The Oregon Trail of DEATH!

How a history lesson became a popular educational game

The Oregon Trail is an 3490 km route from Kansas City, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in what was the Oregon Territory, now Oregon State.

The trail covers the modern-day American states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Originally a horse trail, it was opened as a wagon trail in 1836, when the first wagon train travelled to Fort Hall in Idaho.

From the 1830s to 1870, some 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers and others travelled the trail, facing its dangers and surviving – or not.

As many as 21,000 travellers are estimated to have met their end on the trail, most of them lost to diseases such as Cholera.

When a student teacher in 1971 wrote a game to teach his students about life on the Oregon Trail, little did he know that it would turn into a multi-generational worldwide sensation!

Don Rawitsch, a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota, was teaching an eighth-grade history class when he realised he could write a computer program to help teach the subject of the settlement of the American west. He enlisted two other friends and student teachers to help him, and they wrote the first Oregon Trail game in BASIC on an HP minicomputer.

Despite being presented to students on a teletype terminal, OREGON was a very popular program, which Rawitsch made available to other schools via the computer network owned by Minneapolis Public Schools. But when the next semester ended, Rawitsch printed out a copy of the games code and deleted it from the server.

The game was made up of a few components that would also form the core of later versions:

  • There is an initial purchase of supplies. Players need to be strategic about what they buy.
  • You can hunt for food during the journey, which means you can buy less food at the start, although the availability of game is not guaranteed.
  • But you can buy more supplies at forts along the trail (if you can reach them).
  • The time it takes to travel is affected by weather conditions and the health of your party.
  • Frequent misfortunes happen, such as illness, injury and death.
  • The game ends when either all members of your party end, or you reach Oregon.

During your journey you need to maintain a steady supply of food (so you don’t starve to death) while keeping your wagon and oxen in good order and being prepared for issues with either. You need ammunition to hunt game and to keep enemies at bay. You need goods such as warm clothing so you do not freeze to death, and potentially to trade with, as money may not be accepted. Finally, you need the constitution to persevere.

Other causes of death included attacks from Native Americans, freezing, getting run over by livestock or wagons, drowings, shootings (accidental and as the result of robberies), scurvy, snakebites, stampedes and lightning strikes! Ouch.

Scurvy could even get you after you got to your destination: the poor diet of salt pork and flour consumed on the trail weakening some travellers to the point that they were unable to recover and died, particularly miners who ate no better once they reached the camps. Some believe as many died after the trip as during it!

In 1974, Rawitsch was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-run organisation that developed educational software. He uploaded the game to MECC’s computer network by retyping it in. He improved upon it by fine-tuning the frequency and type of the random misfortunes that befall players of the game based on real accounts of trail travellers. In 1975, when his updates were finished, he made the game available to all of the schools on the network, where thousands of students played the game monthly.

In 1978 Rawitsch published the game in Creative Computing magazine. MECC began writing software for the Apple II, and OREGON was adapted for it by John Cook. Once it was distributed it began to appear in public domain libraries around the country and subsequently the world. It was further adapted by J. P. O’Malley, who added a graphical hunting sequence (the original was only text) and a few other improvements.

In the early 1980s MECC decided to rework OREGON into a fully-fledged computer game, intended for commercial sale. It was designed by R. Phillip Bouchard, who added various landmarks that served as breaks between sections of the trail, as well as places to stop and learn a bit about the history of it. These are frequently river crossings which can result in the loss of goods and supplies. The hunting sequence was reimagined; the player had to manage the wellbeing a ‘party’ of family members and not just themselves; difficulty levels; and a point system was added to give a score at the end.

The 1985 version of The Oregon Trail for the Apple II is probably the best-known version of the game, being fully graphical and a common purchase by schools.

The diseases that family members could be afflicted with also became more specific, and they could either improve or deteriorate based on the amount of rations the player allowed the party to consume, the pace at which they travelled, and other factors. This led players to play a sub-game of sorts where they gambled on what was going to befall and / or kill a member of their party next! It certainly made the game memorable, and after its release in the autumn of 1985 it quickly became a mainstay of North American classrooms.

Those children who grew up during the 1980s have been called the “Oregon Trail Generation” due to the games popularity during their time in school. The term ‘Xennial’ has also been used to describe this transitional generation of children who were exposed to technology as part of their formative years and became ‘early adopters’ both in the sense of the early stage of that technology but also their age. The Oregon Trail was a key part of warming up children to the use of personal computers and would assist in their eventual widespread adoption. (The 1978 version was the first computer game I ever played, in 1980!)

Over the following years, further versions of OREGON were released for other computer platforms such as the Macintosh, IBM PC DOS and Microsoft Windows.

These added additional character classes such as Blacksmith or Doctor, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There is also an ability to load and save a game that is in progress, and a distinction made between perishable and non-perishable food. You can travel at different eras of the trail, with later years providing more waypoints and an easier journey, forage for edible plants, and fish. Players can even talk to other settlers and ask their advice! These later versions also have improved graphics and sound.

Cumulatively, The Oregon Trail has sold over 65 million copies, made up of ten versions released over forty years. This has made the game a cultural icon, with exposure to the game almost universal. As a result, the causes of death in the game have become ‘memes’, such as “You have died of dysentery”.

As a result, the Oregon Trail is the only educational game inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame, and Time Magazine has placed it ninth on its list of the 50 best video games of all time – not bad for a program whose origin was a Minnesota classroom.

Recently, a handheld version of The Oregon Trail was released in department stores in the United States. It features the MS-DOS version of the game, and the ability to save scores. You can also play it online at the Internet Archive.

But that wasn’t the end of it…

Enter Organ Trail, a zombie-themed spoof that has you traverse the United States in an attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse by reaching a zombie-free sanctuary.  Like the Oregon Trail, players need to manage limited resources such as food, ammunition and fuel for their vehicle, and also like the Oregon Trail, different characters have different traits.

Come to think of it, moving from place to place, dying of random things, does sound a bit like a survival horror… kind of like the Walking Dead. Well, someone was bound to put that together…

Organ Trail was first released as an Adobe Flash game in 2010, and later as a Facebook app. Due to its popularity, Organ Trail’s developers, ‘The Men Who Wear Many Hats’, held a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make an expanded PC and mobile version called The Organ Trail: Director’s Cut, which they released in 2012.

The Director’s Cut implements a number of features based on fan feedback and suggestions, such as the ability to customise your character, choose-your-own-adventure style random encounters, ‘boss’ fights, achievements and on-line leaderboards. The game is available for Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, Android and Ouya (ooh-what?)

Organ Trail ‘Complete Edition’ came out in 2015 for the PS4 and PS Vita with heaps of even more stuff!

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