Most people who grew up in the 1980s with a computer in the classroom have fond memories of MECC's classic The Oregon Trail edutainment game in which players are tasked with journeying across the North American wilderness as pioneers on the way out west. The game has been upgraded and modernized several times over the years, but how did it all begin? What is the story behind The Oregon Trail? Jed Lipinski at Mental Floss takes us back in time to the days of teletypes with this fantastic tale.
Rawitsch debuted The Oregon Trail in his classroom on December 3, 1971. He rolled the teletype into the center of the room, and the students gathered around. The machine churned out a roll of paper with questions like “How much would you like to spend on clothing?” When a kid typed in a number, the machine delivered a new question, along with an update on his or her condition. Some imagination was required. In order to hunt, students had to type the word bang. If they typed the word quickly and accurately, the machine responded: “Good eatin’ tonight!” If they faltered, the machine sniffed: “A little slow on your Colt .45.”
It was no Grand Theft Auto. But for students who’d experienced computers only as glorified calculators, The Oregon Trail opened up a whole new world. After a few rounds, the kids who previously had no interest in history knew a little more about the geography of the Western U.S. and the brutal realities facing 19th-century pioneers. The game worked on a conceptual level too. “The Oregon Trail was one of the first educational software applications that put you into the program,” Rawitsch says. “Despite the lack of graphics, students who played weren’t students anymore. They were settlers crossing a wasteland. Their decisions were a question of life or death.”
I was part of my county's Gifted Student Program while in elementary school where children who tested well at a young age were sent once a week to a special classroom. One of our learning stations was an Apple IIe that only ran The Oregon Trail, and that computer was always engaged. There was practically a waiting list to have a turn, and eventually we started playing in small teams to move things along. I entered the GSP program in first grade and my class came back to the game year after year until the program ended after sixth grade even when it was no longer part of our curriculum just because it was so much fun. I've seen the newer versions and while they look more impressive and are more detailed, there's just something about that Apple IIe version from my childhood that stands out in my mind as the definitive version of the game. Maybe it's the death by dysentery.