The Real Mayors of 'SimCity'
In 1990, all the candidates for mayor in Providence, Rhode Island, played a game of SimCity—why don't we make all our politicians do the same?
All illustrations: Susie Cagle
Victoria Lederberg served as the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island for only one day. During her term, she bulldozed a church and a nice, well-functioning neighborhood. She built new police stations on every block of other neighborhoods, and she condemned the local power plant, replacing it with a nuclear reactor.
How'd she do all of this in a day? By playing SimCity, of course. Lederberg was only a virtual mayor—she'd never have the chance to take the reins of the real city.
In the lead up to the 1990 Democratic primary election in Providence, five mayoral candidates competed against each other in the then-brand-new game. The experiment was set up by Joseph Braude, a freelancer for the Providence Journal who was only 15 years old at the time. Little did Lederberg know that the article Braude would write, which included details about her simulated incompetence, would hurt her with real voters.
"Lederberg came off as a very bad mayor"
"The primary that year was truly a game of inches. I can tell you, she was very very angry with me for the article I wrote. She told my grandmother—they were friends—that she would never talk to me again," Braude told me. "That decision was largely informed by her very impassioned belief that it had cost her the election."
Lederberg died in 2003. She never spoke to Braude again.
Though Lederberg lost the election, she didn't fare too poorly for herself. Before the election, she served in the statehouse for 14 years; afterwards, she became a state Supreme Court justice. Braude went on to become an author and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he's a Middle East scholar.
The idea—to make real politicians play a game that simulates being a politician—makes perfect sense, but it's one that hasn't been oft repeated. In 2002, mayoral candidates in Warsaw, Poland played SimCity 3000. Lech Kaczynski won the competition, won the election, and eventually became the president of Poland. In 2013, three German candidates for parliament played SimCity 5 (technically also called SimCity) for four weeks.
"When he pitched this, it seemed like an interesting way of approaching the campaign that we hadn't heard about," Alan Rosenberg, the editor who assigned Braude the story, told me. "This ran in our Lifebeat section, where we were trying to appeal to a young crowd. We were more interested in the aspect of computer simulation of running a city than the political ramifications of the story."
Braude's little experiment, however, appears to have succeeded on both counts. It drew plenty of interest, but it also provided a surprisingly deep look at how each candidate would have governed.
In the United States, as far as I can tell, no city before or since Providence has tried anything of the sort. Perhaps the novelty of it is why every candidate from that election remembers the experiment, and remembers it well.
Braude's experiment was surprisingly sophisticated. It wouldn't make sense to pit five mayoral candidates (a sixth, Paul Jabour, declined to play the game in 1990 and didn't respond to an email I sent him) with any old city, and it wouldn't be fair to ask them to build one from scratch. So Braude enlisted the assistance of a computer scientist, a cartographer, and a research consultant at the Rhode Island statehouse to help him build a simulated version of Providence—problems and all—on one of the Rhode Island School of Design's Macintosh II computers.
"[The computer scientist] explained how to work efficiently with the program, showing us a few of its limitations and finding ways of evading them; [the cartographer] designed the topographical maps, which included a Providence Harbor and River, and a road map of the entire city; [the consultant] helped plan the city's zoning," Braude wrote in his Providence Journal article. "Then the four of us created problems—a high crime rate, lack of affordable housing, congested traffic, and heavy taxes—problems that will confront the next mayor of Providence."
The original SimCity was nowhere near as complex as the newer versions. Candidates would be responsible for zoning (commercial, industrial, and residential), crime, traffic, and powering everything they built. They could build parks, a sports stadium, and airports, as well as deal with any disasters that happened to arise (no monsters attacked SimProvidence, thankfully). Finally, they would need to make sure they balanced the budget—overspend, and taxes would necessarily go way up, which would anger all the SimResidents.
The year was 1990, so few of the candidates owned a computer, and none of them professed to being proficient at using one. Braude, who was comfortable with a mouse and keyboard, would operate the game's controls. Braude would explain some of the simulation's ongoing problems, the candidates would tell him how they'd fix the problem, and Braude would do the clicking. Every candidate was fine with this, save for Lederberg.
"Lederberg ended up insisting on pushing the buttons herself. And because she had not used a computer before, she was bound to make 'user errors,'" Braude wrote. "To human judgment, these errors would not reflect on her political competence, but to the computer, which reacts only to the pushing of buttons, Lederberg came off as a very bad mayor."
Lederberg "asserted that she was merely playing a game, and that it had nothing to do with her political aspirations," Braude wrote. She made a "joke of the project."
That's why she "built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England," swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church. By the end of her session, SimProvidence was a crimeless city, "but the expense was so high that all available city funds were depleted and taxes rose far beyond reasonable limits."
Technically, there were no winners in Braude's SimCity competition, but there certainly was one loser.
"Bulldozing a church is a big no-no in Catholic Providence," Braude said. "A lot of people felt that she lost the primary for having performed poorly."
In the primaries, Lederberg lost by 482 votes to Andrew Annaldo, who was a city council member at the time. Annaldo doesn't think the unceremonious virtual destruction of a church allowed him to edge out Lederberg. And he doesn't think his SimCity project to build new highways and tinker with Providence's bus system won him the extra voters he needed. But he doesn't think it hurt.
"I think anytime you try to get people to apply what they know to a new setting, I think it's an exercise that's worth it," Annaldo told me. "Playing the game, people can review what you say while you play it, they can see your decision making, they can look at your judgment calls. If your judgment calls are good, then you'd probably make a good mayor."
"It was kind of easy for me, I know how a city works and how to run it," Annaldo added, admitting he didn't quite remember the specifics of what he'd done in the game (taxes went up by the end of his SimTerm). "The budget and all those things came very natural to me."
"Yeah, I sure do remember it, all I know is I won it"
Annaldo said polls had him as being down 18 points to Lederberg on election day. But he had a plan to impose a fee on local universities to help working class people, a measure that Lederberg opposed. This polled well, and he thought that the idea of a tax hike under Lederberg would make people choose his name once they got behind the voting curtain.
"It's a science. The guy who proposed the Stay Fair plan, that guy won. That guy won by 482 votes," he said. "That's the facts."
Annaldo didn't win the general election, however. In the end, the two frontrunners in the general election were two independents: Buddy Cianci, a legend in New England politics, and Fred Lippitt, the son of a senator, a millionaire, and a philanthropist.
Lippitt told Braude that he wanted the denizens of SimProvidence to have "[his] statue installed in front of city hall" at the end of his two SimTerms. Lippitt, though, was old and wasn't particularly good at technology or at the game.
"He picked up an imaginary telephone and talked, into an imaginary mouthpiece, of politics and his outlook on life," Braude wrote. "Sometimes he addressed the computer directly, speaking to images he saw on the screen. For example, he once made eye contact with the little blue police department, said to it, "Good day, Colonel,' and then gave it instructions."
By the end of his term, crime had gone down, but the commercial and industrial sectors that he completely ignored were in ruins.
"Development of industry was sluggish, producing less revenue for the city; and in the downtown area, merchants ceased to open new shops, while existing shops lost money," Braude wrote.
Lippitt eventually lost to Cianci by 317 votes. He died in 2005, so I was unable to speak to him for this article. Annaldo finished a distant third.
"From the moment Cianci announced, he was the 800-pound gorilla in the race: the man to beat," the Providence Journal wrote the morning after the election.
Cianci served as mayor of Providence from 1975 through 1984, but was forced to resign for assaulting a contractor in a neighboring city. He won reelection in 1990 and served for another decade, before spending five years in prison on corruption charges (Cianci was nailed in an undercover FBI operation called "Operation Plunder Dome"). He's now got a radio show in Providence, he has a charity pasta sauce to "benefit Providence school children" that allegedly hasn't made donations in years. He's a legend.
And he was also a damn good SimCity player. He, too, spoke at the screen as if it were real. But he knew what he was doing.
"To reduce crime in the neighborhoods, he implemented a 'satellite neighborhood station' plan—installing small police stations in the center of every housing district, each station having adequate manpower to cover its area," Braude wrote. "The advantage of this system, he explained, is threefold: Citizens get to know their police officers; police officers gain an intimate understanding of the neighborhood; and police response to citizens' calls is faster."
Meanwhile, Cianci pulled out a notebook and wrote down his expenses, because he actually cared about how much money he was spending. After he fixed crime, he worried about spurring new development to make up for the money he spent on new police.
"He spent the rest of his session balancing the budget by generating revenue for the city," Braude wrote. "He was the only candidate who had taken the trouble to scribble his expenses on a scratchpad."
In Cianci's SimProvidence, development boomed, crime rates dropped off a cliff, and the budget remained balanced.
"Cianci succeeded in reducing crime dramatically, served for seventeen years without raising taxes, and at the end of his term, left the budget with a small surplus," Braude wrote of Cianci's SimTerm.
"Yeah, I sure do remember it," Cianci hastily told me when I called him. "It was a lot of years ago, I forget the damn kid who introduced me to it. All I know is I won it."
"I thought it was realistic. You spend some money here, you spend some money there, you had to make those kinds of choices everyday as a mayor," he added. "You'll lose some votes, you'll gain some votes. Sometimes you make a good choice, sometimes it's a not so good choice."
Cianci had little riding on the SimCity game. Anthony Pesaturo, a pollster in that election, told the Providence Journal at the time that, regardless of Cianci's questionable legal history, he had a strong core of voters who "will not desert him."
"They have been with him through rape accusations, corruption, the assault, mismanagement," Pesaturo said. "Anything else you can tell them about Buddy Cianci, they will stick with him, walk through fire with him."
Is SimCity Real?
That Braude's experiment hasn't been tried more often is actually pretty surprising. No one will ever think that satisfying the simulated denizens of Providence is as complex as making a diverse, real-life voter base plug your name in on a ballot. But more recent versions of the game actually do a good job of approximating the job of a city planner, if not a mayor.
New versions have different economic classes that must be catered to, and there are tradeoffs for everything a mayor does—build a university and your populus will make more money and commit fewer crimes. But they'll also be more likely to show up at hypothetical SimCity council meetings, where they'll bitch about your lackluster public transportation system. One researcher wrote a 600-page, $220 book examining the parallels between SimCity 5 homelessness and real-life homelessness. Herman Cain's infamous 9-9-9 tax plan is suspected by some to have come from SimCity 4.
SimCity doesn't model everything—cars just kind of temporarily disappear rather than park, for example, which is kind of a dream scenario for anyone who lives in a city.
Of course, very few of these dynamics were built into the first SimCity, and each iteration has made the game much more complex and realistic. Braude's experiment may have been primitive, but one today wouldn't have to be.
If the candidates themselves look at their SimCity terms with little more than curiosity and a bit of wistfulness, is it worth putting all that much stock into one small experiment run by a 15-year-old 25 years ago? Was SimCity really, as Cianci called it, "just a game?"
Rosenberg, the man who edited the story all those years ago, doesn't think so.
"How people approach running the city in the story is revealing about how they would approach being mayor of Providence," Rosenberg, who is still at the Providence Journal said. "Buddy Cianci's approach was very much like his approach to being mayor: balancing the budget, looking at crime. He seems to aggressively know how you run a city, versus those who have goals but have never run anything of that complexity and don't know how to implement those goals."
Nicholas Easton, who came in a distant third in the Democratic primary to Lederberg and Annaldo, is perhaps best suited of the candidates to debrief on the experiment.
He didn't win the election, but he's gone on to have a long career as a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and is now at Columbus State University, where he's had time to think about how technological stand-ins relate to real-life politics.
"It had limitations at the time. But still, it was cutting edge. You looked at it and said, 'Wow, it does some neat stuff,'" he told me. "You could do this type of experiment and look at the sophistication a candidate brought compared to another candidate."
Easton was a very sophisticated candidate. He grew up poor, but eventually managed to get into Providence's Brown University. He was a city council member for 12 years prior to the election, and a community organizer before that. He went into the SimCity experiment thinking that this was his chance to show off how well he knew Providence's inner workings.
"I thought it had the potential to get some votes," he said. "I was steeped in urban issues, and I was competing against a state representative and a state senator, and a rookie city councilman who didn't know too much about running a city. I thought I had a lot to gain, I could show sophistication about the real issues."
In SimProvidence, Easton encouraged people to move into underused residential areas by fixing up the lots near them. He build parks near vacant lots and took money from SimProvidence's budget and gave it to folks living in low-income housing to allow them to upgrade their living situation. By the end of his term, housing wasn't a problem.
His performance didn't win Easton the primary (he outperformed everyone except Cianci), but maybe it should have. And maybe, now that we're not limited to the processing power and sophistication of a game programmed for an old school Macintosh, we should consider making our politicians play the latest city planning games, like Cities: Skylines and SimCity 5.
When you're trying to simulate anything, the data you get out of it is only as good as the data you put into it. With a rudimentary simulation, you're only going to get a rudimentary idea of how good a candidate might be at mayor. But what about now? John Seabrook, a reporter for the New Yorker, called SimCity "arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created." Could it eventually become the most influential mayor trainer as well?
"What most of us have learned about computers is that they can be useful when you have so much data that they can help you make some sense out of it," Easton said. "That's how I see SimCity. Even though it's a game, if you pour a whole lot of data into it, and you have the right people working on it, I'd think it could help you make some pretty good decisions as a voter."
In 1990, some voters surely looked at the one candidate who couldn't take SimMayoring seriously and wondered if she could actually run Providence. A gaffe is a gaffe, whether it happens in SimCity or the real world.