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What logistics games can teach us about the supply chain crisis

Thaaaaaaat’s logistics

Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

I like games about conveyor belts. And trains.

In fact, I really like a good train.

It’s frankly the simplest explanation for why I’ve become so drawn to “logistics” games. This somewhat niche genre is all about harvesting resources, putting them on conveyor belts (or trains), and making something with it in a factory or forge.

As you grow your factory, you increase its output by automating more of its processes. There’s a sort of unspoken understanding that harvesting resources in these games is boring and so you should find a way to make the game do it for you. And it’s fun! Relaxing even, in a I-can-simultanesouly-watch-5-seasons-of-Deep-Space-9-in-the-background sort of way.

Did I mention I got into these games in 2019? Right before our global supply chain came to a grinding halt thanks to a global pandemic? So just as I was getting more invested in my little logistical worlds, I, along with the rest of the world, was getting a crash course in how our actual real world logistics system worked. And didn’t.

Playing so many logistics based games was helpful for understanding what was going on. In many ways, the player progression in this genre is just the history of human logistics. You typically start out harvesting natural resources by hand, before gradually industrializing, and then automating your production, until you have a vast, energy-hungry supply chain that’s on an exponential growth trajectory with no signs of slowing down.

But these games aren’t trying to be a history lesson: They’re designed to be fun — bordering on addicting. It’s frankly extraordinarily easy to loose hundreds of hours to something like Dyson Sphere Program. They’re detailed, and a kinda puzzly, but they’re not typically trying to be hyper-realistic simulations.

So it was odd that the more our real world system of logistics faltered, the more accurate these games seemed. Not because they had suddenly become more realistic, but rather, because our wacky world of logistics was becoming more and more like a video game.

You can see what I mean in the video I made above. It’s a a quick look at the history of human logistics, a deep dive into what makes these games a pleasure to wrap your brain around, and a thoughtful exploration of the ways these games mirror the tragic reality of our global logistics system. If you enjoy the video, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel where you can see more of our video essays!

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