Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

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

SINCE HIS GRADUATION, life had not exactly gone the way Rawitsch had planned.

"What I wanted to do was become a teacher," he says. "There was an obstacle to that: the war in Vietnam."

While both Dillenberger and Heinemann had scored full-time teaching jobs, Rawitsch's number had come up in the draft lottery. He had always been opposed to the war and put in an application to be exempted as a conscientious objector. He was excused from the draft, but had to do two years of alternative service—something that was deemed a benefit to the country.

"That did not include teaching, for reasons that have long eluded me," Rawitsch says.

Through the Carleton professor, Rawitsch was introduced to LaFrenz.

"He was bright, energetic, smart," says LaFrenz. "He was a nerd before the word was around."

When MECC formed, LaFrenz was offered a leadership position in instructional computing. He hired Rawitsch as a liaison between MECC and a group of community colleges. It involved a lot of paper pushing, but Rawitsch was instantly captivated with the idea behind MECC.

"We were doing something new," he says. "We had a mission, which was to improve educational opportunities for children."

Much like the TIES timesharing system, MECC was building a library of software, everything from primitive math programs for grade schoolers to grading applications for teachers. The company was made up mostly of people like Rawitsch—idealistic twenty- and thirtysomethings who'd been lured from the classroom. They were encouraged to suggest ideas for potential programs.

That's when Rawitsch remembered Oregon Trail, three years after he'd put it in a drawer.

"I asked the people there whether we were looking for new programs to put in the library," he remembers. "People said, 'Yeah, of course, we don't have enough.'"

With Heinemann and Dillenberger's blessing, he dug out the old roll of code, and over a long Thanksgiving weekend in 1974, carefully typed each line into a teletype.

Rawitsch added more historically accurate features along the way. He pored through actual settlers' journals and tallied how often someone died or became sick, how often they came across helpful Native Americans or ran out of water. He took those percentages and built them into the game's probabilities, so that players experience each situation just about as often as the real settlers did.

Just as in Rawitsch's classroom years earlier, the kids who played Oregon Trail were instantly captivated. But now, the game was available to students statewide.

"It was accessed thousands of times a month," says Rawitsch. "The only other program on the large system that was used more was an early email type of thing."

  

IN 1978, MECC OPENED up the bidding process for a new kind of computer to distribute in its schools. Huge multimillion-dollar mainframes the size of rooms and teletypes were being replaced by compact units with screens. MECC was looking for the right microcomputer to put in its schools. Bids from the biggest computer companies came in.

On the final day, just minutes before the bidding was set to close, a husky courier screeched up to the office in St. Paul and ran to the front desk with a hand-scrawled bid. He slapped it down with just seconds to spare.

The handwriting extolled the virtues of something called the Apple II. The letter was sent by two no-names in their twenties—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

But the machine met MECC's specs and price, and the market-dominating Radio Shack lost out over bungled paperwork. Soon 500 Apple IIs were heading for Minnesota. The deal was one of Apple's biggest early successes, and helped launch the longtime marriage between the Apple computer and the classroom.

The Apple II's software came on diskettes, an innovation that would put Oregon Trail into the hands of an entire generation.

Schools all over the country noticed MECC's impressive collection of software. MECC had hundreds of titles for every imaginable educational purpose and offered them in catalogues. While Minnesota schools got the programs for free, out-of-state schools paid 10 to 20 dollars for each program.

Tom Boe, a regional coordinator for MECC, remembers director of instructional services Ken Brumbaugh wandering into his office one day in 1980.

"The state of Iowa just called up," Brumbaugh told him.

The Iowa Department of Education wanted to know if it could pay a flat rate for unlimited access to MECC's software, to use in its classrooms.

"Let's ask them for $100,000," Boe said, only half joking.

As if by accident, they created the MECC licensing membership program. For a flat fee, MECC would ship a binder full of the latest software titles along with permission to make as many copies as the member would like.

The club exploded—almost 5,000 school districts, about a third of all districts in the country, joined. There were member institutions in 16 foreign countries, including Japan and France. As profits surged into the millions, the state stopped contributing funds to MECC because it had become completely self-sustaining.

"That was my baby," says Brumbaugh.

Oregon Trail grew right along with the company, and when it came time to revise the game, nearly every MECC employee played some small role in its development. When John Krenz was hired as a programmer, one of his first tasks was to reprogram Oregon Trail along with a legion of awkward but excited 17-year-olds recruited from the local high schools. In between programming sessions, employees dove in and out of cubicles shooting one another with Nerf guns.

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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!!

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).

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.

 
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