If you were an ’80s or ’90s kid, you probably have fond memories of school days playing “The Oregon Trail,” the pioneering (har har) educational video game about America’s westward migration.
At a talk at this week’s Game Developer Conference, “Oregon Trail” co-creator Don Rawitsch took the stage to discuss the history of the game, the sheer impact it’s had on entire generations of kids, and how it almost didn’t happen at all.
Circa late 1971, Rawitsch was a student teacher in Minneapolis, and given two weeks by the school administration to prepare a unit on the Manifest Destiny era of American history. Figuring a game would engage the students better than any textbook, he set to work designing a board game with dice and spinners.
His roommates Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, more mathematically minded, noted that this school was one of the very few at that point to have a room-sized mainframe machine available for student usage, and suggested that maybe “it would be a lot better on a computer.”
The three men worked around the clock for two weeks, delivering version 1.0 of “Oregon Trail” just in time for the unit to start. And it was an immediate smash hit, he says, with the kids “mesmerised” and other teachers inventing “flimsy excuses” why their students should get to play it, too.
At the end of the semester, Rawitsch’s student teaching gig came to a close, and so he deleted “Oregon Trail” from the school’s computers before he went — but not before the three men printed copies of the game’s source code, in a series of long printouts that he calls “the sacred scrolls of ‘The Oregon Trail.'”
Legend of the scrolls
Fast forward to 1974, and Rawitsch ended up working for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a company providing software and computer services to schools. He figured it was the perfect opportunity to revive “Oregon Trail” and bring it to a broader audience.
But remember, at this point, “Oregon Trail” literally only existed as those “sacred scrolls.” And so, Rawitsch says, “on one long weekend, I typed in 800 lines of code from my kitchen at home to put ‘The Oregon Trail’ back up on a computer.”
The rest is history: It became the most popular piece of educational software in Minnesota, and soon, the country, as Rawitsch worked to make the game more historically accurate, even while the MECC team helped update it for the fast-evolving PC market. The original mainframe version gave way to versions for the Apple II and more.
At one point, Rawitsch says, “The Oregon Trail” accounted for one-third of MECC’s revenue, standing out among the hundreds of pieces of software that the company published. It would sustain its popularity all the way through the mid-nineties, with millions of kids growing up with it in the classroom.
As a footnote, Rawitsch says that Bill Heinemann still has his “sacred scroll.” And when his son (of unknown age) asked if, perhaps, he was old enough to take stewardship of the scroll, Heinemann had a simple answer: “No.”
It’s too much to go into the full depth of Rawitsch’s talk, but here are a few extra highlights:
- The original version of “The Oregon Trail” was accessed through a Teletype machine, which is kind of a computer without a screen. The only sound effect they had access to was a bicycle bell, and hunting was accomplished by typing BANG or POW or KABAM as fast as you could with no typos.
- He once met with the creator of “Organ Trail,” a very popular zombie-themed parody of “Oregon Trail.” “I met the young man that made this game. They’re sane,” he says with a smile.
- Dysentery, the dread disease that so terrified “Oregon Trail” players that it became a meme decades later, wasn’t added to the game by the original developers. That was a contribution by the Apple II team.
- He says that he’s impressed by “Minecraft,” Microsoft’s international brick-building phenomenon. It came out of nowhere to become something that’s increasingly popular in classrooms, Rawitsch says. “That was surprising to me.”
And finally, the life lessons that Rawitsch says he’s learned from “The Oregon Trail:”