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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 ...

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.”

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