If one sign of a great game is staying power, then The Oregon Trail stands out for over forty years of enduring popularity. The game has also outlasted many different platforms.
If, like me, you played it growing up, you remember that the game challenges players to guide their wagon party across the great American West in 1848. To successfully traverse the continent, you must choose supplies, set your travel speed, cross rivers, trade with Native Americans, hunt for animals, survive disease and storms, and make wagon repairs. Choose poorly, and one or more of your party dies along the trail.
Three Carleton College students invented the game in 1971, when student teacher Don Rawitsch asked fellow seniors Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, “Can’t we do something with the computer in my history class?” They developed a text-based version of The Oregon Trail, and later, when Rawitsch joined the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium (MECC), he made the game available to students throughout the state. The game play was primitive. Students dialed in on teletype machines and hunted by typing in “BANG.” Players who spelled the word correctly got the award message, “Good Eatin’ Tonight,” and some food for their travel party.
The Oregon Trail was not the only 1970s game to simulate historical adventures. Programmers turned to the ancient camel caravan trades, the rule of Hammurabi, and Civil War battles for inspiration. But unlike most of these other games, The Oregon Trail successfully migrated from mainframe computer to the newly popular microcomputers.
In 1979 MECC ported the game to the Apple II, and players could then hunt by shooting at graphics of deer, bison, or rabbits dashing across the screen. The game’s popularity expanded enormously in school districts all over the country, and as a result, in 1985 MECC released it to the general public. You can play an emulated version here. Continuously updated, the game is still a steady seller and has even migrated to the iPhone. T
he Oregon Trail succeeded because it was simple, yet challenging, but endured because MECC, a stable and committed creator of educational software titles such as Number Muncher and Lemonade Stand, invested the resources to keep it updated and fresh and get it into classrooms so that teachers could easily tie it into the American History curricula. For the majority of children who didn’t have home computers in the 1980s and 1990s, The Oregon Trail was often not only the first computer game they played, but also their first introduction to computers. For a collection of people’s memories playing the game, see Dave Lester's 2006 Facebook survey.
Today, there are many other historical simulations and many more opportunities for teachers to use games in the classroom. But 39 years after its creation, The Oregon Trail still stands out as one of the most effective simulation games. When children stock their supplies, load up their wagon, and head West, they start to understand the challenges of Western migration, build some valuable decision-making skills, and have fun. And hopefully no one dies of dysentery along the way. Did you play The Oregon Trail in school? Share your memories!