By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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.
With no monitor, the original version of Oregon Trail was played by answering prompts that printed out on a roll of paper. At 10 characters per second, the teletype spat out, "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" or, "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses, then the program chugged through a few basic formulas and spat out the next prompt along with a status update.
"Bad illness—medicine used," it might say. "Do you want to (1) hunt or (2) continue?"
Hunting required the greatest stretch of the user's imagination. Instead of a point-and-shoot game, the teletype wrote back, "Type BANG."
If the user typed it in accurately and quickly enough, the hunter bagged his quarry.
"Nice shot!" the program answered. "Right through the neck—Feast tonight!!!"
Once the players reached the Willamette Valley, Heinemann programmed a little bell inside the teletype to ring.
"I tried to be as clever as I could with the technology," he says.
In the scramble to finish coding in time, no one stopped to realize that they'd just invented one of the first simulation computer games.
Oregon Trail was played for the first time in Rawitsch's history class on December 3, 1971. He wheeled the school's machine into the classroom and turned it on as the class watched curiously. He divided them into teams and handed out paper maps to follow along.
There were a few obvious problems right away. With only one teletype, each group had to wait up to half an hour for its turn.
It didn't take long for the kids to poke holes in the hastily assembled code. They could enter negative amounts of money and actually add to their coffers. Sometimes they were told the date was October 0, 1848.
Eventually other teachers would protest that the mention of "Indians" wasn't politically correct.
But on the first day, none of that mattered to Rawitsch.
"They loved it," he remembers. "The person who was good at the map kept track of where they were, the person who was good at math kept track of the money. They formed a little collaborative."
Depending on the students' choices, each game came out a little differently. And though few made it to the end alive, rather than quit, the kids wanted to try again.
The trio of student teachers loaded the program onto the schools' so-called "timesharing" system, a library of programs that were accessible from teletypes within the Minneapolis school district. Dillenberger started letting his math students at Bryant try it, and soon kids were lined up six or seven deep outside the janitor's closet. They began arriving early to play and staying until teachers kicked them out.
"We knew there was something special about it," says Dillenberger.
When the semester ended, however, Rawitsch went in and deleted the program. Oregon Trail went dark. He printed out the code—hundreds and hundreds of lines of it on a long roll of yellow computer paper—rolled it up, and took it home.
It would be years before any student traveled the Oregon Trail again.
"I really didn't have an idea of how something more could be done with it."
BEFORE DON RAWITSCH had even arrived at Carleton, Dale LaFrenz was planning the infrastructure that would eventually make Oregon Trail a household name.
In the 1960s, Minnesota was a Midwestern Silicon Valley. Several early computer companies set up shop here—IBM, UNIVAC, Honeywell, and Control Data Corporation. In the days before computer stores, Minnesota had ample access to hardware manufacturers.
LaFrenz, a math teacher at a high school that was run by the University of Minnesota, thought that computers belonged in classrooms. He remembers it as a surprisingly easy sell.
"We had a tremendous amount of computer-literate people working in the industry," he remembers. "Everyone on the school boards knew it was the right thing to do. We were gung-ho computers."
LaFrenz and a handful of other educators helped found a body called Total Information for Education Systems. Through TIES, and with federal grant money, schools in 20 districts were able to purchase a teletype.
While TIES was flourishing, grumblings of discontent echoed from outside the metro area.
"We had an out-state-dominated Legislature," says LaFrenz. "They said, 'You guys in the metro area are hogging it.'"
Under that legislative pressure and in a time when the state was flush with cash, a statewide body called the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium was conceptualized.
"It is proposed that MECC provide computing facilities and support staff to serve the needs defined by education, and available equally to all students and educational institutions in Minnesota on a real cost basis," reads the original proposal.
MECC was born in 1973. It included representatives from every level of education and included 435 school districts.
While MECC was still in its formative stages, LaFrenz received a call from an old friend—a mathematics professor at Carleton.
"You got any job you could give to a conscientious objector?" the professor asked.
LaFrenz agreed to meet the young man. His name was Don Rawitsch.
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.
"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.
"It lost the focus of, 'We're going to create good things for kids,'" says Studer. "The focus became, 'Is this going to make money?'"
Wave after wave of layoffs shrank the Minnesota offices until it was announced they'd be shuttered entirely in 1999. Tom Boe was one of the last to go, since he and a team of about 70 had been put in charge of the final version of Oregon Trail to come out of Minnesota—the fourth edition. As colleagues around them boxed up their belongings and disappeared, Boe's team pushed to develop the game's more realistic look and its 3-D video content, and add a fishing and plant-gathering game.
Although excitement over the game buoyed some spirits, the end of the week took on a grim ritual.
"Friday at 4, we had a little party. There'd be tequila," says Boe. "The building felt pretty empty and a lot of our friends were gone."
Once the game had shipped, project leader Mike Palmquist was the last one out. After carrying stacks of Oregon Trail manuals, CDs, and other paraphernalia to his car, he personally shut off the lights and locked the doors.
"It's like when you move out of a house," he says. "You seal the rooms and you have all these memories, but there's nothing there."
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT became an infamous historical footnote in corporate catastrophe.
The Learning Company was acquired by Mattel and its glamorous CEO Jill Barad for $3.5 billion. Mattel wanted to do Barbie on the Oregon Trail and other spin-offs. But almost instantly, it was clear a mistake had been made.
The Learning Company owned all of the most successful titles in children's educational software—Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Reader Rabbit—but had shed many of its most talented programmers.
"They created a nice balance sheet," says Boe. "In reality they ended up with boxes of aging software."
Some estimates put Mattel's losses at $1 million a day after the acquisition. Barad was ousted, and the shareholders sued and ultimately won a $122 million settlement, one of the largest investor victories in U.S. history.
O'Leary also left his board position at Mattel in the midst of the chaos. His bio at his current gig on the ABC entrepreneurial reality show Shark Tank touts the Mattel deal but neglects to mention that it is considered one of the biggest failures in corporate history.
After a fifth and final installment came out in 2001—a version with cartoon characters that former MECC programmers characterize as "ghastly"—the Oregon Trail went cold.
THE DEMISE OF MECC was not the end of its employees' lives. Several went on to illustrious and profitable careers in tech, although the rise of the internet put the final nail in the educational software industry's coffin. Many of the Oregon Trail programmers still live in the Twin Cities area, and keep in touch through an MECC employee listserv.
Two of the three creators still live here. Heinemann is now retired after working for decades as a computer programmer, though he fills up most of his free time teaching math and chess lessons at local schools. Dillenberger is entering his second retirement this year, from teaching math at St. Louis Park Junior High. Rawitsch lives in Chicago with his family and is an independent tech consultant.
Other than Rawitsch's salary while he was at MECC, none of the three saw a dime of the millions of dollars that Oregon Trail made over the years.
"And then your next question is, 'Does that bother you?'" says Rawitsch wryly. "I think the three of us would answer in unison, 'No.'"
Last year, Rawitsch went to visit his son, a student at Tufts. When word got out that one of the inventors of Oregon Trail was coming, a Facebook fan club at nearby MIT beseeched Rawitsch to give a talk. He obliged.
Afterward, the family went out to eat. When the waiter, a man in his 20s, asked casually what brought him to Boston, Rawitsch replied that he'd just given a presentation on the invention of Oregon Trail.
The waiter's eyes widened. Wordlessly, he slipped back into the kitchen.
When he returned, he told Rawitsch, "Well, I told the other waiters I'm serving the inventor of Oregon Trail. I'm now the king of the restaurant."
As he tells the story from his office in Chicago, Rawitsch can't help but laugh at what a long, strange trip the Oregon Trail has been.
"It was just a coincidence that three guys lived together, two were using the computer, and one was teaching about the westward expansion," he says. "It's been pretty amazing."
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
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!
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).