Confronting the Past

Oregon Trail III
The Learning Company


One of the best things ever to happen to history was the CD-ROM. Ready to turn from a book into a movie into a radio tape or a film strip, this shiny flat container has already revolutionized the way in which kids can confront the past.

Oregon Trail 3rd Edition: Pioneer Adventures is the latest and most elaborate spin-off of one of the first, truly popular learning games, and this three-disk set gets even closer to a movie-like, first-person experience, while retaining the virtues of its predecessors. Parents who played it long ago in the school office will know that Oregon Trail combines history, decision-making, math (especially estimation), problem-solving, and a host of lesser skills in a storytelling challenge. Players start in Independence, Missouri in 1848, where they choose traveling partners for a wagon train, and buy provisions. The trip soon kicks in, and thanks to some versatile simulation software no one trip is ever like another--accidents, illness, and chance encounters can change, delay, or even end the trek.

Many, many programs have followed in Oregon Trail's deep ruts, but that doesn't mean this originator or its general concept are in a symbolic rut. What the new program offers is a wider set of adventures (try fishing, or plant-gathering), a smoother look, and, once again, a hint of what could be down the road. It's a wonderful game to play, as always, but with each new version's improvements the player can sense that things could be even better. Now that the photo-based characters move more naturally, maybe they could be more unpredictable. Now that the settings seem so lifelike, maybe they could exist in 360 degrees. A kid/parent can dream, of course.

Bracketing this literal pioneer of learning/playing software are two low-tech traditions, the workbook (or textbook) and the historical theme park or outdoor museum. Most such programs are somewhere between the single-medium flatness of a book, and the richer, more intuitive experience of a living-history site (such as Fort Snelling). The only problem for current computer families is that while some programs are using current technology to its full advantage, that technology--ideally, 233-plus megahertz computing speed, and other bells and whistles--still costs more than a short vacation. And the DVD-ROM, a storage disk that could quadruple (at least) the capacity of the CD-ROM, isn't quite established yet.

Let's Pretend: The Past is Our Playground (Mind Magic Software) looks more like a workbook and it appeals to the three-and-up beginner crowd. Whether kids this age need to or want to comprehend "past" and "century" as we adults so neatly define them is questionable, but the disk takes the simple route as it presents a dozen single screens set in various eras, where a player can click on many items and learn a few (very few) facts in the process. This is shorthand, whimsical history: starting in an attic filled with objects, the player ends up at a kind of museum gallery or street corner where totems from the era in question are at hand. A little firefly host will explain some things, but not very many.

A different approach is available free from the Smithsonian Institution at its new online-only exhibition, Revealing Things ( Focusing on pop-culture objects (an old TV, a kid's chemistry set) and sporting a novel web-like interface (as opposed to the more linear menus), this exhibit takes lessons from the living-history parks and personalizes the past while remaining intuitive and free-associational. Much as we might feel on the parade ground at Fort Snelling, at the "start" of this site we can jump around quite freely, and once we examine something more closely its meaning is personalized by an actual owner. We realize that an object can tell a story.

If your computer is souped-up enough, visit this Smithsonian site. If your kids like time traveling, consider another program such as one from The Journeyman Project series (three installments strong already) or a fascinating French project (for older players) called Versailles 1685. Such games, like Oregon Trail or Revealing Things, recognize the joy of fiddling around in or with history, and then accidentally-on-purpose learning something big about it.

Phil Anderson contributes regular media reviews to Minnesota Parent and other local publications.

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