Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

It's one of the most popular educational games of all time

Don Rawitsch rolled out a four-foot-long piece of white butcher paper on the living room floor of his Crystal apartment. He glanced at an open map of the United States frontier from the 1800s. Then he traced a squiggly line from the right side of the paper to the left.

By the time his roommates Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger returned home, the line had become a series of squares leading across a map of the western U.S. Rawitsch was scratching out words on a stack of cards. "Broken wagon wheel," said one. "Snakebite," said another.

Heinemann, Rawitsch, and Dillenberger were student teachers finishing their degrees at Carleton College and living together in the sparsely furnished apartment. Dillenberger and Heinemann taught math in south Minneapolis, and Rawitsch taught American history in north Minneapolis. At home, the three shared teaching strategies over communal dinners of varying success—Dillenberger had only recently taught Rawitsch how to scramble eggs.

It had been a difficult semester. In their previous assignment, they'd taught for eight weeks in an affluent suburban high school. In the fall, they were transferred to schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. The lush athletic fields were replaced by asphalt. Resources were scarce and students were unimpressed by the three white college geeks from the suburbs.

Rawitsch, a lanky, bespectacled 21-year-old with hair well over his ears, was both a perfectionist and an idealist. He started dressing as historical figures in an attempt to win over his students, appearing in the classroom as explorer Meriwether Lewis.

By now he'd made it through to the western expansion unit, and he had in mind his boldest idea yet.

What he had so far was a board game tracing a path from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The students would pretend to be pioneer families. Each player would start with a certain amount of money and buy oxen, clothes, and food. Students would advance with the roll of a die, along the way encountering various misfortunes: broken limbs, thieves, disease. In roughly 12 turns, the kids would simulate the 2,000-mile journey that thousands of pioneers made to the West Coast in the 19th century.

He called it "Oregon Trail."

  

FORTY YEARS AND TEN iterations later, the Oregon Trail has sold over 65 million copies worldwide, becoming the most widely distributed educational game of all time. Market research done in 2006 found that almost 45 percent of parents with young children knew Oregon Trail, despite the fact that it largely disappeared from the market in the late '90s.

A recent frenzy of nostalgia over the game has yielded everything from popular T-shirts ("You have died of dysentery") to band tour promotions ("Fall Out Boy Trail") to humorous references on popular websites ("Digg has broken an axle").

"It's hard to think of another game that endured for so long and yet has still been so successful," says Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong. "For generations of computer users, it was their introduction to gaming, and to computer use itself."

After passing through a few different hands, the brand is now owned by the Learning Company, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In 2008, an iPhone app based on the game was created. It has been downloaded about 2.9 million times.

And now the world's most popular educational game is coming to the world's most popular social network. Learning Company president Tony Bordon recently announced that a Facebook game based on Oregon Trail will debut in early February. He's also received inquiries from movie and television show producers.

"This has a very sticky nostalgia to it," he says. "We'll continue to leverage the popularity of the brand going forward."

  

HEINEMANN PEERED OVER him through his glasses.

"That," he said, "would be a perfect application for a computer program."

Or maybe Dillenberger said it. Perhaps it was Rawitsch. That night in the apartment took place in 1971, and today, none of the three is quite sure who said it (though Heinemann is pretty convinced it was him).

Whoever did had no idea that the three of them were about to invent the most successful educational video game in history.

Dillenberger and Heinemann had each taken a few computer-programming classes at Carleton, and began volleying ideas back and forth for how to digitize the board game. Instead of rolling dice, players could select one of three speeds for their ox to travel at. Instead of drawing cards, the program would select misfortunes—a lost ox, an ambush, a deathly illness. A couple of simple formulas dictated the weather based on the time of year.

"Well, that sounds great," said Rawitsch. "But I need it by next Friday."

Dillenberger and Heinemann looked at each other.

"Yeah," said Heinemann hesitantly. "We can do that."

For the next two weeks, Dillenberger and Heinemann spent each night wedged into a tiny computer office—a former janitor's closet at Bryant Junior High School—tapping code into a teletype machine. The teletype was a screen-less, electromechanical typewriter connected via telephone to a mainframe computer that could issue prompts, receive commands, and run primitive programs.

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