Elementary Throwback

Elementary Throwback


The Oregon Trail is an educational game that almost everyone remembers playing in their elementary school years.


  Back when schools had no internet, and computers still used gigantic floppy disks, The Oregon Trail was the one computer game teachers actually wanted us to play during class.


  Originally developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971, the game was designed to teach bored school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail.



 The original game debuted to Rawitsch’s class on December 3, 1971, where it became quite a hit. The game had a few bugs, but it was so popular that he made it available to others on Minneapolis Public Schools time-sharing service. But, when the next semester ended, he deleted the program. However, he printed out a copy of the source code.





  In 1974, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) hired Rawitsch, and he rebuilt the game based on actual historical probabilities, basing much of the options in the game on historical narratives of people on the trail that he had read. Then he uploaded the new version into the organization’s time-sharing network, where it became accessible by schools across Minnesota once again.


   The game we know was adapted by John Cook for the Apple II microcomputer, and found its way into elementary schools across the nation. Around fifteen versions of this game have been released between 1971 and 2012, which is probably why by 1995 The Oregon Trail comprised about one-third of MECC’s $30 million in annual revenue.




  There were several things that made the game so much fun, starting with entering your party’s names.


  As immature school children, we were free to name our players things like “turd”, “butthead”, or any number of inappropriate things, just for laughs.



  Besides naming your party ridiculously, you were also given a degree of freedom in the game. The players had to make crucial decisions for their party, which changed the situations the player would face.


  For instance, when coming to a body of water, you had several options of how to cross.




  For instance, when coming to a body of water, you had several options of how to cross.



  You were supposed to choose how to cross according to the specifics of the body of water (ex. river depth/width), and choosing the wrong method resulted in either loss of items, sickness, or even death.


  You were supposed to choose how to cross according to the specifics of the body of water (ex. river depth/width), and choosing the wrong method resulted in either loss of items, sickness, or even death.


  My favorite part of the game was hunting.


  Yup, back in the day, you were allowed – and encouraged – to play a game in school where you fired guns and killed things.



  There were no graphics in the original version, but rather players were timed on how fast they could type “BANG,” “WHAM,” or “POW”. Misspelled words resulted in a failed hunt. In the first full-graphics version, a player controlled a little man, aiming a rifle in one of eight directions to fire single shots at animals, while later versions enhanced this, allowing players to hunt with a cross-hair controlled by the mouse.



  Throughout the game, members of the party could fall ill from various causes, such as measles, snakebites, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and even exhaustion, showing the hazards of pioneer life. Even the oxen who pulled your wagon were subject to illness and death.


  The game spawned the popular phrase “You have died of dysentery”, which has been placed on T-shirts and other promotional merchandise over the years.


  Gameloft created an updated version for cell phones in 2008, and it went live in the iTunes App Store on March 11, 2009. On January 7, 2010, the Palm webOS version was released, and an Xbox Live version was released on Windows Phone 7 November 11, 2010.  These versions differ from the original, but maintain the same basic outline.



  The game itself inspired many spin-offs, including The Yukon Trail and The Amazon Trail, but my favorite spin-off is actually a parody of the game called The Organ Trail


  In this parody, players must cross a post-apocalyptic United States full of zombies. Instead of a covered wagon, the player’s vehicle is an old station wagon, and they must manage their limited resources – such as food, ammunition, and fuel – in order to reach a sanctuary free of zombies.



  With spin-offs, parodies, and even t-shirts, The Oregon Trail has come a long way in its 46 years as a game. In 2012, the Willamette Heritage Center (WHC) and the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem, Oregon created Oregon Trail Live as a live-action event. In 2013, a dark comedy entitled Oregon Trail: The Play! received its first professional production, and in 2014 a parody musical called The Trail to Oregon! was made by the musical theater company StarKid Productions. The game was even parodied in an episode of Teen Titans Go! in 2016 (Season 3, Episode 48).



  No matter how many updated versions are released, or how many parodies of the game are created, I will always remember using valuable class time to play this nostalgic game.


  Whether I made it to the end of the game, or died of dysentery, I will always have a special place in my memories for The Oregon Trail. How about you?


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If you want to play this game for yourself, click one of the following links!



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