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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 ...

Coming as it did before the self-esteem craze, The Oregon Trail was also notable for the fact that it was not preoccupied with success. Kids actually had a very difficult time making it to the West.

“I think over the years we have wanted to focus on success rather than failure. But in The Oregon Trail, it was actually kind of fun to fail,” Mr. Dillenberger says. “I think a lot of kids thought, well, this is kind of fun dying along the way and making decisions about your funeral.”

By the early nineties, MECC and its flagship product dominated educational computing. By the time it became a public company in 1994, sales of The Oregon Trail made up about one-third of its revenue. However, the company was eventually swallowed up during a wave of consolidation in the educational software industry, and in the process The Oregon Trail slipped into obscurity.

Nowadays, through its Learning Company division, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt owns The Oregon Trail and has begun to revive it – first for nostalgic adults. The game can be played on Facebook. There are apps for tablets and smartphones. The first version of the mobile app sold nearly three million units. The graphics are unrecognizably flashy for former users of the Apple II.

“It’s being introduced to kids by adults who have played the game in classrooms growing up,” says Learning Company president Tony Borden. “That’s part of why we launched it on Facebook, to build that awareness in the adult community, and really build that bridge to kids. … Ultimately we’d like to see The Oregon Trail in a classroom version [again] … That is the holy grail of what we’d like to do.”

But even though an estimated 50 million children around the world have played the game in the past 40 years, The Oregon Trail’s three inventors have never received a penny from it.

“Before the age of personal computers, there was no such thing as a software industry … the whole ethic was share, share, share,” Mr. Rawitsch says, with no hint of an edge in his voice. He credits MECC’s distribution efforts with getting the game off the ground and building its popularity.

“We did not become rich from inventing The Oregon Trail,” Mr. Rawitsch says. “But it has still been incredibly rewarding.”

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