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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20 comments
mangostarr
mangostarr

This was such a great article. I needed it for a college project and it answered all my questions

inventions for kids
inventions for kids

Plato was one of the earliest philosophers to provide a detailed discussion of ideas. He considered the concept of idea in the realm of metaphysics and its implications for epistemology

Bradman Jack
Bradman Jack

Excellent article! I loved the article, and I congratulate Jessica Lussenhop on accomplishing such a accomplished job! I hope that the readers of City Pages adore the added data that I have provided!

link wheel creation

Michael Corey
Michael Corey

There is a lesson that many people are missing from this: only programmers are qualified to lead software development teams, departments and companies. And by that, I mean real coders, not a manager who took a programming class one time years ago.

Jen
Jen

This was just great reading. Thanks.

...and I can attest that even around 2001, with all the new tech out there, when my family gave the young kids across the street our old computer and floppy disks they were enthralled as my brother and I were with Oregon and Carmen. That they had free reign with that old machine probably helped, but I also think good educational techniques just have a lasting power. Damn shame when you take profits over people ( of course, it'll often come back to haunt ya)

Philip Bouchard
Philip Bouchard

Excellent article! I am impressed by the research that went into it. You have covered a great deal of the history of The Oregon Trail. However, there is one huge gap in the article. Out of the many iterations of the product, arguably the greatest leap forward was the 1985 Apple II version. This is the version that most people refer to when they say “the Apple II version”. The illustrations in the article are from the 1985 version, not the original 1979 Apple version. Likewise, the link that says “Play the Apple II version online” goes to the 1985 game.

The original 1979 Apple II game, simply called “OREGON”, was a faithful translation of the original timeshare version, without any major augmentation, other than the addition of a few black-and-white outline graphics. There were a few key innovations, such as using the space bar to shoot at deer, rather than typing “BANG”. The game was tiny, just one of several small games that MECC included on disks with names like Social Studies Volume 3 and Elementary Volume 6 – sold only to schools, not consumers. Throughout the early 1980s OREGON was MECC’s most famous product.

By 1984 OREGON has become an embarrassment because it was so technologically outdated. I was asked to lead the design effort to create a completely new version designed primarily for the home market, for release in 1985. One of my first decisions was to expand the game from a 10-minute activity to a 45-minute activity. This required a complete rethinking of the structure and content of the game. I opted for a landmark-based game cycle, where the simulation runs continuously and automatically between two consecutive landmarks, stopping automatically at the next landmark for the player to take action. However, the player can stop between landmarks to hunt, change food rations, or take other critical measures. The 1985 version includes many, many other innovations that were not present in the 1979 game, greatly adding to the cross-gender appeal and re-playability of the game. And of course, the 1985 game includes beautiful color graphics and cute animation – not present in the 1979 version.

Under the hood, one of the key innovations for 1985 was the inclusion of a complex simulation model based on a set of simultaneous difference equations. These equations tracked and linked such key factors as food supply, health, weather, travel progress, river depth, and so on. These factors were intricately intertwined by the mathematical equations. Furthermore, factors such as the weather and the availability of game animals were based on models that incorporate real-world data – while considering the current month in the game and your current geographical location on the trail.

As with all versions of the Oregon Trail, it was the work of a full team, not just a lead designer, that made it happen. In addition to my role as the lead designer, Charolyn Kapplinger was the lead artist, and John Krenz was the lead Applesoft programmer. Bill Way designed the animation. Roger Shimada programmed the hunting game. Shirley Keran provided a great deal of historical research. And several other people also played key roles in the creation of the product.

As a side note, at about the same time that I served as the lead designer on The Oregon Trail, I also designed Number Munchers and Word Munchers, both of which were original concepts, rather than iterations of existing products.

In summary, I loved the article, and I congratulate Jessica Lussenhop on doing such a fine job! I hope that the readers of City Pages enjoy the additional details that I have provided!

- Philip Bouchard

Jonathan Browne
Jonathan Browne

It is quite sad how the corporate profiteering jackasses with no vision truly destroyed educational gaming while also managing to lose their own shirts.

The genre still has not recovered.

Games for Children
Games for Children

Thanks, good article. This article gives very important information .its really amazing article.

Evadman
Evadman

I would have finished the article, but I died of dysentery on page 3 :(

Darren Josephson
Darren Josephson

Jessica Lussenhop, Great Piece!! You obviously went to great depths to research and put together this story. I commend you on the numerous sources you were able to bring into the article. The story was filled with information yet written well enough to keep me hitting the next page button. I am just wondering, from start to finish how long it took you to put together this story? Maybe you could reply back in the comments section? Just curious, thanks.

Again, great work.

m1chaelf
m1chaelf

if wikipedia is right, the anniversary isn't until December 7th

Steve A.
Steve A.

Our son was an early adopter of Oregon Trail, first at his school, Tanglen Elementary in the Hopkins School District, and then at home when we got our first computer. It spurred a real interest in American history, so much so that we ended up taking a family trip along the real Oregon Trail in Nebraska and visiting the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri. I cannot think of any other computer game that had as much impact on our children.

AutumnBanter
AutumnBanter

I am 33 years old and Oregon Trail is one of the strongest memories I have of elementary school. I clearly remember sitting in computer class with my friends, after learning how to use the mouse on the Apple II E and playing Oregon Trail with amazement.

The game is legendary and I know of many adults who for years searched for the original version to play on modern computers. Thank you for this article - it's wonderful to learn about the men responsible for creating our first educational game. I still think it beats out most of today's computer and video games!!

Casey Allen
Casey Allen

Does anybody know if any of the ex-MECC execs started any other edutech companies in the Twin Cities?

Phenomenally well written story, Jessica. Easily one of the best, most well researched pieces I've read in years.

SStaff
SStaff

First of all, I agree with the comment "get rid of the twitter junk, it's just pushing out the real comments."

Great article. A real lesson in how the real world goes. I currently work with Paul Dillenberger and he is a very gifted teacher. He is retiring and I look forward to seeing him (hopefully) subbing at the school next year.

Tom King
Tom King

What a powerful learning tool these pioneers brought to K-12 education!

You can't fool the kids, either. They love real-life, simulation-based learning tools, ones which encourage them to think, collaborate, plan, make decisions, learn from failures, and improve their higher level thinking skills. That's exactly what Oregon Trail provides.

Too bad there isn't more computer-based simulation learning like this, a form of Project-Based Learning. Not for a lack of trying though, as many other pioneers keep pushing for more hands-on, heads-on learning in K-12.

There's another set of lessons to be learned from this hallowed game for all our education critics today: beware the presence of the corporate world in running our schools! All they are concerned about is the financial bottom-line. To paraphrase the words of founder Dale LaFrenz: "They don't care whether you're talking about kids...or toilet paper...All they look at is the financials."

Many of our so-called educational leaders aren't much better. All they care about are standardized test scores, and far too many kids are being left behind, wandering far from the Learning Trail.

Oh
Oh

Good article. Growing up with those 5.25" MECC disks sitting in their pouches at school, I always wondered what happened to them. It's a shame bean counters ruined another good thing. MECC can also take credit for popularizing the "Tycoon" style games with Dinosaur Tycoon. For an educational title, that game was amazing.

side note: get rid of this Twitter junk, it's just pushing out real comments.

Mattack
Mattack

Umm, a //e *can* have a mouse (with an additional mouse card), but I very very strongly suspect you're actually thinking about a joystick. (I think later versions use a joystick for the deer hunting scene).

 
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