The Spirit of Operational Management

Nate Dickson's post Anno 2205: Own an Economy! is a delightful read in that it highlights the power of games to be educational, but not in the way you typically think.

Nate remembers a game used in an operational management class for his MBA — a clunky and convoluted gamification of teaching operational management.

Then he mentions the city-building and economic simulation game Anno 2205:

It starts simply enough. Produce rice for your people to eat. Also produce water. To do this you build factories. In 2205 water comes from desalination plants on the coast. Rice comes from highly automated rice farms.

Then you start producing things that need two steps of processing. Mine this metal, then make it into something that your people want. As you produce fancier goods you can promote your employees (who are also your primary customers, the supply/demand curves in this game are weird) which will make them ask for still fancier goods, which will allow you to promote them, which in turn means they will pay more for goods...

And then you get into real ops management. Before too long you are managing multiple sites, each with different strengths and unique goods. Your “temperate” region is the cheapest to build on, and will be your moneymaking region. The “Arctic” zone produces some specialized goods that you need for other workflows. The orbiting space station (2205, see?) does research. The Moon produces very specialized goods. You start to need raw goods from the Arctic combined with processed goods from the Temperate region to be shipped to the Moon to build an awesome new resource there...

His description goes on, but I want to focus on this insight Nate leaves:

It's interesting to me that this is a game. This is literally part of my MBA education, handled far better than my professors ever could have. The motivations for your actions are made clear. The payoffs for handling your inventory levels correctly are explicit. And it's honestly really fun.

From Nate's observation, it seems like Anno 2205 doesn't beat you upside the head with the educational concepts as the little simulation game in his class. Then again, the game doesn't replace a text book teaching you about operational management. That doesn't detract from it either. The educational value of Anno 2205 lies elsewhere.

It seems like Anno 2205 gives you a context through which to think of operational management, how to think of trade-offs, how to think of the ever-swinging pendulum of supply & demand. Capturing the spirit of operational management is just as valuable as capturing the concepts and definitions. That is what makes Nate's description of the game so intruiging to me.

These thoughts stem from a wonderful talk the game designer Jonathan Blow gave called “Video Games and the Future of Education.” Definitely recommend you watch/listen to it. Nate's post reminded me of many of Blow's own thoughts on the educational value of games: