Real-Time Strategy Games Are Really Just Supply Chain Management and Economics

Murray Pratt Blog, Business Insights Leave a Comment

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” 

– Albert Einstein

This will be a longer post than usual, but is a topic that interests me – how gamification can apply to business, or at least shows some parallels.

A crucial part of a successful business revolves around the planning and execution of a firm’s strategy. We come across a bit of strategy and decision making in most basic economics 101 courses in the form of Game Theory. In supply chain management, you learn about: strategic purchasing and sourcing to reduce your own supply base or otherwise squeeze supply capability against competitors, quantitative decision making to obtain optimal outcomes, managing operational processes and economic inventory levels to minimize costs while maximizing efficiency, but what happens when we need to make decisions in real time, or near real time? Often times in the real world, things are time-sensitive and require fast-thinking while still applying a strategic approach. This is where games can shine.

Real time strategy (RTS) war games such as StarCraft and Age of Empires is really just supply chain management training in a fun and interactive disguise. Not only does it have underlying elements of supply chain and operations principles, but RTS games also train players (whether consciously or unconsciously) to consider the macro and micro environment and make executive decisions while playing under a high-stress environment against other players, who you may choose to form alliances with or be enemies. Allies and enemies. Strategic partners and industry competitors. They sound similar don’t they? That’s because they are.

Professional Gamer

RTS games generally have two components in terms of managing your empire (for a lack of a better word): micro and macro. The subject matter experts over at Team Liquid do a superb job at explaining it:

Micro refers to more local, specialized events, while Macro concerns the overall flow of the game and the economical side. It is important for every player to have a balance of these two [because] player[s] are forced to make the decision where to allocate his or her actions and attention. In order to win, a player should consider the opportunity cost of his or her choice.

Micro is the ability to control your units individually, in order to make up for pathing.

Macro is your ability to produce units, and keep all of your production buildings busy. Generally, the player with the better macro will have the larger army. The other element of macro is your ability to expand at the appropriate times to keep your production of units flowing. A good macro player is able to keep increasing his or her production capability while having the resources to support it.”

As you can see, it’s got some parallels to managing a supply chain. Beyond the elements of individual game play, RTS game also generally include a fog of war even when you are sharing information among allies, which prevents you from knowing what the opposition is doing and hinders your ability to forecast their actions and make an informed decision on how to spend your resources – research, increase unit production, build structures elsewhere (expansion). If this doesn’t start to remind you of demand planning, forecasting, and supply chain visibility, it should.

The beauty in RTS games is that so many things are happening at once that you simply cannot focus your attention on everything at once. Every decision you make every minute and second of the game, big or small, may end up affecting the results of your game and all of this is tracked. At the end of every game, a detailed report of your results (and other players) is shown to you: economy breakdown, unspent resources, structures built, etc. This is fantastic because it allows you analyze historical data – the decisions you made and how it compares with other players so that in future games, you can make better decisions moving forward. Check it out:

Although it might be a stretch to say that RTS games will increase your understanding of supply chains and logistics, they are definitely forcing players to consider the micro and macro picture, make quick executive decisions under conditions of high stress, use teamwork and collaboration, spend resources efficiently, and analyze data to make better decisions in the future.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2015 and has been updated in December 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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