Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

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

"It was a fun environment," he remembers. "We were young kids and very idealistic."

With a six-color monitor now available, the hunting game gained a single deer that blipped across the screen. Colorful images of historical sites popped up on the screen when players reached landmarks like Chimney Rock or Fort Hall. Historically accurate music—albeit played in a slightly discordant set of beeps—was added.

By 1982, teachers all over the country were calling MECC to ask how to erase curse words from their students' tombstones.

  

THE '80S AND EARLY '90s were a golden era for both MECC and Oregon Trail. Under the mission statement "for the love of learning," the business continued to attract passionate young people from education backgrounds to come work for the MECC. Along with Oregon Trail, several other major successes were born, including Number Munchers, Word Munchers, Lemonade Stand, and Odell Lake.

In the early '90s, an American studies Ph.D. named Wayne Studer was tapped for a sweeping revision of Oregon Trail for CD-rom.

"My job was to be the lead designer and history expert," he says. "I lived, slept, and breathed Oregon Trail for about two years."

With a team of programmers and artists to back him up, Studer's research added two new possible routes to the Willamette Valley—including a way through Donner pass—a more challenging steering game down the Dalles River, and an elaborate point-and-shoot hunting game. It was MECC's first $1 million project, and in the first week of its release in 1995 it immediately made back its investment.

The early '90s also saw huge shifts in the videogame business. The industry was becoming increasingly competitive, with a shift from the classroom to the home PC. MECC, LaFrenz reasoned, had to take its games to the retail marketplace. And, he told Minnesota legislators, it was time for the state to cut MECC loose and let it be a private company. If MECC couldn't court potential customers by picking up a dinner check, it would never survive in the increasingly competitive market.

Lawmakers found the argument convincing. In 1991, the state of Minnesota sold MECC to a group of venture capitalists for $5.25 million.

Private ownership brought a perceptible shift toward capitalism. While the idealistic programmers pushed back on the idea that they should now consider the bottom line along with educational value, LaFrenz pushed his own slogan: "No margin, no mission."

Still, everyone was making more money, and with the release of Oregon Trail II, MECC had never been more successful. The whole operation moved into four separate floors of a swank corporate building in Brooklyn Park.

In 1995, the release of Oregon Trail II was celebrated at a huge gala event called the "Trailheads Jamboree" hosted at the Mall of America. For the first time, all three creators were publicly acknowledged as the original inventors of the game, and presented with jean jackets with the words "MECC Trailheads" embroidered across the back.

"I got a jean jacket and a copy of the game instead of owning an island somewhere," jokes Dillenberger.

As a live buffalo named Cody looked on, the three former roommates signed their names to a huge map of the Oregon Trail.

It was billed as the first annual Trailheads event. As fate would have it, it would also be the last.

  

LATER THAT YEAR, Susan Schilling, MECC's talented senior vice president of product development, returned from a secret meeting in California. She had just met with George Lucas, who was trying to lure her away to a position at his own educational software start-up.

Unsure of what to do, she returned to her office and found a pair of plane tickets on her chair.

The next day in Chicago, LaFrenz introduced her to Kevin O'Leary. O'Leary was the founder of an ambitious educational software company called SoftKey. Though SoftKey wasn't terribly big, it did have powerful investors backing it up. O'Leary told LaFrenz and Schilling that he was interested in acquiring MECC.

It was an attractive little company. Since the state had sold it, LaFrenz had taken the company public and its stock had skyrocketed from $12 a share to $25 in just a two years. O'Leary and his partners wanted in on what had become a billion-dollar industry.

"He had an interest in earning money," says Schilling. "I'm not sure he had a desire to help children learn."

Schilling returned to Minnesota and promptly took Lucas's offer.

Meanwhile, LaFrenz felt backed against a wall. SoftKey was clearly angling to buy up the industry, which was already consolidating. The three educational software giants—the Learning Company, Brøderbund, and MECC—were all being approached by SoftKey.

"They don't care whether you're talking about kids' software or toilet paper," says LaFrenz. "All they look at is the financials."

Concerned about a hostile takeover, MECC's board decided to sell. They agreed to a $370 million stock swap. But both Brøderbund and the Learning Company resisted. SoftKey took control in a hostile stock buy-up.

For MECC employees, the job quickly got corporate. Soon after the merger, people started to lose their jobs. The new owners chucked the MECC name in favor of the Learning Company. Then games started getting canceled. The new management was no longer interested in titles that couldn't return Oregon Trail-size profits.

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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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