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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.

But The Oregon Trail didn’t really became a phenomenon until a MECC staffer saw an Apple microcomputer at a conference in California. Representatives scheduled a visit with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, both still in their 20s at the time, and bought a handful of the new Apple II computers from them. Mr. Jobs had a bit of a background in gaming. Prior to starting Apple, he worked as a technician at Atari.

“They had just moved out of the garage and into their first warehouse,” recalls former MECC CEO Dale LaFrenz. “They were maybe 30 people in that warehouse there, all of them under 25 shooting rubber-band guns at each other and honking horns and carrying on. But they were working 23 hours a day and turning out things to beat the band.”

Indeed, it can be argued that Apple owes much of its early survival in the late seventies indirectly to The Oregon Trail. At the time, Minnesota was looking for companies to provide computers to the state's middle schools. Apple came in with the winning bid. At the time, the game’s creators believed the state would eventually purchase about 1,000 computers – but thanks in large part to the growing success of educational software such as The Oregon Trail, it ended up buying five times that number, a massive contract that helped Apple get on its feet. MECC then became one of the largest early dealers of Apple computers, selling them to schools. Those schools also came to MECC for the software to run on those little computers. MECC would offer schools a flat fee for its educational games, including the unlimited right to copy them so they could be used in multiple classrooms at a manageable cost. That’s how the game came to scores of children. Its first “site licence” in Canada was in Ontario, and it spread across the country here as well. By the time the product series was retired some 15 years later, about six million Apple IIs had been sold, in large part thanks to contracts with American schools.

The Apple II version of The Oregon Trail had graphics, which made it much more fun, even if the large pixels made for rudimentary images and made it difficult to point a gun with any precision for hunting. It also acquired more details as it developed, including specific illnesses you could die from – most prominently, dysentery. “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘You’ve died of dysentery,’” Mr. Rawitsch says gleefully, reflecting on its pop-culture significance.

The game has received some criticism over the years. It makes no mention of black slaves, though in real life there were slaves who travelled the trail and the game began in a state where slavery was common at the time. (There was a black character, Isabella, with whom players could chat but she did not say much.) First nations characters acted as guides, but players were given no sense of their life – though the designers took pains to avoid Hollywood stereotypes of battles with Indians attacking a wagon train.

Netiva Caftori, a computer science professor recently retired from Northeastern Illinois University, has researched the way students used The Oregon Trail. She found that students would often bypass certain sections of the game quickly to get to the activities they found most fun. In some cases this was hunting, though one little girl she observed would buy as few rations as possible so that her wagon party would die quickly, allowing her to get to the good stuff: writing creative epitaphs on the tombstone at the end screen.

“Students do not learn what we want them to,” she says. “So we have to trick them to have fun things in the learning experience. You give them the money and you have to buy so much food, and you have to save – they will learn a little mathematics. … But absolutely, there’s value. We have to learn how to motivate the kids, and computer games are really great.”

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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