The Oregon Trail Still in Its Prime at 40 (Plus a Slideshow of All Its Versions!)

You have dysentery.

If you continue to hunt in this area, game will become scarce.

You may attempt to ford the river or caulk the wagon and float it across.

You aren’t alone if those frontier warnings elicit a little nostalgia. After all, odds are, if you were born sometime between 1980 and 2000, you’ve crossed The Oregon Trail, in the classic computer game of the same name.

Now, in an era where the most popular game on Facebook involves building and tending to a cartoony city and the top seller on Apple’s iPhone involves shooting cartoony birds at cartoony pigs, the historical westward journey has actually found cartoony success of its own on both platforms.

What’s interesting is that the game turns 40 later this year and has been played on almost every generation of PCs. Selling well over 65 million copies, it taken immeasurably more players along the road from Independence, Missouri to destinations in the American West than in real life.

For a bit of context: according to the 1850 census, two years after the game takes place, the U.S. had a population of around 23 million.

It’s been a long, strange trip for The Oregon Trail, and Don Rawitsch has been there for all of it.

He was a 21-year old teaching student at Minnesota’s Carleton College in 1971, experimenting with novel ways to engage students in learning about history.

“I was creating little board games to represent things like the effect of British taxes on the colonies, and dressing up as historical characters and engaging with the class,” Rawitsch recounted in a recent phone interview.

Creating games for class was nothing new, Rawitsch said, but the idea of using a computer to educate was.

Up to that point, most computers occupied whole rooms and fed on countless stacks of punch cards. But by the early 1970s, they were starting to shrink in cost and size to the point that a school or school district could afford one.

Along with fellow student-teachers Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann (both of whom taught math), Rawitsch began planning out and programming a computer program that would simulate the 19th-century migration to the American West.

At the time, the idea of playing games on a computer was still very new–even Pong would not be released until 1972. But Rawitsch said had no problem conceptualizing the project.

“If you think about what every game is, it has a set of fundamental elements to it,” said Rawitsch. “Players trying to reach an objective, challenges on the way to meeting that objective, some of them unexpected, and you have resources that you can use, but they are limited.”

Originally text-based–you had to correctly type out the word “BANG” to successfully kill game or fend off an attack from wild animals)–it had graphics by 1980 and began to resemble the version that most players remember so fondly.

But why has the game remained so popular, especially in a gaming industry that now issues new products as quickly as most companies update apps?

And how has The Oregon Trail continued to compete with games of ever increasing gore and visual complexity, just rambling along like a well-maintained prairie schooner.

Rawitsch has a few simple answers.

“Perhaps it endures because there’s not a lot like it,” he said. “Maybe we were just lucky in choosing the one historical event in U.S. history that most lends itself to a game.”

He also added: “It has a challenge, and the game never plays the same way twice. That makes it a high-interest activity, and when you add that it was a real-life scenario, all of those come together.”

However, as the game has evolved over the decades, Rawitsch, who currently plays his creation on the iPad, has had some concerns.

“Certainly the enhanced versions of the game were beautifully done,” he said. “However, do extra complexities make it better as a game?

He also wonders about whether the historical veracity has been maintained: In the recent Gameloft version for the iPhone, Congressman Abraham Lincoln challenges you to a race to Independence Rock.

“The models have changed,” he said. “They still maintain the cause-and-effect aspect of the activity, and hopefully they happen in a logical way, but whether they happen in a historical way, I don’t know.”

At the end of the day, though, Rawitsch knows he was part of something that made a big difference.

Recently, for example, his barber discovered that the long-time customer was the co-inventor of “her favorite game in school.”

And Rawitsch said he receives messages regularly from people who say things like “playing The Oregon Trail was the most I ever learned in a history class,” or “of all the programs we used in our computer at school, The Oregon Trail was the best example of something that taught us and was fun at the same time.”

“I get emails from people I haven’t heard from in a long time, saying that their grandchildren are looking forward to the Facebook game,” he said. “And, that is cool.”

Cool, indeed.

Since The Oregon Trail has seen more than its fair share of facelifts over the past four decades, as it moved from mainframe to Facebook, here’s a slideshow of nearly every version, from paper to iPhone.


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