Computer models of the effects of gerrymandering on urban and rural voters

A new computer simulation of voting patterns by geography in the United States suggests gerrymandering may not be the cause of Republican majorities in the House:

To examine this hypothesis, we adapted a computer algorithm that we recently introduced in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. It allows us to draw thousands of alternative, nonpartisan redistricting plans and assess the partisan advantage built into each plan. First we created a large number of districting plans (as many as 1,000) for each of 49 states. Then we predicted the probability that a Democrat or Republican would win each simulated district based on the results of the 2008 presidential election and tallied the expected Republican seats associated with each simulated plan.

The results were not encouraging for reform advocates. In the vast majority of states, our nonpartisan simulations produced Republican seat shares that were not much different from the actual numbers in the last election. This was true even in some states, like Indiana and Missouri, with heavy Republican influence over redistricting. Both of these states were hotly contested and leaned only slightly Republican over all, but of the 17 seats between them, only four were won by Democrats (in St. Louis, Kansas City, Gary and Indianapolis). While some of our simulations generated an additional Democratic seat around St. Louis or Indianapolis, most of them did not, and in any case, a vanishingly small number of simulations gave Democrats a congressional seat share commensurate with their overall support in these states.

The problem for Democrats is that they have overwhelming majorities not only in the dense, poor urban centers, but also in isolated, far-flung college towns, historical mining areas and 19th-century manufacturing towns that are surrounded by and ultimately overwhelmed by rural Republicans.

A motivated Democratic cartographer could produce districts that accurately reflected overall partisanship in states like these by carefully crafting the metropolitan districts and snaking districts along the historical canals and rail lines that once connected the nonmetropolitan Democratic enclaves. But such districts are unlikely to emerge by chance from a nonpartisan process. On the other hand, a Republican cartographer in these and other Midwestern states, along with some Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee, could do little to improve on the advantage bestowed by the existing human geography.

Perhaps this introduces a new strategy for political parties: the need to have more evenly distributed support rather than large clusters of support. But, as the bottom of the article notes, certain redistricting strategies like in Illinois or Maryland can provide Democrats some help in spreading out the effects of their urban voters.

The origins of Oregon Trail

While looking at a column that included some thoughts about the book American Grace, I stumbled across the story of how the computer game Oregon Trail became a sensation. Here is what happened in those early days:

Minnesota’s City Pages tells the story of the game’s early days, when it was an underground sensation, played only by Minnesota schoolkids through a teletype machine installed in a janitor’s closet.

The Oregon Trail — a computer game in which players go on a simulated wagon journey out West, making key decisions along the way (take the Donner Pass or go around?) — was invented by a group of nerdy, computer-programming public school teachers in 1971. It was originally conceived as a board game, but Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger (all Minnesotans) quickly realized its potential as a computer game, and spent two weeks programming it on a middle-school teletype terminal. Their students played the game without a screen, by taking turns pecking out commands on the console, which forwarded them on by telephone to a mainframe computer; the game’s prompts (“You have dysentery”) came out of a printer. In subsequent years, the game was accessed by kids statewide through the same method.

Everything changed in 1978, after a handwritten bid was submitted by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer, then just two years old. Apple IIs were installed in schools throughout Minnesota, and the game was rewritten in the form in which millions of students have encountered it since then. Over the past 40 years, 65 million copies have been sold, making The Oregon Trail the most widely played educational game of all time. Nowadays, you can play it on your iPhone for 99 cents.

The Oregon Trail wasn’t just one of the first computer games — it was, as City Pages’ Jessica Lussenhop points out, “one of the first simulation computer games.” In fact the emphasis, for its creators, was on simulation. Looking back, one of the most striking things about the game is its accuracy: The programmers pored over actual settlers’ journals to figure out exactly how often players should break their wagon wheels, get sick, or meet helpful Native Americans, and painstakingly integrated those probabilities into the game. The Oregon Trail made pioneer history more fun — but it also made it more accurate.

Another innovation brought to you by Apple.

In conversations with other people my age, many of whom grew up playing Oregon Trail at school or at home, there is both joy and nostalgia when anyone brings up this game. Looking back it, it isn’t terribly complicated, the graphics were limited, and I’m not sure how much we actually “learned.” Perhaps it was the fact that it was a video game that one was allowed to play at school (along with other beloved games like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?). However, I must ask: by playing this educational game and the others that followed, have students become more knowledgeable? Have these games contributed to rising educational achievement? (I think the answer to both of these is probably no or the impact is very limited.)

It is also interesting to see this idea that Oregon Trail was one of the first simulation games. I have long been a player of a few of these games, most notably Simcity, starting with a 386 version on a monochrome screen.