Wednesday, January 18, 2017

History of Oregon Trail: The Game

Over the weekend, I caught a rather nasty stomach bug and as I lay miserable in bed, atop a trash bag for safety sake, my thoughts turned to that classic phrase:

Now, I know as well as anyone that inspiration can strike in the strangest of places and this was no exception. I decided, were I to survive, that I would write up a small history of the great game of westward expansion known as Oregon Trail! It was a staple game for kids in the 80's, not only because it was educational and seemingly every public school provided access to it, but also because computer games were still in their infancy and any game one could get their hands on was better than no game at all. Trust me, there were only so many times you could play Pac-man and Galaga, or that god-awful Spider-man game on Atari.

I would be remiss if I didn't cover the history behind the actual Oregon Trail, seeing as I'm a history major and all, so without further ado here's a little bit of knowledge for ya:

The Oregon Trail was a wagon-wheel trail used by migrants heading out from Missouri Territory west towards Oregon Territory. The length of the trail was some 2,170 miles and spawned several other trails heading towards modern day Utah, Montana, and California. It began as a fur-trapper trail around 1811, expanded into a wagon trail in 1836, and was the main highway for over 400,000 settlers into the west. While there is no way of knowing for sure, it is estimated that between 9,500 and 21,000 people died on the Oregon Trail, as many as 12,000 from disease alone. Because of the Oregon Trail, westward expansion towards the Pacific Ocean swelled in the 1800's, laying the ground for several mid-western and west coast states and was an icon of the Wild West.
Of course, without said historical landmark the video game of the same name would not exist. The game was originally conceived in 1971 by Don Rawitsh, who created the game while he was an 8th grade history teacher in Minnesota. With the help of two friends, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, Rawitsh wrote the program on one of the original forms of BASIC and presented the game to his class on December 3, 1971. It was an instant hit and he made it accessible to everyone on the state's public school time-share service for other teachers and students to use.

In 1974, Rawitsh was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), where he rebuilt the game and added choice based events similar to actual historical narratives from those pioneers who traveled along the real Oregon Trail. The newer version of Oregon Trail was uploaded back on to the servers and became one of MECC's most popular programs. Several editions would follow, there are 15 in all, with the latest version being released in 2012 for Windows smart phones.

I really dug this game when I was little, and apparently so did millions of others since it has become part of our popular culture lore. I would often get out of regular class with a pass to the library to play Oregon Trail on the computers we had. You could travel along the trail, buy supplies, ford rivers, hunt for mean in a sometimes difficult mini game, and also die. A lot. I don't have many recollections of successful arrival to the Oregon territory. Most of my memories of Oregon Trail involve dying of dysentery, Indian attacks, and plain ol' starvation because shooting animals in the mini game seemed more luck based than skill. All in all, it was still something from my childhood I cherish greatly. If you want to play the game again and remember the days of yore, you can click here for the 1990's DOS version.

Happy Trails!

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