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.

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