. The main features of these games are: 1) their data is highly realistic and taken from the real world; 2) they have little or no automation so players have to manually move every piece in the game; and 3) the rules can be redesigned by the game players.

Reality vs Playability in Games

The entertainment industry uses history as a theme for their games, but wargames seek to literally replicate and recreate history. So the data used in wargames for terrain, logistics, weapons capabilities, etc. needs to be as accurate as possible. The games are accurate enough to either help decision makers get an understanding of where and how future conflicts might develop, or help historians replicate and understand why past conflicts happened as they did.

“The war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise – absolutely nothing except the Kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war; we had not visualized those.”  US Admiral Chester Nimitz (Simulating War, pg. 58)

Such realism is lacking in entertainment games, and yet it’s a crucial element for learning real-world skills. Here is why: There’s a memory process called “chunking” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chunking_(psychology)) that takes place when we learn. It is basically a way for our brains to recall vast amounts of information. When the brain sees different bits of data that form a recognizable pattern, it groups them all together as one piece of information — a chunk of information.

For example, If you were shown the letters “hlbramdayatlailtme” for 3 seconds, and then asked to recall them, you would probably have a difficult time doing so. But if the letters were organized into a recognizable pattern such as the sentence, “Mary had a little lamb”, it would be easy to recall the letters because you have “chunked” thousands of patterns (sentences) related to the English language, and that improves your memory recall if you see a pattern you know.

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