In 1971 three student teachers at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota set about creating a game that could be used in the classroom to teach children about the Oregon Trail. Little did they know it would become one of most popular educational titles ever made, prompting countless parodies, live reenactments and even a touring musical. It would be called The Oregon Trail.
Teaching in multiple schools around Minneapolis, Don Rawitsch was no stranger to finding new ways of engaging his students, having gone so far as to even dress up as historical figures to take lessons.
As he says, “[Carleton] very much encouraged students who were planning on following a teaching career to think a lot about different ways of educating students and using creativity in creating curriculum materials.”
This style of teaching would inspire his next project, a boardgame about the Oregon Trail. Using a map of the United States Frontier, he sat in his apartment putting together the first few pieces. On a stack of cards he wrote some examples of difficulties that the early settlers had faced: snakebites, dysentery and broken wagon wheels. These would become staples of the game.
Prior to the completion of this prototype, his two roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, returned home. Upon seeing their friend stooped over the
big sheet of paper, surrounded by a pile of notes, they suggested he collaborate with them to turn his boardgame idea into a computer program. He quickly accepted.
Dillenberger and Heinemann spent the next two weeks putting together the original version of Oregon Trail with their friend. Programming the game into a Teletype machine, an electromechanical typewriter connected to a mainframe computer, they incorporated several scenarios that the player would have to respond to by inputting a numerical value. Given that there was no monitor on the machine, important information would be printed out and disclosed on a roll of paper.
This early version of Oregon Trail made its debut in Rawitsch’s History class in early December 1971. Moving the school’s machine into the classroom, he tested his creation on his students, one group at a time. The results were astonishing. It became an instant hit, with the schoolchildren arriving early and staying late to play it. This continued until the very end of the semester when Rawitsch removed it from the system.
In 1973 the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium (MECC) was created. Its goal would be to bring computing facilities and support staff to educational institutions in Minnesota. The only problem was that they were lacking programs. To solve this they hired a bunch of young and ambitious teachers to suggest original ideas. Among them was Rawitsch.
In the intermediate years, he’d been drafted in the Vietnam War, but had been exempted as a conscientious objector. The condition for this was that he’d have to complete two years alternative service. MECC provided the perfect opportunity to accomplish this.
After seeking the permission of the co-creators Heinemann and Dillenberger, Rawitsch pitched Oregon Trail to his new employers at MECC. Delighted with the proposition, they greenlit the project. Work then began on bringing the Oregon Trail back into the classroom.
Using code from the original game, Rawitsch reworked the title to fix several errors and conducted some additional research. This information was used to alter the frequency percentages in the game, making the title more true to life. It also formed the basis of a manual that guided teachers on how to use the program in the classroom.
“The most significant thing that I did in terms of research was to find published accounts of the actual diaries of people who travelled the trail,” he explains. “I took several of those diaries and read them all the way through and kept track of the things that really did happen. I also kept score so I could get a sense of the frequency with which certain things happened: what percentage of the days were bad weather, what percentage of the days were they low on food and things like that.”
Another consequence of the research was the sensitive portrayal of Native Americans. When reading old accounts Rawitsch was surprised by just how often Native tribes intervened to offer assistance to travelers that were struggling along the trail. This was something he hoped he could insert into the game to combat the negative stereotypes that were prevalent at the time in other media.
“We were very concerned about the way Native Americans were portrayed, because the schools that we taught in had significant populations of Native American students. In the diaries I read I probably should admit to being surprised by how often people wrote about the help they received from Native Americans who helped them understand where the trail was, where it went, what kind of food along the way was edible and which would make you ill.”
This manifested itself in the game as a new event that could occur when players were struggling. Native Americans would approach the party and offer help by sharing food or supplies with the settlers.
When Oregon Trail was made available again to schools in the Minnesota area, it achieved a brand new level of success, becoming the most popular program from the MECC library of software.
Rawitsch comments, “Initially the game was made available on a large mainframe computer system in the state of Minnesota. Shortly after we put the game up on that system and word started to get around with teachers and students that it was available in the library of computer programs, you could see with the daily statistics that Oregon Trail was far and away the most heavily used program on the system.”
From there its popularity only grew with teachers and students.
When MECC began looking for the right microcomputer to replace the bulky mainframe computers in schools, the Apple II was chosen as the system of choice, after a last minute bid from a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Another revision of the game followed, with the MECC altering its library to be used with the new computer. This would lead to the most well known incarnation of Oregon Trail, the Apple II version. This edition gave the game nationwide attention, as out of state schools also began to use the software for a small fee. It would be the first version to feature actual graphics, displaying colorful scenes and an intricate user interface.
Numerous updates, parodies and merchandise followed, solidifying the pop cultural significance of the game. It became a musical, a yearly live event in Minnesota, and launched a whole new sub-genre of videogame, yet Rawitsch and its original creators never earned any royalties. They also didn’t receive credit as the authors until 34 years after its conception, at a gala event celebrating the release of Oregon Trail II.
“When I brought the game back into use in 1974, I, in effect, was contributing it to the organization I worked for, the MECC. In that kind of environment, nobody was cited as authors of various applications that were made available to the schools, because we were a government funded organization. We were just meant to do the job of putting resources in the hands of teachers and students. It wasn’t like publishing a book where your name would be prominent.”
Nevertheless, in Minnesota word did get around that Rawitsch was one of its inventors due to his visibility in the area. Though the rest of the country was still oblivious to the fact, this was the only acknowledgement that he needed at the time.
“More than a few people have approached me when I’ve appeared at various conferences or events. When they find out I was one of the inventors of the game, they very often would say that the Oregon Trail was the computer application that they experienced in school that taught them the most. When you invent something that people say did a better job of teaching than what they usually found in their school experience: that, I think, is a noteworthy achievement.”
This year sees the release of Orion Trail, a space adventure take on the Oregon Trail template, developed by Schell Games. It follows on the heels of other games like Organ Trail, a zombie parody of the game, Fall Out Boy Trail and Super Amazing Wagon Adventure. These all play with the conventions of the much older title. They’re also an indication that Oregon Trail isn’t simply going to go away. 40 years later it’s still captivating the imagination of audiences and programmers with its blend of difficulty, creativity and fun.
When not glued to the latest release, Jack Yarwood spends his time writing and talking about video games online. You can follow what he’s up to on his Twitter and on his blog.