If you’re of a certain age, you’re familiar with this disaster: “you have died of dysentery.”
You know it means a member of your party has died in the worst way possible. You’ve probably also got fond memories of punching keys on an old computer in an elementary school lab, rationing your supplies and trying to hunt bison on The Oregon Trail.
For the uninitiated, Oregon Trail is a pixelated, educational computer game where players manage inventory, hunt for food and ford every river, odds be damned, as they journey from Missouri to Oregon in 1848. The game was created in 1971 and released by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974. It quickly spread across elementary schools and junior highs on its way to selling some 65 million copies.
While The Oregon Trail is remembered mostly as the way multitudes learned about what dysentery was, as a funny name generator, the game has had a lasting effect on millions.
A whole generation played the game in elementary school and junior high. They’re not quite millennials and not quite Gen Xers. They’re digital natives who grew up with early PCs and were some of the first to jump on the web in their formative years (usually by using a free America Online CD.)
But it’s not just them. The game has crossed platforms all the way up to mobile devices today and continues to influence kids.
I asked a bunch of people what The Oregon Trail taught them about life and fired up the game myself to see if I there were any lessons I’d missed the first time around.
Hitting the Trail
I found an emulated version of the game on archive.org from 1990 that I could play in my browser. Once you pick between being a banker, a carpenter or a farmer—always choose banker so you can buy more bullets and oxen—you come to your first crucial choice: naming.
In keeping with childhood traditions, I named the party leader after myself. I named the second party after my fiancée, Betsy. I rounded out the party with our dogs Eddie and Hope and a college football coach, just because.
Charly Rowe, who would use the game in her teaching career, remembered playing as a child. “The game seemed to bring my classmates together. We wanted to collaborate, to share our adventures and help another avoid the same demise. The clever disguise of education as entertainment worked.”
It was a lesson she didn’t forget years later.
“As a classroom teacher in Houston, Texas, I found myself presenting the game to the students in my computer lab class. They laughed as the flat, almost stick-like figures trudged across the dreary terrain of The Oregon Trail,” she said.
“This was not what they were used to, but I was and my excitement at telling them about the game and its stories of daring and doom seemed to amuse them enough to draw them in. It quickly became one of my students’ favorite games too, and now a whole new generation is in on the cultural references.”
Slowing Down to Read
My Oregon Trail play style as a child was no brakes, grueling pace with a little hunting here and there. Every river was meant to be forded, though sometimes I would caulk and float just to watch a different animation. My party members lost supplies, or drowned, a lot.
As an adult, I’m slowing down a bit. I stop to size up the situation and I sometimes do things other than hunt and ford. I stop to talk to some locals and am given a hint. This game has had hints embedded in it this whole time. I never knew. I’m told that I shouldn’t ford rivers over four feet deep. This makes me second guess myself when I come upon a river that is 4.5 feet deep.
Deborah Searcy, a university professor, learned these life and business lessons quicker than I did.
“It certainly improved my executive functioning and made me able to see the bigger picture,” she said. “You had to manage which way to go, whether to shop for supplies, where to rest, what to hunt, etc. All those decisions had trade-offs, including morale. This was excellent preparation for life.”
“In the real world, everything you do has a consequence and requires a trade-off. In business you can’t do everything you like with your business, and again there are trade-offs. The better you get early on at recognizing consequences and alternative paths, the better.”
I ford the river anyway and everyone survives.
Eddie Has a Broken Arm
The real Eddie, my dog, is part black lab and part Mississippi highway hound. A friend found him running along the road somewhere near Tupelo and I decided he should live with me. I have more of a reaction to the news that he’s broken his arm on this journey than I’d like to admit.
Allison Ortiz remembers a similar feeling. “I believe The Oregon Trail helped teach me empathy and compassion. I can remember being very concerned when a character got sick. It broke my heart when they died.”
Big Game Hunter
I’m a few hundred miles down the trail when I get bored and decide to hunt. I chose to be a banker and bought those 20 boxes of bullets for a reason. The hunting graphics and controls are, as is to be expected, clunkier than I remember. I spin in circles, take a potshot at a squirrel for practice—nobody wants to eat a squirrel—and wait for my true quarry: the mighty bison.
“One single bison gives you more food than you can even carry. Each time I hunted, I just waited for the bison to show up. Then, bam, I shot a single bullet and fed my whole family for days,” said Chris Orris, an office director in San Francisco.
“In life, we chase lots of tiny things. But our stories are truly defined by the bison—the amazing job opportunity, the truly special person. It’s best to focus our efforts on those. Five flawless job applications with perfect cover letters are way better than a hundred mediocre ones. Always wait for the bison.”
I toppled the bison, took my 100 pounds of food and got back on the road.
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
You can stop and look around at landmarks along the trail. I never bothered as a child, but I stop now. The sites—forts, rivers, trading posts—are painted in pixel art. These are also the only sections of the game that feature music.
The songs also play a pivotal part. “Auld Lang Syne” plays when our party arrives at Chimney Rock. It’s May 14 in the game when the song starts, but it still feels a little like New Year’s Eve out on the trail.
Jared Miracle, an anthropologist who studies how video games and other popular culture impact education and society, has fond memories of his time headed to Oregon.
“I’ll always remember when my fifth-grade class took that trip to the computer lab. We booted up a roomful of 486s, listening to the whir of fans and feeling the buzz from CRT monitors. Our teacher, Mrs. Smith, wrote a list of commands on the board. After fitful moments of anticipation, we were off and loading our wagons.”
“It felt like cheating, the idea that education could be that much fun. What did you learn in school today, Jared? How to hunt bison, barter for goods. Did you make any new friends? Yes, but we didn’t have enough money for food because I spent it all on ammunition. Years later, after completing a PhD., I returned to the idea that we were learning while playing a video game.”
Life Gets in the Way
We’re somewhere out on the trail and things are getting desperate. But, the nostalgia is strong.
“I can remember the old computers with their ginormous monitors that took up a solid foot and a half of the desk depth. I remember the way the keyboard felt underneath my fingertips,” said Judith Nowlin CEO of iBirth App.
“But most of all, I remember the feeling I got as I traveled the trail from Missouri to Oregon. The way the interactive computer program acted as a vessel to another time and place captured my imagination like nothing else.”
“Perhaps it was in those moments where I realized the power of capturing a generation’s emotion and imagination through technology.”
Betsy has the measles. Two oxen have run off costing us three days and we’re getting low on food. I hunt and run right into a bush. I miss the bison. I miss the deer and squirrels. I’m also at work and meetings, emails and my job are getting in the way. I accidentally hit the escape key. This utterly destroys my emulated game.
I could start over.
I choose, instead, to believe that my party has been wiped out by a cataclysmic act of nature.
I’m not really sure what I learned from playing Oregon Trail as a kid.
I grew up to be a writer who spends too much time playing with computers. I definitely invented stories for my characters and gave them sweet names and wanted desperately to understand how the computer worked. If nothing else, Oregon Trail made me curious, cultivated my interests and was a whole lot of fun, which is probably the best you can ask of an educational video game.
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