4 Ways 'The Oregon Trail' Led A Generation On A Journey
School classrooms used to be a whole lot different. Though I'm purely speculating, I can only imagine that these days, your average middle school classroom is just a bunch of kids all using their smartphones at their desks, constantly recording coordinated dance numbers to post online while a disinterested teacher sits at their desk, also on their smartphone, complaining online about how kids need to slow down with the dance videos.
Back in my day, all the way back in the '90s, the only screen we had in our classrooms was on a hulking personal computer tucked away somewhere in the back. And on that computer, on just about any given morning, before the bell rang, you would find a group of kids, huddled around that monitor, giggling at the fact that one of their buddies just died the horrific death of someone who shit so much diarrhea that their body just couldn't shit any diarrhea no more, all in an effort to cross some stupid ass river. We couldn't reach into our pockets and have the literal world at our fingertips; we had … pixelated Oregon. And that's about it.
But even still, The Oregon Trail, and the cultural phenomenon it spawned, was an incredible achievement and one, now at 50 years old, that went on its own risky westward trek to become part of the public consciousness as we know it ...
Hitting the Trail
The Oregon Trail wasn't originally the game that most of us have in mind. Far before the version that most of us had on our classroom computers, The Oregon Trail was just an idea in the mind of Don Rawitsch, a student-teacher looking for a way to keep his kids engaged. Talk about going above and beyond as a student-teacher. I thought a student teacher's entire role was to sit beside the real teacher and try not to barf on the spinning desk globe up front because of last night's bender. Where, after they bared hangover bard, they'd accidentally spin the globe and then send an educational barf tornado all over a geography class and call it a day. Standard student-teacher stuff.
Don got his roommates, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger, to code an extremely rudimentary, text-based adventure game designed to teach the kids about our perilous history towards westward expansion. Maybe Don just had a really bad class? One that was out there not learning shit, and this was his Hail Mary to get them engaged. It's like a teacher today going home frustrated, developing the next big social media platform for his students, but it secretly requires basic Algebra to actually go ahead and post that absolutely worthless dancing video. They just have no clue what's happening behind the scenes.
Either way, Don, Bill, and Paul worked on his project and eventually got it ready for Don's classroom in Minnesota. Now, remember, whenever I'm saying "computer" here, you need to picture these '70s computers. They look more like someone just ran a bunch of glue overtop a Casio keyboard and threw it into another Casio keyboard. Super rudimentary and crude, his game matched the capabilities. Playing out exclusively through text, the original Oregon Trail worked by presenting options and game narratives through physical paper, with the students going on hunts or buying supplies simply by typing. This version of the game takes the already-basic, extremely simplified edition of The Oregon Trail that most of us have in our heads and drops a damn nuke on it.
Still, the kids loved it. Don probably knew he had a hit as soon as his students typed in "B-A-N-G" when prompted to shoot the deer in front of them, and the class erupted in a "Let's Gooooooo!" as the deer bled out on paper. This was a make-or-break moment for Don. One that all teachers go through. Where either they've got the next great idea for their classroom, one the students will click with and make their semester that much easier, or they decided, in an effort to be "cool," to teach the Louisiana Purchase through an elaborate rap that was recorded by their students, put up online, and resulted in them not being fired. Not because their rap contained questionable words, but because the world simply will not stand for rapping history teachers in its classrooms. Luckily for Don, he went the programming route, and his creation was just about to take off.
Young Prince Was Probably a Beta Tester
Before we get into what happened to The Oregon Trail when it left this one small classroom in Minnesota, we have to touch on just who was in that one small classroom in Minnesota. One Prince Rogers Nelson was in that very classroom where the game was invented and deployed. Yes, that Prince. The Prince was possibly one of the very first players of what would go on to become one of the most famous video games ever made.
I can't help but picture one version of the multiverse where this sent Prince off in a totally different direction. One where he turned away from the guitar and towards the video game consoles. Somewhere, Gamer Prince reigned supreme. Out there right now, in one of our many infinite universes, Prince is the biggest live streamer, teabagging kids, stunting from the most outrageous gamer chair you've ever laid your eyes on. And while that sounds pretty damn alright, I guess we should still consider ourselves lucky to have been in this version of reality where Prince wasn't fully charmed by the power of The Oregon Trail.
Loading up the Wagon
After catching on so well at the school, The Oregon Trail started to gain some real attention and traction. It wasn't until Rawitsch joined the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) that the game really caught on. And boy, never has a string of words ever conjured up something more directly antithetical to fun than … Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. I would sooner get my hands on the latest Minnesotarelease from the IRS Gaming Department. This had to be where video game fun went to die. I'd like to think that Mario walked across their desk first before landing on with Nintendo. But instead of turning him into a pipe-warping plumber who jumps on little dick monsters, they probably wanted to put him in slacks and have him star in Grill Watcher. A game where you play a guest dad at a backyard barbeque, standing too close to the host's grilling station and offering up completely unwanted and unhelpful techniques and tips. Mario would have become Mark before our very eyes.
Thankfully, Rawitsch wasn't sent to work on Grill Watcher, and he became responsible for bringing his game to more students through the MECC's time-sharing network. After renaming the game to a simple OREGON, it once again caught on, now with a much larger audience. With far more students able to access the game from around the state, he made improvements to the experience's accuracy and overall gameplay. By the late 70s, the MECC wanted to get classrooms to switch over to the Apple II computer, and in doing so, had Rawitsch's game ported over for use there.
Ironically enough, every step of the way for the journey of The Oregon Trail, seemed far more fortuitous than the journey that the game would send players on because it just kept hitting new levels. By 1985, The Oregon Trail, as we've come to know it, was released as a standalone game, with actual graphics and ready to blow the minds of kids around classrooms across the country. Not to mention, it was pre-loaded on most computers that were getting sent to classes all over the country. When the early 90s rolled around, The Oregon Trail had versions everywhere from DOS to Windows, and there was essentially no classroom in the nation that didn't have it running on their computer.
It became such a hit that it was responsible for a large chunk of the MECC's annual income, somewhere near $10 million annually. That's right, all you needed to do back then to make a smash hit game was write a loose historical account and give kids the illusion that they were playing anything at all, and you could have killed it. I'm sure tons of programmers at the time were kicking themselves for not finishing their own projects that could have gotten to this space first.
All you really needed to do was create a convincing enough scenario where people can die from having so much diarrhea that their asshole shoots off like someone dropped a Mentos and Diet Coke in there, and it flies up to the atmosphere, gains momentum, and rains back down on your head like a super dysentery diarrhea asshole from the heavens and kills you dead. You could have been programming a game teaching long division, but somewhere in there, that division sign better be crumpled over in the fetal position blowing hot snakes out of its mathematic butthole.
The Lasting Impact
It's hard to say what people will most remember about The Oregon Trail because that's all dependent on where they got to in the game. How many times they were able to get across the river or go on a successful hunt. What isn't hard to say is that it's flat-out absurd how many people from one generation have memories at all of what could have been a throwaway educational experience. On its face, The Oregon Trail didn't do too many remarkable things as a video game. You didn't get a great level of control over anything, the graphics, when they were added, were far from exceptional, and there wasn't some major conceptual hook driving the whole thing along. But I'll be goddamned if it wasn't burned into the collective consciousness of the nation's youth over a 10-15 year span.
That speaks volumes about the power of the right experience at the right time in a classroom. Like how you can go ages not really clicking with the whole school thing, and then the right teacher can finally come along, and it all falls into place. The Oregon Trail was that teacher, except they were much cooler and more fun and beat the hell out of listening to your actual teacher go on about god knows what. ("Can we just play a little bit more on this computer before you start your lesson?") Actually, maybe that is more of why it left such a mark. Kids love video games. And, at the time, video games were pretty ass. The idea of having one, even one that was pretty ass, in your classroom was exciting as hell. The classroom computer "video game" could have just been one pixel on the screen that only moved if every kid in there pressed every button on the keyboard to make it slowly saunter over one inch, but we'd have been hooked.
I don't want to take anything away from The Oregon Trail, but what I'm getting at is that Jesus Christ, kids love video games, and you could put just about any trash in front of us at a young age and present it as an option instead of literally anything else in that classroom, and we'd remember it as one of our fondest lifetime moments. But still, there's no taking away The Oregon Trail's legendary status, even today. Having spawned countless spinoffs and been released and redone on platforms for decades after its heyday, The Oregon Trail is carried on by a generation that just can't shake it.
No matter how much better video games get, or how much older and further away from them our generation grows, we will always have that hunting and diarrhea simulator of our youth. So when you find yourself face-to-face with a flooding river up ahead and you start to feel those bubble guts rumbling up, just remember the training from your youth and cross that bastard because you've been preparing your whole life for this moment.
Top image: MECC