One Hundred Pounds of Bear Meat: Educational Games and the Lasting Legacy of The Oregon Trail
22. 6. 10.
- You can see the korean version of this article in here: https://gamegeneration.or.kr/board/post/view?pageNum=1&match=id:124
Writing about The Oregon Trail has become its own genre at this point. So much has been published on MECC’s classic game that all the clever references to dysentery, one of the many afflictions the player characters will experience on their journeys, have already been used. This is a testament to the game’s legacy and its lasting presence that bridges gaming culture and mainstream American popular culture. The game has had such an impact on American youth of the 1980s that ‘The Oregon Trail Generation’ has been used to describe the first generation of people who grew up with videogames present in their classrooms. This article revisits The Oregon Trail and idea of the The Oregon Trail generation, and considers why the game has resonated with players for decades.
A Brief History of the Oregon Trail and The Oregon Trail
The actual Oregon Trail, after which the game is named and themed, was a road used by American settlers migrating west to Oregon, California and Colorado from the 1840s until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. David Dary estimates that at its height, the road was used by at least 250,000 people, mostly families, who traveled for over four months across perilous terrain to reach their new homes. Unsurprisingly, this was a dangerous undertaking and according to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, at least 20,000 people died while traveling the trail. The story of the migrants and the trail became a crucial piece of American history taught in schools and celebrated in literature, films, and eventually in The Oregon Trail game.
The Oregon Trail has had several iterations. Developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, the earliest version of The Oregon Trail developed out of a board game Don Rawitsch designed to teach westward migration to his own classroom. The game was then picked up by MECC, a Minnesota-based educational game developer, where the original designers converted the game into a text-adventure computer game that was distributed among Minnesota schools in 1975. The game first saw success in Minnesota and was later sold in schools across the United States with the help of a partnership between MECC and Apple, who were pushing to get their Apple II computer system into every American school. As the Apple II successfully worked its way into the fabric of the American education apparatus, The Oregon Trail was reworked for this new pervasive computer system in 1985 and became the version of the game that would be redistributed across American schools in a range of formats. Since then, the game has become a full-on brand with even more iterations in addition to contemporary board and card games. For this article I will focus on the 1990 version of the game.
Playing The Oregon Trail
In The Oregon Trail you assume the role of a family of travelers, and beginning in the town of Independence, Missouri, you attempt to traverse the long road across America to Oregon City. You begin by choosing an occupation, either a banker, a carpenter, or a farmer, who will have a set amount of funds with which to purchase oxen to pull the cart, clothes to shield yourself from the elements (or more likely to be stolen off your back by thieves), bullets for hunting, rations for survival, and wagon parts to repair the unavoidable damage your vehicle will take. Bankers will have the most funds but gain the fewest points, while farmers have the least, but are rewarded with tons of points for completing the game successfully. After choosing your occupation, the game asks you to name your party of five travelers. This is an exercise in cruelty, as whatever party you bring into existence here will be ground down through all manner of torment on their (likely doomed) journey West. Part of the magic of The Oregon Trail is its facade as an innocuous educational game with pleasant colors and a sprinkling historicity in its early screens. This illusion quickly gives way soon after Matt the shopkeeper takes your money in exchange for 3 yoke of wandering oxen that will surely ferry your family to their grave.
* Playing The Oregon Trail, 1991
As you depart Independence you are given information about the weather, your stock of rations, the health of your group, and the distance to the next landmark on your trip. You’re able to choose how many miles you travel per day, and how many rations you consume, all the while experiencing the dire effects of travel in the wilderness upon the bodies of your party. Monitoring the health of your party seems to be the core mechanism of the game, but there is often little to be done for the many afflictions and events that besiege your travelers besides resting when you reach an outpost and making sure you don’t run out of food. The most famous single line of the game is without a doubt “You have died of dysentery,” which has become a popular meme that reflects the likelihood that your party will perish. If we consider what this means for the game in our cultural memory, it is both an educational game and an oddly compelling misery simulator. On my recent playthrough of the game I was robbed by thieves twice, afflicted by cholera and measles, bitten by snakes, and all the children broke their legs, and this was only a fraction of the misfortune that befell my group. If your group perishes you are met with a gravestone adorned with pithy text that essentially taunts you to try again, and many players did just that despite how hopeless the game could seem.
Upon running out of rations you will need to gather your bullets and your rifle and go on the hunt. In the version of the game I played you could hunt squirrels, deer, buffalo, and bears. Hunting is represented by a minigame where rocks and shrubbery block the path of your bullets from hitting animals that pass across the screen. Smaller animals provide very little meat, but buffalo and bears provide tons of meat, of which you can only ever carry one hundred pounds back to the wagon. If you want to feed your family for the journey and you are anything but a wealthy banker, you will need to spend a substantial amount of time hunting, and the travelers might die anyway.
While the gamified struggles of the travelers are the strongest associations with the game, you also pass by artistic renditions of landmarks across the trail as an engagement with geographical Americana. You trade and speak with other travelers and Indigenous Peoples along the trail, although unsurprisingly the history presented here is grounded in Americentric tropes that don't reflect the reality of American settlement. Katharine Slater notes that “Although various editions of The Oregon Trail seem to make an effort to move beyond explicit stereotypes, the game nevertheless perpetuates a racist narrative that privileges the ethos of white settlement through its refusal to engage directly with the genocidal consequences of westward expansion.” Had The Oregon Trail done a better job of conveying the details of what settlement and settlers did to Indigenous Peoples, it probably wouldn’t have ended up in schools in the first place. Part of the game’s reach was its appeal to a settler-colonial curriculum. While some of this is speculation, it is clear The Oregon Trail is not a particularly accurate or nuanced historical document, and yet the game became the poster child for educational games and continues to resonate with players. It has also become synonymous with a generation.
The Oregon Trail Generation
The concept of ‘The Oregon Trail Generation’ is a challenging one. The term refers to people who were born between 1977 and 1985, also labeled as ‘Xennials,’ a ‘micro-generation’ between Generation X and Millennials.’ This ‘micro-generation’ is so named because they grew up as computers were passing into the mainstream, particularly through the presence of homeroom computers or computer labs in schools that were often bundled with copies of The Oregon Trail. In practice, ‘The Oregon Trail Generation’ is a bit troubling as a label because the association with age, technological emergence, access, and aptitude doesn’t reflect how technology made its way into homes and schools from 1970 through to the 2000s. There were plenty of people from Generation X who developed technical competencies with the technology (and many who in fact designed the technology in the first place), and there were also many homes and schools that weren’t equipped to effectively expose students to these technologies until well into the Millennial generation.
While the temporal parameters of The Oregon Trail Generation don’t really work, the term does point to students who grew up with educational games in the classroom as having a different experience than what came before. It is more accurate to think of the ‘The Oregon Trail Generation’ as a group that is parallel to Xennials but not limited to the same temporal boundaries. They should primarily be defined as the students or even independent Generation X learners who had regular exposure to educational games in the classroom or in their personal lives. In this sense we’re referring more to people who grew up accustomed to educational games as a part of the overall process of engaging with the world, of which The Oregon Trail was a fundamental part for many learners, although it was far from the only game in this genre to make a lasting impact.
What was it about The Oregon Trail and other popular educational games like The Carmen Sandiego series (Broderbund, 1985), or for my classmates and I, Cross Country Canada (Ingenuity Works, 1986), that produced such strong feelings and positive memories about these kinds of games? When I was growing up it was not uncommon to rush to the one computer in the back of the classroom to play Cross Country Canada, another The Oregon Trail-inspired educational game, if we had spare time in class. As young learners we were compelled to play: we were actively anticipating learning geography by playing a game that allowed us to traverse Canada’s highways. It wasn’t just something we were doing because we were in school and it was expected of us, it was part of our days that we looked forward to.
* Driving Canada's Highways in Cross Country Canada, 1986
Going back to The Oregon Trail, why might this be? Does The Oregon Trail represent history well? Not particularly: it retreads familiar tropes of the settling of the American West, including extremely dated representations of Indigenous Peoples - but like many other games branded with the ‘educational games’ label, it also provided a level of attachment to the material that can’t be overlooked. The cultural legacy of this game, despite its reputation for producing challenge, misery, and digital dysentery, is one of pop culture presence and fond remembrance among those who played it. This is partly because The Oregon Trail and its educational game offspring provided a sensory connection to a curriculum-safe rendition of topics that were so often off-putting to students because the delivery mechanisms of dusty chalk and hard-to-read projected acetate sheets simply did not work for all kinds of learners. Traditional modes of teaching can produce a familiar experience despite what subject was being taught, and for many students they weren’t as compelling as naming our family and sending them to their untimely end on the long trail west. The Oregon Trail stands out because at the time it was central to a new way of learning - a break in the routine - that added color, drama, and choice to an often rote learning routine.
So why haven’t educational games reached the same heights culturally since The Oregon Trail? Well for one, the technology of some classrooms has increased substantially, and the classroom PC isn’t as novel a teaching tool as it once was. What’s more, at the time of The Oregon Trail’s rise, far fewer people were playing games or had games in their home, so educational games had far less competition from mainstream games and were more impressive as an experience. As time passed the kinds of educational games that school boards purchased were severely outclassed aesthetically and in playability by the games young people had at home. In some cases we were left playing games from the early 1990s in classrooms in the early 2000s. Other educational games did leave a mark on students but they weren’t first, nor were they implemented at the same time as a large-scale technological advancement in education across the United States with the introduction of the Apple II.
The Oregon Trail was the right game at the right time, but it also resonated with those who played it. It has become emblematic of the many educational games that came after, as the aesthetic and design choices became prominent across other games. It is not a perfect historical document, but as a learning tool it drew students in to play the game and engage at least a little with the subject, and there is no doubt that culturally we have held onto fond memories of the experience. Much like the game’s limit on one hundred pounds of bear meat, as learners and players we could only carry a small piece of what the game provided for us, and in this case a substantial portion of what we carried were memes about dysentery. But that doesn’t mean that The Oregon Trail didn’t succeed as an educational game. Games like The Oregon Trail are just one component of our educational journey that build our interest in particular topics or allow us to explore subjects in ways other media cannot. But all the elements of our learning: our teachers, our books, our study habits, are what get us even further down our own perilous trails.