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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