This piece originally ran Jan. 1, 2016.
Can a virtual city simulation game predict how candidates will perform as real-life mayors? In a fascinating must-read article, Jason Koebler of Vice describes a 1990 experiment where contenders for mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, spent the day as mayor of SimProvidence.
A professional cartographer, computer scientist, and research consultant used the original SimCity to design a virtual version of Rhode Island’s largest city that emulated the real-life Providence as best they could. Five of the six Democratic candidates for mayor played the game, and the results were written up in the Providence Journal.
The experiment may have had real-world electoral consequences. While four of the five players relayed their orders to Joseph Braude, the journalist who set up the game, state Rep. Victoria Lederberg insisted on implementing the controls herself. However, Lederberg didn’t have a good grasp of the game and she ended up making several avoidable mistakes.
Braude describes how she ran a SimProvidence that was crime-free “but the expense was so high that all available city funds were depleted and taxes rose far beyond reasonable limits.” Lederberg lost the primary by 482 votes to city councilor Andrew Annaldo, who performed better in the simulation. Lederberg later became a state Supreme Court justice, but she very much blamed Braude for her mayoral defeat.
Annaldo was overshadowed in the general election by two independents, wealthy businessman Fred Lippitt and legendary ex-Mayor Buddy Cianci, who both took part in the experiment. While Lippitt’s SimProvidence had little crime, local businesses struggled under him. But Cianci proved to be a great SimCity player, perhaps because “[h]e was the only candidate who had taken the trouble to scribble his expenses on a scratchpad.”
Cianci defeated Lippitt in the real-life election by 317 votes: SimCity may not have made the difference, but it probably didn’t hurt. It doesn’t appear that anyone in the United States has tried a similar experiment since 1990, but it has been attempted in Europe, most notably in a 2002 race for mayor of Warsaw.
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