The Pet Shop Boys, and to a lesser extent Horace Greeley, once advised us all to GO WEST, and as a general rule I do what the Pet Shop Boys tell me to do. After all, life is peaceful there in the open air. Sadly, I was born roughly a century and half too late to take part in the westward expansion.
Not to fear. In 1971, three student teachers from Carleton College in Minnesota created a game that would allow us all to experience the struggles and joys of pioneer life. The teachers were Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger. The game they created was Oregon, the forerunner to The Oregon Trail.
The idea began as Rawitsch struggled to find engaging ways to teach his students about the westward expansion. His original vision was for a board game, but it quickly transitioned into a video game, which the three created in a janitor’s closet in Bryant Junior High School. They debuted the text-only game to Rawitsch’s class in December of 1971, and shortly after made it available to other Minnesota Public Schools.
America was in the depths of the Cold War, and the United States was regularly giving out grants to help foster innovative teaching techniques. At the same time, Minnesota had turned into a “Midwest Silicon Valley”, with IBM, Honeywell and others working in the state. One result of this was the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, an organization founded in 1973. Rawitsch joined the company and in 1974 they released a reworked version of Oregon. Rawitsch added details gleaned from the journals of actual pioneers, studying things how they died and how they received aid from Natives.
When most people think of the game, they picture the 1985 release. Created for the Apple II, this edition was created by a team consisting of Philip Bouchard as lead designer, John Krenz as lead programmer, Charolyn Kapplinger as lead artist, Shirley Keran assigned to research, and Bob Granvin providing additional programming. This new version of the game had four color graphics, incorporated noted geographic landmarks, route choices, river crossings, family, tombstones (for when you inevitably died), a general store and, perhaps most famously, real diseases. You could now die of dysentery (along with typhoid, cholera, exhaustion, or fever).
Since its humble beginnings in 1971, the game has sold over 65 million copies. Spin-offs and sequels have been created. In 1995, a celebration was thrown at the Mall of America where Rawitsch, Dillenberger, and Heinemann were presented with jean jackets decorated with trail heads (it was the 90s, so jean jackets were de rigueur). A buffalo named Cody also attended the celebration. The title is unquestionably the most popular educational video game of all time, developing into a pop culture icon. T-shirts with “You Have Died of Dysentery” can be purchased and countless memes have been created from the game. It’s probably impossible to quantify how many kids were impacted by the game, being subtly sucked into learning through entertaining and engaging gameplay.
And to think that it began in school janitor’s closet. The story of the game is a journey almost as impressive as the long trek west on The Oregon Trail.