50 Years of Oregon Trail Games

In 1977, I was playing a game on a teletype at Ansbach American High School which had been written several years before. The game was something called Oregon Trail and the objective was to get to Oregon without dying. Simple enough play, yet difficult to win, if there was any such thing with the game. From where I stood, it was more like the survival of running through the meat grinder.

Most my fellow students who played the game did nothing to dispel this adage and each game ended much in a similar manner. Running out of food, running out of time, freezing to death, killed by disease or some malady that the game threw at them.

A Brief History

It has now been 50 years since three students at Carleton College created the game which single handedly changed the course of computing education and history forever. The game was of course, Oregon Trail. Yes, that computer game, which every child of the past 40 years has played in one form or another.

Whether on a CRT of the 1970s or on a ASR-33 Teletype as the original version was on, Oregon Trail was game that made us all appreciate the hardships faced by the original settlers of the west. It forced us into decision making, history learning, economy of possessions, and of course actual fun and frustration, depending on which side of the game outcome you were on.

Those three men, Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenger were all student teachers who were on a path which would have them graduating from Carleton in 1971. A portion of their teaching degree work was assignments as teachers in local Minneapolis schools. It was during these times that they set out to make their creation come to a fruition and forever change the face of education as we know it today.

While it was Rawitsch who was the history buff and teacher of subject material related to the Oregon Trail, it was Dillenberger who thought it would be a great educational program. Rawitsch had created a board game which was played by rolling dice to determine the aspects of the game. But since it was Dillenberger who initially wanted to convert it to the computer, he and Heinemann, set out to create the very first version of the game.

While many programs today take months or even years in some cases, the initial version of Oregon Trail was written in little more than a couple of weeks as the two intrepid programmers spent that time coding the program and then typing it on an ASR-33 Teletype at Bryant Junior High School in Minneapolis.

The rudimentary program which was produced required the student to make all the decisions within the game such as things like How much to spend on an Oxen Team, To stop and Hunt or to Continue, What size of meals to eat (Poor, Moderate or Eat Well). The decisions at the beginning of the game in purchasing supplies affected the entire play of the game and the secondary decisions once on the trail effected what impact the trip had on the player’s team or family within the program.

One area of the game which has become known by all is the “Type BANG” to shoot when hunting. This was also affected by what choices the player had made back at the beginning of the game as to what kind of shot they were, ranging from 1 being a crack shot all the way to 5 being an absolute beginner. This is the section of the game which would make subsequent versions even bigger in the realm of educational gaming.

For those players who were able to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon, they were rewarded with a bell in the early versions and a full congratulatory letter in later versions of the game. For those who died along the trail, they received a question of notification of next of kin and a statement that they did not make it.

According to Don Rawitsch, the first actual play of the game Oregon Trail occurred on December 3, 1971 as part of the history class he was teaching. The students were assigned time on the teletype in teams with the assignment being to write down their experiences with the game and to survive if possible.

What is most interesting is that this game might never have actually come to have the life span it has had were it not for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a group started by the state and a man who would eventually become Chief Executive Officer of the group, Dale Lafrenz.

Since Don had deleted the game from the computers at the school when he left, it was not available until later in 1974 when Don began working at the MECC. Since the first version created by Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger, there have been many other versions including highly extended versions created on many different computing platforms as well as the version that was eventually created by Philip Bouchard and his team in the 1980’s. David Ahl, the creator of the book 101 Basic Games and Creative Computing Magazine, also created a version of the game that he titled Westward Ho!.

MECC produced more than half a dozen different versions of the game and hobbyists around the globe even more including some on the A.P.P.L.E. PDS Library collection that are noted in Wikipedia. John Cook and J.P. O’Malley are two such hobbyists and their work is available on A.P.P.L.E. Public Domain Software Library Disks 108 and 114.

Then in 1984, the game “The Oregon Trail” was released by MECC as part of their educational collection of software which was intended for schools. This version sold over 80 million copies and is considered to be the one version of the game which is the first complete version of the game. This version of the game was programed by John Krenz, Philip Bouchard and a host of other young people who were hired by MECC to re-create the program.

The Creation of the Trail

The original Oregon Trail has a history which has sometimes been shortened to just a few years for the convenience of teaching the subject. In reality, the Oregon Trail was originally created by Fur trappers beginning in about 1810 or so. Beginning in Independence, Missouri, the trail ran an entire 2000 plus miles to Oregon City, Oregon. Early travel along the trail was usually by Horseback with the first wagons going west somewhere in the 1940s.

The Oregon Trail basically ran at its peak from 1846 until about 1870. After 1870, the west was settled to a good extend so most people traveling after that had help along the way. Other trails also wound up becoming part of the main trail as events drove people to other parts of the country. These included the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail among others.

The later migrants who traveled the trail or who were determined to reach the west coast were much less inconvenienced due to the completion of the transcontinental railroad. But those who continued to travel by wagon train or by horseback, there were enough forts and stations along the way to alleviate even the most fatigued of settler.

The is in start contrast to the early settlers who traveled the early trail. These folks were prone to attacks from the natives, attacks by wild animals or snakes and death due to events such as flash storms, lightning strikes, wagon break downs and even the occasional accident with a wagon running over a person. Many of the children had this occur due to being thrown from the wagons as they traveled the trail.

By the end of the 1860s though, the native Indian attacks had mostly subsided, the transcontinental railroad was the preferred method of travel and the real end of the biggest part of the westward expansion essentially ended in 1870.

Food, Water and Disease

The travelers along the Oregon Trail had to face a myriad of issues in their months long journey across the western United States. Of all of these issues, the one which largely no one could control was death by illness. But as time went by and facilities became built up along the trail, the illnesses which the early settlers suffered also subsided.

Some of the things that led to this change was better food handling, food storage and preparation, personal hygiene, medical practices and the availability of water and the locations of clean water being a known entity.

Water along the trail was at times non-existent which meant that the travelers needed to take water with them to some extent. This storage of water is what led to some of the common diarrhea suffered by the migrants as little was understood at the time about standing water and bacteria. Also, preparation and storage of food along the trail was also problematic. Salt was one of the biggest items which migrants needed in order to store meat for days and weeks at a time. While heavily salted meats has gone by wayside in this day and age, at the time, if something was not freshly cooked, it needed salt to preserve it.

Dried, canned and preserved fruits and vegetables were also a staple with much of this having to be carried from the hoses or purchased from the forts.

Teaching the History

That brings us to 1971. Being a history teacher at a variety of Minneapolis schools through their college assignments for teachers, Don Rawitsch, was looking for a method in which to teach his students the history of the Oregon Trail. He basically created a board game which was played by the students by using a series of cards and dice to determine their fates. This was somewhat rudimentary and was limited in scope as to what could really be learned by the kids.

Being somewhat computer aware, Rawitsch along with math teachers Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, had created what became the very first interactive history program on the computer.

With the children making decisions such as pace, food ration, and other items of the travel along the trail, the computer produced results as to distance traveled, check points reached, illnesses or other malignments faced by the kids and eventually, either their dying metaphorically on the trail, or reaching the promised land in the Willamette Valley, Oregon City.

While the earliest version of the game was produced off of 3 by 5 cards, typed into a computer….er…Teletype, and of course run on the mainframe behind the scenes. The program, not being all that complex or complicated, did present the variable issues the children faced in their travels were right out of the historical journals of the original settlers.

That early version was not only a revolution in computing, but became the standard by which all other educational games would be measured. The games had to teach a concept, had to be entertaining enough to hold the students attention, and had to, most of all, be fun. This was the idea of true Computer Aided Instruction. Let the kids play a game that even they, did not realize was teaching them a history lesson.

From these humble beginnings, the long haired teacher who tried to impress students with his costumes, had unwittingly created the best selling game in the history of computer. “Oregon Trail” was to become the defacto knowledge computing related program for all teachers of the 1980’s and 1990’s. More than 80 million copies of the game sold once MECC created a proper commercial version of the game.

The game in the 1980s progressed through its versions with a variety of improvements. There was a slew of new calamities including disease, famine, starvation, malnutrition, thirst, injury, attacks by bandits and Indians, and even issues such as dying of drowning crossing a river or freezing to death in the mountains. The players characters could also die of some common diseases such as the common cold or dysentery along the trail.

When the Oregon Trail games switched from the textual based games to the commercial grade, the player no longer played as an individual but instead the head of a party of 5 travelers. This party type travel first appeared in the 1984 version of the game with points being awarded for the number of party members who reached Oregon City safely and multiplied by their trade.

As the years progressed, other advances were made in the realm of content and interaction with the characters within the game. Characters had information pertinent to the players actions, paths and some of the choices they made in their route of travel, places they purchased goods along the route and even the method of travel such as that of crossing rivers.

Many of the later versions of the game were done much in the RPG style of game programming with NPC’s becoming part of the game. Wayne Studer was largely responsible for later versions including those on CD-ROM which was a relatively young medium at the time.

The End is Nigh

MECC basically went away thanks to a number of botched buyouts but companies and people who knew nothing about the educational computing industry and by those who were only in it for the money and not for the kids or the schools.

First, it was SoftKey which eventually became The Learning Company. Then it was Mattel and then Houghton Mifflin and then eventually the company merged again to become Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

As to MECC, it was closed in 1999 with only The Oregon Trail remaining in the interest of the parties who bought the company. All of the other titles were basically relegated to the dustbin of history, however, thanks to MECC.co, the original MECC people including Steve Toffee, Ken Brumbaugh, Philip Bouchard, Wayne Studer and the efforts of Bill Martens, Antoine Vignau, Brian Wiser, Alex Lee and others in the Apple II community, they remain, are available to play and all of the documentation has been archived by MECC.co.

For more information about this project, to download the software or manuals, or to play the games, check out https://www.mecc.co.

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About the Author

Bill Martens

A.P.P.L.E. Chairman of the Board and Club president -- Bill worked for the founder, Val J. Golding and A.P.P.L.E. from 1981 to 1982. In 1999, he began archiving the materials which were distributed and sold by A.P.P.L.E.. That project led to the group that remained of A.P.P.L.E. Bill was involved in the financial industry in Tokyo and has over 20 major office infrastructure projects to his name. In March 2001, he retired to write books and to spend more time pursuing personal interests. As the president of the users group, Bill is in charge of distribution of Call-A.P.P.L.E. magazine as well as the organization of this web site. Bill currently resides in Tokyo, Japan and Shelton, Wa splitting time between the places.