Tales from the Oregon Trail

I just read this article about teachers selecting technology tools for their classrooms for the right reasons, and it really resonated with me–not just because I agree, but because I had the same experiences as a very young Oregon Trail user. I highly recommend that you read the article, because it says thoughtfully and succinctly what I feel on this issue. Meanwhile, here’s my own riff on the subject.

I fell in love with Oregon Trail when I was still a little kid living in northern Indiana. When I was seven or eight years old, we took a trip to Indianapolis to the Children’s Museum (which apparently got on the internet bandwagon early and has the domain http://www.childrensmuseum.org. Nice get, Indianapolis.). One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of the Water Clock in the lobby. It was new at the time–they acquired it in 1989, according to their website–and it was a huge hit. While the water clock is actually pretty big, it seemed like it was 600 feet tall to my second grade self. I was fascinated by its movement, its color, and its function. How the heck could water help us tell time?

As I wound up the stairs, I found something else: a room full of Apple II computers loaded with an amazing game: Oregon Trail. As I sat down at the computer, I was faced with a straightforward task: manage scarce resources to get your characters from Missouri to Oregon.

This game amazed me. There were graphics (impressive for the time), there were sounds (the report of the rifle as I missed squirrels!), and there were so many things that I could do to impact the game play. I could adjust my party’s rations (from bare-bones to generous,); I could adjust the speed of our trek (from slow to grueling). I could go hunting and shoot buffalo but be disappointed when I could only carry back 200 pounds of meat to my wagon. I could trade for supplies or shop at the store at forts along the way. I could pay money to take the ferry, caulk my wagon and float it across the river, or I could take my chances and try to walk across the river with my oxen dubiously leading the way. I was a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder devotée and was generally obsessed with historical fiction, and this was my opportunity to play out another pioneer story over and over again with a magical new toy.

My obsession with Oregon Trail continued through my middle school years. Once I moved to Texas, my friend Caroline and I played endless hours of Oregon Trail on the Mac at my house and on the PC at hers. We spent a lot of time riding bikes and building forts on the the island in her cul-de-sac that we decided was an island forest, but when it was raining or too unbearably hot, we decamped to the computers for a few hours of Oregon Trail.

I would love to tell you that I learned something from all of this–that my many hours traveling west from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River taught me deep insights about the pioneer experience.  I would love to tell you that I gained deep insights about personal finance or resource allocation from my careful trips to the general stores at outposts along the trail. I would love to tell you, after having probably hundreds of passengers in my various wagon parties die of dysentery and cholera, that my childhood self had a highly nuanced idea of what these diseases were and was inspired to cure them.

Right. Not so much. Unfortunately, here are the things from Oregon Trail that have stayed with me:

  • Different professions have different rewards. People who pick “Lawyer” to start the game get the most money for stocking up on supplies, and people who pick “Teacher” get the least. At the end of the game (if you manage to dodge the rocks in the river and don’t drown or die of dehydration first), you get a numerical score based on how many people and how much stuff you ended the journey with. Teachers get the highest bonus at the end of the journey and lawyers get the least. While I’d love to think this is some kind of karmic rewards (“Yes, they don’t have as much money, but they deserved to reach Oregon so much more”), it mostly just taught me how to beat the game more strategically. Also made me cynical about education salaries from an early age.
  • I might be a terrible person. If you turn up the speed to “grueling” and the rations down to “Bare Bones,” you can successfully kill off your entire wagon party by the Green River Crossing, just 30 miles into the trip. I’m not saying you should do this; I’m saying that you can. And that it is ridiculous.
  • PC beat Mac. Just this once. As a lifelong Mac fan, I regret to report that the mid-1990s PC version of Oregon Trail was superior to the Mac version. In both versions, you could give your wagon party hilarious names that would prompt uproarious status updates like, “Ants In Her Pants was bitten by a snake.” The PC version was superior because it allowed you to leave headstones along the trail when your passengers died, so subsequent journeys would offer you an encounter with headstones like “Here Lies Crazy Eyes. Tried to Ford the River. Didn’t Work.”
  • I might be a terrible person, tee shirt edition. I bought a shirt that has a picture of a Conestoga wagon and says “You Have Died of Dysentery.” To people of a certain age who have played this game, this is hilarious. To everyone else, it’s appallingly insensitive to the millions of people who live without clean water.
  • If you can believe it, Facebook was once even more useless. In the early days of Facebook, Groups didn’t have as much of a discussion capability and were used more as forms of expression. You joined a group to show that it was a thing you liked or a sentiment you shared with others. One of the earliest and most popular groups (of which I was a proud member) was “I Tried To Ford the River and My [Redacted] Oxen Died.”
  • Fictional and historical content aren’t delineated especially well in this game. This game is so disconnected from real things that I didn’t know the Dalles was a real thing until I visited Oregon for the first time. I probably could have looked it up, but it never occurred to me to do so. Also, this game has nothing else to do with real life anyway.
  • It really would have been helpful if there had been more than repetitive MIDI audio. I played this game about ten thousand times and I never actually heard anyone pronounce the word “Willamette” until I visited Portland like a year ago.  Possibly my own fault, but stunning since the word is all over the place in this game.

When it comes to treasured childhood memories, Oregon Trail is certainly one of mine. But I really don’t think I learned anything by playing it. It’s an “educational game” inasmuch as it’s about a historical event, but I didn’t learn anything from this game other than how to get better at this game.

When it comes to learning deeply, I know that staring up at the water clock is the learning moment from that museum visit that stuck with me more. Oregon Trail made me roll on the floor with laughter when my friend and I managed to leave yet another wacky headstone just inches after the game’s departure point. But the greater legacy from that day at the Children’s Museum was the Water Clock. This glass giant left me with what still animates my love of learning. In my own mind, I’m still my eight-year-old self, staring up in wonder, dwarfed by something mysterious and powerful. Thinking about that still excites me. Thinking about that reminds me how much I love the profession I’m in.

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