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Gamification 1 – Learning how to mitigate the impact of a pandemic on the logistics and transport industry through a gamification approach

Written by: Susanne Wilpers, Herbert Streit, Thorben Peters, August 2020


  1. Introduction
  1. Effects of a pandemic on transport and logistics
    • Definition and characteristics of a pandemic
    • Spread of a pandemic
    • Reactions to an impending or beginning pandemic and their consequences
      • Closing borders
      • Constraints at or closure of hubs
      • Possible consequences for multimodal transport
      • Container deficit areas – Equipment shortages
  1. Possible solutions and alternatives to the measures and consequences of a pandemic
    • Regional multimodal transport
    • Re-use of equipment and LCL solutions
  2. Mitigating the impact of a pandemic on the logistics and supply chain management industry with gamification approach
    • Database layer
    • Analytic layer
    • The user level
  3. Conclusion



The SARS COVID 19 pandemic in the year 2020 has damaged large parts of the international economy in a way that hardly anyone could have foreseen. The disruptions of national and international supply chains in consequence of the quarantine measures established, made the situation even worse.

The logistics industry was not prepared for such a crisis, but should learn from it for the future.

This article takes a look at the most striking problems the international supply chains were dealing with during the crisis. It also offers possible solutions. As this will most likely not be the last great pandemic, we have to get ourselves better prepared for the future and train our current experts and those who are actually in education. Besides all the theoretical basic knowledge, we have to find ways to train them in a more practical way. This can be a game that is able to simulate the real logistics business in normal operation as well as in times of a crisis like a pandemic.

Besides the problems and possible solutions, this article also models a gamification approach on top of a highly digitized logistics ecosystem, that would help to provide all kinds of logistics training in all kinds of close to reality simulations.

Keywords: critical infrastructure, logistics, supply chain management, digitalization, SARS COVID 19, pandemic, the European Union, transportation

List of figures:

Fig 1: Efficiency of multimodal transport

Fig 2: Container export flows 2011:

Fig 3: Regional multimodal transport

Fig 4: Equipment reuse

Fig 5: Gamification example Re-use, LCL


  1. Introduction

Gamification can be defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game context”. (Deterding et al., 2011, p.10) Over the past years the gamification model has become one of the leading topics for discussion if and how it can be applied to the training of pupils, students and staff in companies. According to Groh, (2012),  the term “gamification” applies to the use of a game or desire to stimulate the involvement of a consumer (trainee) in a given activity.

Implementation of gamification in business logistics and supply chain management training and simulation makes sense because of the multidimensional character of these subjects. Besides the games to learn the routines, it should also – in an advanced stage – contain methods for the simulation of disruptions, effects analysis, and solutions to minimise the impact for the business.

The biggest disruption in recent history was in full swing when this article was written. The SARS Covid-19 pandemic hit the world in a way that nobody could have foreseen. It caused the largest global recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s (Gopinath, 2020).

One major reason for the economic decline was that the pandemic has proven to be the most impactful challenge to international trade and supply chains (SC) since the instituting of global trade and “just in time production” in most of the companies’ business plans.

Nations began to close their borders, practically reducing free trade and movement of goods to a minimum. In the area of the Schengen states controlled by the EU, most of those governmental measures have been taken on a national level, as the European commission failed to agree on a European plan to restrain the effects of the pandemic. These uncoordinated and regionally differing measures resulted in a throttling of consumption and production.

As the pandemic continued, we have seen smart policies and good examples that helped to alleviate the consequences for logistics and supply chain management. But most of them were reactive, not proactive and some of them were late or even too late.

Despite the serious consequences for the people and the economy, the COVID 19 pandemic can be used as a “model crisis” for future pandemics. But we have to be aware that it might be different or even worse next time.

But how can logistics and supply chain management prepare for this? Is a gamification approach, including the lessons we have learned, a valid option to prepare for the situation of future pandemics? And finally, can a gamification approach help college students, apprentices and career changers to become potent with pandemic scenarios in their respective careers in logistics and supply chain management?

The purpose of this paper is to showcase how logistics students and experts can be prepared for the next pandemic with the help of a gamification approach. We will design a concept of how such a game would look like.

This paper includes all kinds of logistics and supply chain management, starting from the education of students, but also giving ideas how to implement such a gamification approach in real life. This aims at all kinds of organisations from pure logistic and transport companies, to the logistics department of companies or a public administrated hospital – and everything in between.


  1. Effects of a pandemic on transport and logistics
    • Definition and characteristics of a pandemic

A pandemic describes the spread of a disease in humans across countries and continents, in the narrower sense the spread of an infectious disease. In contrast to an epidemic, a pandemic is not limited in terms of location.

With regard to influenza, the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulated in its guide-lines on pandemic influenza risk management, which was last revised in May 2017, that the declaration of a pandemic, the transition from an epidemic to a pandemic, is to be carried out by the WHO Director General. (WHO, 2017). This was declared for SARS COVID 19 on the 11th of March 2020 (WHO, 2020).

There are two main characteristics of the SARS Covid-19 pandemic:

  1. It has the potential to generate a huge amount of sick people who have to be treated in clinics and thus overload the health system of a country in a short time.
  2. It hits a world with highly interwoven and interdependent production chains across the countries and the continents.

As a consequence, the forced strict quarantine measures to slow down the spread of the virus resulted in disruptions of the supply chains, which was one of the main reasons for a worldwide economic crisis.

  • Spread of a pandemic

Pandemics are usually spread by humans travelling across international borders. In earlier centuries they usually moved mostly via the traditional trade routes on land or by sea. Nowadays most countries are connected through air travel and can be reached within one or two days. So, air travel in particular frequent air travellers act as an accelerating element spreading a pandemic around the globe (Hollingsworth et al., 2007).

Nowadays, modern information technology nowadays offers the possibility of sending appropriate warnings around the globe without losing time, if the political situation allows this. Thus, measures for prevention, containment and isolation of incoming travellers can be taken faster and more efficiently than in earlier times, when the bad news was traveling slower, but already had the disease in their luggage.

Basically, however, it can be stated that, even with the potential of today’s fast travel opportunities, pandemics still take some time to spread into different geographical areas and that the impairments caused by the pandemic differ locally. SARS Covid-19 initially paralyzed parts of China before it jumped to Europe within two months and finally spread to the American and African continents. At the same time, first easing was already taking place in East Asia. As a result, we never had a worldwide lockdown. [Dweepobotee et al., 2020]

In consequence areas that were not hit in the beginning had the chance to prepare themselves, if they took the threat seriously.

  • Reactions to an impending or beginning pandemic and their consequences
    • Closing borders and travel restrictions

A very common practice in the face of an approaching pandemic is to close borders. This was done in the past and is obviously a “habit” that persists (Spinney, 2020).

Apart from the fact that it is not possible to prevent illegal border crossing also with enforced controls, it is most likely that in our world of global air travel, the disease is already in the country. This is especially true for SARS COVID 19 with its long incubation period.

As for the Schengen free travel zone of the EU, the idea to do national borders closings was first rejected, then some EU nations jumped ahead, others followed and finally also the external borders of the EU were closed for “non-essential” travel (Thiessen, 2020).

Although closed borders hardly can protect a region from the pandemic, they surely disrupt international supply chains (SC’s) immediately, especially the transportation on roads and by rail. Even if borders are kept partially open for essential travel, but with closer inspections of the freight or the demand of additional certificates, the effect might be the same.

As a result of the border closings or slow dispatch, these established and complex SCs are threatened with a partial or complete stand still. When looking at the various modes of transport, it is particularly noticeable that the border closings have different effects. For example, at the summit of the European lockdowns, traffic jams occurred at many inner-European border crossings. One example is the Polish-German border, where there was a daily backlog with waiting times of up to 20 hours (Graupner, 2020).

Other modes of transport are not affected by border closings to the same extent as road freight transport. The seaports and airports worldwide work with their own terminals and hubs and are affected to a lesser extent with the decline in passenger traffic. There are also mixed forms of transport in sea, air or rail freight transport, such as Con-Ro ships, which can be used both as car ferries and as container ships. The ferry connections to the British Isles were also partially affected. They had come to a complete stop at some times (BBC, 2020). For the United Kingdom, these ferries are an important part of domestic supplies as the country is dependent on imports. Around 50% of the food consumed is imported, around half of which comes from the EU (, 2019).

In an increasingly globalized and networked world, some parts or even the production processes for all kinds of goods are being relocated abroad for various reasons: lower labour costs, better transport options, lower environmental regulations, tax breaks or the better availability of raw materials. Any obstacles to border traffic disrupt the supply chains and subsequently affect the production and delivery of goods.

  • Constraints at or closure of hubs, failure of airlines

Many warehouses or hubs could no longer operate at full capacity, due to lost orders or cut back production and the fact that they could no longer bear their personnel costs (Flemming, 2020).

The problem of capacity utilisation was also affected by the severity of the government-imposed hygiene restrictions. The resulting traffic jams and delays caused additional costs for many logistics service providers and also reduced their ability of the planning and reliability of transports. This problem affects hubs and warehouses of all kinds, regardless of the modes of transport and their size (Burmann, 2020).

The situation was even worse for the airport hubs. As a result of the pandemic, most air-lines had to almost completely discontinue their passenger business. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) calculates revenue losses of 343 – 383 trillion USD in 2020 for the entire passenger segment (ICAO, 2020). Air freight is also not unaffected by the impact on the passenger market. Worldwide air freight revenue fell by 25.6% in April 2020 compared with the previous year (Rachelle, 2020). One of the reasons for this is that, in addition to reduced production, some of the air freight is also being handled in so-called “belly freight”, where goods and passengers are transported in the same airplane. According to the ICAO study, the number of passengers worldwide has fallen by 2.8 billion, which means that a lot of opportunities for belly freight disappeared (ICAO, 2020). In addition, the pure airfreight business is not considered to be very profitable compared to the passenger business, so that the airlines cannot rely completely on this business segment despite increased freight charges (FAZ, 2020).

In addition to this, now that the first wave is over, less emphasis is being placed on air freight as a spontaneous solution and more is being shipped by ocean vessel again.

  • Possible consequences for multimodal transport

Most international transports are not organised in a one-dimensional way. This is especially true for those from the Far East or from America, due to their geography. These transports are usually multimodal. This means that they use a combination of different modes of transport in order to be either as time-efficient, cost-efficient or emission-efficient as possible. Fig. 1 shows examples of how the combination of road freight transport and rail transport has an effect on the time needed for the transport.

Fig. 1: Efficiency of multimodal transport

Source: Cieśla, M (2020), p. 199

Because of the synergy effects in combined transport, most transports are organised in this way. However, such an organisation is vulnerable to disruptions. The more often the goods have to be reloaded, the higher the risk that these goods may be damaged or the transport being further delayed.

  • Equipment Shortages

The global flow of goods is not linear and evenly distributed. Nations like China export far more ($368 billion) than they import (UN, 2019), while the exact opposite applies to the UK ($224 billion) in 2019 (UN, 2019).

Fig. 2 Container export flows 2011:


Source: Hilmola, O.-P., Lagoudis, I., Kwan Tan, A. W. (2013), online, based on UNCTAD (2011)

As can be seen in Fig. 2, this means for maritime shipping that there is an imbalance in the distribution of the sea containers. Shipping companies are therefore forced to transport empty containers on their ships in order to be able to serve the needs in other ports. This phenomenon is called “container imbalance”. Regions that have too little equipment are called “deficit areas” (deBrito and Konings, 2004). However, it is not just the number that is decisive, but also the size and type of equipment. China in particular exports a lot of relatively light goods and ships them from Europe and loads more heavy goods. As a result, 40-foot containers are often used in Asia and 20-foot containers in Europe. The shipping companies usually have their own equipment. As a result, they have to keep depot areas ready in order to be able to guarantee the supply and maintenance of their containers.

Since the pandemic, as mentioned above, did not affect all regions at the same time, the container imbalance was reinforced even further (Knowler, 2020) Due to the fact that production has not yet been stopped in certain regions, but demand had collapsed, in other regions, the warehouses were loaded up to 35% more than usual, which resulted in higher capital commitment costs (Knowler, 2020). On the other hand, the ratio of empty to full containers on seagoing vessels is increasing, so that the shipping companies make less turnover. If, in addition, the depots in some countries could no longer work, this means for the shipping companies that they cannot access the equipment they need. This leads to additional costs in the depot and to increased logistics costs for the shipping companies, as they have to obtain their equipment from other, less close areas or have to rent containers.

  1. Possible solutions and alternatives to the measures and consequences of a pandemic

3.1 Regional multimodal transport

Even though the risks discussed in Chapter 2.4, regional multimodal transport can be a valid option for cross border transport. While the accessibility of those options varies from region to region, and costs and transit time can increase enormously, it might be the only way for goods to cross a border in times of a pandemic. Parameters to be checked beforehand are transit times, costs and restrictions for the means of transport.

To showcase an example: a company with its factory in Münster (Germany), has stored their spare parts in a warehouse in Rotterdam and due to the pandemic, the cross-border traffic has come to a halt, due to heavy and time-consuming infection testing and quarantine measures for truck drivers.

Usually the company would use direct trucking from Rotterdam to Münster (Fig. 3, Red line). This however is not possible at the moment.

A possible solution 1 would be a combination of Barge and road transport. (Fig. 3, Blue line). This option has some requirements however. The factory in Münster needs to be able to calculate its production and its resource requirements over a longer period in advance, as barges on the Rhine river usually use slow steaming and don’t exceed an average speed of 10 km/h upstream. This translates in 2,5 days for the route Rotterdam – Duisburg. In addition daily sailings are not guaranteed, which might result in an even longer effective transit time. In Duisburg the cargo is to be transhipped and brought to Münster by a truck. This solution might be more time-consuming than the following one, but is also regarded as the cheaper multimodal solution purely based on transport fees. There is an additional cost factor making these local multimodal transports viable. By placing the cargo on barges for a longer time period, the workload of the warehouse in Rotterdam is reduced, resulting in less capital costs there.

Solution 2 (Fig. 3, Yellow line) is a combination of rail and road transport; it works similarly as the solution by barge does. Using trains is usually more expensive, but faster. The usage of multimodal transport has one general advantage to pure unimodal solutions: If the road part in multimodal transport is no longer than 100 km, the total payload may be increased. This results in a potential higher pay-load in multimodal transport than in unimodal transport.

Figure 3

Source: Own figure

3.2.    Increased reuse of equipment and Less than a container load options

The most effective way to get equipment shortages described above under control is the reuse of containers. Normally a shipping company would return an empty container into the depot after every delivery. Container reuse is a solution to this with the aim of reducing equipment repositioning costs and managing customer demands more

quickly. [30] The base idea is, instead of returning the empty import container back into the depot (Fig. 4, Red line), to use it directly after unloading for a new export tour. (Fig. 4, Green line)

Fig. 4 Equipment reuse

Figure 4

Source: Own figure

This has several advantages:

  1. Less container handling costs
  2. Fewer emissions
  3. Less transport costs

At the same time container reuse requires effective communication between customer service departments and the operative departments. Furthermore, a flexible tariff system and accurate shipment tracking is mandatory. The second key option is to increase the space/ weight utilization per container by increasing the amount of less than a container load (LCL) shipment, in case one parties’ cargo alone cannot fill a container completely (Minner, 2019). Combining many different cargo batches into one full container is reducing the overall amount of equipment required. This is especially useful when supplying grocery stores that use one central warehouse (Song, 2015).

For a gamification approach, the students can be confronted with many different customers import and export wise but with insufficient equipment available. This does not necessarily need to be containers, but could also work with normal trucks.

The students then have to identify opportunities to bundle cargo and re-use equipment. Fig. 5 shows how this could be realized with three exporters and two importers, but only one container (purple) at disposal. The import is brought from the ware-house in Rotterdam to Amsterdam, the container then reused in Den Haag. Then it is brought to Rotterdam for export and completed with exports with the same destination from Eindhoven and Antwerp.

Fig 5: Gamification example Re-use, LCL

Figure 5

Source: Own figure

4. Mitigating the impact of a pandemic on the logistics and supply chain management industry with gamification approach  

It is questionable whether a pandemic like SARS Covid-19 can be prevented in the future. The costs to achieve this are estimated at around $30 billion (Dobson, 2020) This is a ridiculous amount compared to the financial losses this pandemic caused, but even if this money were to be made available, the measures necessary would probably not receive a political implementation. So, we have to conclude that after the pandemic is before the pandemic.

We have taken a look at the problems the logistics and supply chain management industry were and still is facing during the corona crisis. We have shown possible preventive measures and avoidance strategies for future crises.

Logistics and supply chain management is usually an international business, so it is an important prerequisite that policies from governments and from the private sector are closely coordinated at national and international level, especially in the time of a crisis, like the European mobility packages that finally had been put into place in summer 2020 (IRU, 2018)

To establish such smart policies and contingency plans for logistics and supply chain management, we will have to train the actual and future experts accordingly.

During academic training, every logistics student learns about disruptions in the supply chain and their impact on companies. However, this bookish knowledge, although foundational, does not prepare one for all the potential contingencies and scenarios that a disaster like a pandemic can present.

With a gamification approach students, trainees and professionals would get a useful tool in hand to learn the basics, but as well can as well be thrown into a scenario, like a pandemic, where they have to make decisions and immediately see the consequences for their company, institution or for their people.

With such a gaming approach future disruption such as pandemics and their consequences for logistics and supply chain management could be played out in “peace-time” and tested for their feasibility, suitability and financial viability and risk evaluation when the surrounding world gets tough. The first target group for such a game would be the logistics students who are the experts and decision makers in the future

The gamification approach would be a three-layer application.

4.1 Database layer

Whether using a virtual logistics company to educate students or doing a business simulation in a logistics company, the prerequisite for a motivating and insightful game scenario is the availability of appropriate data. This includes all possible data and metadata, structured or unstructured. This is known in industry and politics as Big Data (Wikipedia).

So what we need is nothing less than all the data from the whole supply chain in digital form.

Such a data repository is not just key for a game, but also very useful for other business solutions of a company or institution.

In a students’ and trainees’ gaming environment this would be artificially generated or anonymised data. In a real company or institution these data would be collected and could be stored in a cloud. In contrast to the students’ training environment, this data would have to be updated in a timely manner.

4.2 Analytics layer

The second layer of our gaming application would be the analytics layer, a business Intelligence approach (Dedic and Stanier, 2016). Other common terms are Business Analytics (Beller and Barnett, 2009) or Data Mining (Clifton, 2010). These are different terms for similar procedures. It’s all about making sense of the data that are produced during every business activity. To recognize patterns, improve quality and return on investment and get support for business decisions.

In a gamification approach this layer could use the most sophisticated methods that are actually available: decision support, what-if analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning and risk management.

To create this layer is a task for data scientists, not for logistics students or experts – unless they are trained in both. The analytics layer is the place where all the linkages and calculations take place. This layer is fed by the data repository.

4.3 The User level

This level presents the gaming interface to the (end)users: students, trainees or experts in logistics. It’s a graphical interface where the gamers can train how to do their daily job in logistics and supply chain management.

In an advanced state they finally have the opportunity to master the challenges of a crisis like a pandemic with disrupted supply chains, locked down factories and closed borders.

The goal is to master the challenge with the least damage for the ones they are responsible for (company, institution, population, etc.).

The game may start with simple questions:

  • What priority does the undeliverable object have for our production?
  • How large is the current stock?
  • Do we have alternative suppliers?
  • How much would it cost to store our “success critical” goods?
  • What are the storage costs if I want my production to survive for one month without a new delivery?

The game can provide scenarios like the ones shown above:

How to circumvent a closed border or how to react in times of a profound container shortage. Starting from this relatively straightforward and simple example, the gamers could then venture into more complex problem scenarios – like the pandemic we are just experiencing. The same scenarios can be used for training, prevention and emergency situations. In any case, however, the completeness and quality of the data provided are crucial for mapping the reality in the game.

5. Conclusion

Gamification can be defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game context” (Deterding et al., 2011, p.10). According to Groh (2012), the term “gamification” applies to the use of a game or desire to stimulate the involvement of a consumer (trainee) in a given activity.

A pandemic, like the one we are just going through and a computer game might be a contradiction at first sight. But in our digitized world we have the right tools at hand to simulate close to real life scenarios and to learn how to handle them.

Despite all the losses we have seen during the last months, the COVID 19 pandemic is an opportunity to prepare ourselves for future crises. Besides all the written documentation that will be available now, we have to train our future logistics specialists to act and make profound decisions and prevent at least the worst disruptions of the supply chains in times of a crisis like a pandemic.

Gamification approaches in logistics and supply chain management, can be a great help to provide experts with the appropriate knowledge and experience and can help to counter check emergency routines for their practical feasibility. It is about learning the business of logistics and supply chain management, but it is also to train some sort of gut-feeling on how to make the right decisions and see the results immediately. A computer game is an ideal training tool for this.

But we do not want to limit ourselves to students and trainees. Highly sophisticated versions of such a game, especially the ones equipped with a huge and comprehensive data repository, could also help logistics experts in companies and institutions to get their business prepared for the next crisis.

Preventive measures cost money without a visible benefit initially and this is why they are usually not very popular in politics and profit-oriented enterprises. A sophisticated gamification approach could show the volume of investment in prevention compared to the loss of money in the case of doing no prevention.

To give a rough idea about the ratios: by the end of July 2020 the SARS COVID 19 pandemic has cost at least $2.6. Trillion and might pile up to 10 times this amount (Princeton University, 2020)

Although the prevention of such a pandemic in the future should be the highest priority of the world community, it is more than questionable if the root causes – deforestation and wildlife trade – can be stopped.

So, it’s a good idea to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic and to train our logistics students with the best tool possible. A gaming application is one of them and can be achieved with a relatively low investment.



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The article is part of the development of a study on the application of the game approach in logistics and transport training (Output title O4) under the Erasmus+ strategic partnership project “Building an innovative network for sharing of the best educational practices, incl. game approach, in the area of international logistic and transport”, Project number: KA203/HE25/13.09.2019