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Screenshots from Oregon Trail, an educational computer game celebrating its 40th anniversary on Dec. 3.
Screenshots from Oregon Trail, an educational computer game celebrating its 40th anniversary on Dec. 3.

The Oregon Trail

A pioneer of computing rides again Add to ...

This is the story of a simpler time. A time when computers were not part of our daily lives, Apple was not twice as rich as Uruguay and a trial by fire involving snakebites, thievery and family members being torn apart by wild animals was not considered appropriate play for children.

Saturday was the 40th anniversary of the first time The Oregon Trail – a computer game and the subject of considerable nostalgia among Gen Y-ers – was played in a classroom in Minnesota.

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The Oregon Trail was an educational game about pioneers. And the men behind it, three rookie schoolteachers in their early 20s, were themselves pioneers. They blazed the trail of computing in the classroom, in the process boosting the fortunes of a baby-faced young entrepreneur named Steve Jobs.

But all that would come later. In 1971, Don Rawitsch was a student teacher living in an apartment in Crystal, Minn., with two friends also working their way through teachers college. All he wanted to do was get his students excited about the westward expansion of the United States, circa 1848. It started with a board game.

“I was laying out a map of the western U.S. on the floor of our apartment, and thinking about how you could use dice or a deck of cards to determine how you would move along the trail,” Mr. Rawitsch recalls. “At that time, I didn’t really have a sense of what you could do with a computer.”

But when his roommates Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger – both of whom had programming experience Mr. Rawitsch lacked – came home and saw his game, they decided to code it for computer play.

Minnesota, meanwhile, was in the forefront of bringing computers to the classroom. At the time, that meant clunky teletype machines that looked like bulked-up typewriters spitting out lines of text. The friends spent two weeks of evenings and weekends programming and testing the game on a borrowed school teletype. Then Mr. Rawitsch had a machine wheeled up to his room at Jordan Junior High, dialled the computer centre, shoved the telephone handset into the teletype’s coupler to make it work via connection to the large computer housed there, and showed the game to his students.

Their task: lead a wagon train from Independence, Mo., to Willamette, Ore. They bought supplies such as food and oxen (and traded along the route) to keep their parties alive. They faced such challenges as fording rivers, rationing food and hunting. “Type BANG,” the computer would instruct students hoping to bag a buffalo. While they were pretending to be wagoneers, the students learned about the lives of early settlers, did math while managing their budget, and with five students crowding around the computer to play as a team, invented their own mini-democracies to make decisions.

Behind the game, the programming code boiled down to a relatively simple decision tree and a set of probabilities. For example, the odds of illness rose and fell according to how much food the travellers chose to eat. Mr. Rawitsch coded the probabilities by studying the diaries of the original pioneers and tallying up the misfortunes. The student players died about as often as those early settlers did, he says proudly.

“There were a few bugs,” Mr. Dillenberger remembers. “You have money to buy things at a fort, and kids discovered, if you paid negative amounts, when you subtract the negative number, it adds to the amount of money you have left.”

But the glitches were fixed, and the game was a hit. Students lined up to use the teletype. But it did not begin spreading to other classrooms until three years later, when Mr. Rawitsch took a job with the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC, which was leading the charge to get more computers into classrooms and was looking for software. He typed the 800 lines of code that was The Oregon Trail, reading off roughly four feet of paper, into MECC’s statewide teletypes. It wasn’t long before the game was in schools across Minnesota.

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