I was out in San Francisco with friends, just a week after being in Oregon’s Willamette Valley — specifically, Portland. We chatted about HBO’s Westworld, which led to a discussion of topics including (but not limited to) robots, pioneers, reality, and the American West.
Naturally, our nostalgic, uninhibited conversation brought us to memories of grade school and the Oregon Trail video game. Every person in our group had vivid, formative memories of playing that game. Talk to any adult between 21 and 41 years old, and they’ll say the same. Why is that?
How did The Oregon Trail start?
The first incarnation of The Oregon Trail was a dice board game conceived by Don Rawitsch. The game was not unlike Dungeons & Dragons. It was designed to engage students in the history of Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Western expansion, and the like. Rawitsch sketched the first version on a piece of butcher paper and traced a path from Independence, Missouri, to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Like many role-playing games, players collected money and goods that could be traded. A roll of the dice determined the player’s (mostly dire) fortunes, such as broken legs, wagon axles, and immune systems.
Rawitsch described his inspiration for the game, which he soon realized could be translated into a computer game:
I wanted a game to help me teach about the Westward Movement in the mid-1800s. My partner math teachers knew some programming. We had access to a mainframe computer that did all its communicating via printed text. The result was the first version of what became the most popular educational computer game of the 1980s and 90s. I brought the game to the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC) when I started work there in 1974.
The longer story is more intriguing and winding, and it helps to explain the game’s lasting significance. Jessica Lussenhop, who captured the must-read history in City Pages, interviewed the game’s creators, who told of its inception, development, and its ensuing decline at the hands of capitalist toy-makers.
In 1971, Rawitsch teamed up with Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, who’d recently learned to program, and they agreed to help build a text-based computer version of the game. The trio created the game during a two-week marathon coding session on a teletype mainframe in a janitor’s closet at Bryant Junior High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The command prompt prototype was a hit, even though players “had to type ‘BANG’ on the teletype to shoot a buffalo and received printouts of their results.” Children at the middle school loved the game.
But the thrill of all games — even great ones — wanes with time. The school eventually retired the game. Rawitsch printed the code on a long roll of paper, called it the “Scroll of Legend,” and archived it in a drawer.
From janitor’s closet to classroom staple
The Oregon Trail would go on to sell over 65 million copies and become the most used educational video game of all time. The idea — created by three Minneapolis teachers — was eventually developed into a game for the Apple II by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC).
MECC was a group conceived by Minnesota teachers and technologists who believed that computers should be part of primary education. Rawitsch went to work for MECC a few years after first prototyping the game. The organization provided school districts in Minnesota with access to computers and software. In 1973, they were short on engaging software content, so Rawitsch proposed a revival of his game. He ported the code, updated the historical accuracy, improved the portrayal of Native Americans, and optimized the game play.
At the same time, MECC decided to buy Apple II microcomputers (instead of the RadioShack’s TRS-80) and bundle educational software and games with the Macintosh. Due to word-of-mouth excitement about The Oregon Trail, MECC gave subscriptions in the forms of binders of diskettes to school districts throughout the United States and around the world. MECC went on to create many other games, including Number Munchers, Spellevator, Museum Madness, and Lemonade Stand. This explains why the game was well distributed, but that alone doesn’t account for its popularity.
The game was fun
Enjoyable game play is a key quality that makers of educational games too often ignore. As Dennis Scimeca wrote, The Oregon Trail was successful because it was engaging and well-designed. In contrast to Angry Birds or Candy Crush, it is a game that requires labor and is short on rewards — yet it gives players a goal and creative agency in the simulation. It scratches the “completionist urge” and masterfully mixes hardship with reward, noted Joe Streckert at Stumptown Stories.
The Oregon Trail was the first video game many kids played. The game was a touchpoint for children were too young to be Generation Xers and too old to be Millennials — so many children, in fact, that Anna Garvey used the term “Generation Oregon Trail” to define the shared characteristics of this “in-between” generation. According to Garvey, this group of “Lucky Ones” played Oregon Trail in the early ’90s during an era of peace and prosperity — before Columbine, 9/11, and the second Iraq war.
The Oregon Trail allowed players to embody others and rise to the challenge of something they’d never attempt in real life.
The game jumped the shark in some regard when it was ported to CD-ROM in the 90s. The storytelling and history were augmented and the mini-games of skill, such as wagon steering and point-and-shoot bison hunting, became more Doom-like. MECC was sold to a private company and became part of a consolidated educational software industry that was driven by profits more than education. In a financial snafu of historical proportions, Mattel overpaid the company owning MECC’s games by an estimated $3.6 billion. Despite all the disks sold and money exchanged, The Oregon Trail’s original game creators received basically none of the game’s revenue.
What did The Oregon Trail teach us?
I don’t believe I ever completed The Oregon Trail. Perhaps I’m not alone. The diseases, robberies, and deaths of players in the 1980s were fitting because many pioneers in the 1800s never completed their journeys either. Also, it was time for the next class to use the computer lab.
In this regard, The Oregon Trail is the cantankerous father of games. It teaches you that life is hard via repeated suffering, loss, and disappointment. It was like Choose Your Own Adventure: Sisyphus Edition. As a simulation, it no doubt taught hardship and consequences. But how did the game fare as an educational tool?
Students certainly learned more about cross-country trip planning and the history of American Western expansion, and many of them retained that knowledge into their 20s and 30s. The utility of this knowledge — say, the ratio of oxen to yokes — is debatable, but it clearly demonstrates the importance of play and self-discovery in keeping students engaged. As Dennis Scimeca put it:
When the object of a game is to teach, it’s natural to want to guide players’ behavior from the very beginning toward that goal. But play, by its very nature, is an unstructured activity. Intent is important when designing a game, but it’s better to allow players to arrive at that intent organically, rather than wave it in their faces.
Interactive play with other people’s stories has the unique capacity to teach empathy and ethics. It’s the flip side of HBO’s Westworld, where players seek escape and vice. The Oregon Trail allowed players to embody others and rise to the challenge of something they’d never attempt in real life, remarked Joe Streckert. In that way, it achieved the promise of educational games years before high-tech video arcades or virtual reality.
As Garvey wrote, the game problem taught us less about history than it did about technology:
But, when we first placed our sticky little fingers on a primitive Mac, we were elementary school kids whose brains were curious sponges. We learned how to use these impressive machines at a time when average middle class families were just starting to be able to afford to buy their own massive desktops.
This made us the first children to grow up figuring it out, as opposed to having an innate understanding of new technology the way Millennials did, or feeling slightly alienated from it the way Gen X did.
The Oregon Trail and the Apple II mark a key milestone in history. It was the first simulation game — or game, period — for millions of first-time computer users. It was an interface for starting to understand the machines and simulators that now govern nearly every aspect of life.
Jon-Paul Dyson summed up the game’s legacy well: “It’s hard to think of another game that endured for so long and yet has still been so successful. For generations of computer users, it was their introduction to gaming, and to computer use itself.”