Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

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

By Jessica Lussenhop

published: January 19, 2011

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."

Oregon Trail: A Visual History [click to read]