The Forgotten History of 'The Oregon Trail,' As Told By Its Creators
You must always caulk the wagon. Never ford the river.
The Oregon Trail is synonymous with "edutainment"—that beloved genre of games that makes learning fun. The game, a simulation of a 19th century family's westward trek to Oregon, is famous to the point of parody. Every American school student of the past 30 years has fond (traumatic?) memories of oxen dying, wagons catching fire, loved ones drowning in the Green River, and hunters shooting 1,200 pounds of food but only carrying 100 pounds back to the wagon.
Three Minnesotan public school teachers created The Oregon Trail in 1971. At the time, computers were new to education; there were no monitors, and students played the first version of the game on a teletypewriter—an electromechanical typewriter that could communicate, via phone line, with a large, mainframe computer. The game was text-based and paper-based; a student would type out his or her commands on a roll of paper, and the computer would respond by typing back status updates.
Motherboard tracked down all three original creators—Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger—to learn about the humble beginnings of their iconic game. Here is the origin story of The Oregon Trail, in their own words.
Don: We went to school at Carleton College, which is a rural area of Minnesota [40 miles outside of Minneapolis]. In the fall of our senior year in 1971, we had to do our student teaching, where we were assigned to schools to work under supervising teachers and teach their classes. The three of us rented an apartment together in Minneapolis so that we would be close to the schools where we were teaching.
My supervising teacher told me that I would be teaching his eighth grade U.S. History classes about the westward movement, and I thought of ways to make it more interesting than the usual approach. I started experimenting with what a board game might look like, with a massive map of the western United States. It had not occurred to me to put this on a computer, since I had no computer programming experience.
Bill: The computer was a fairly new thing in 1971, and most people were not well acquainted with it. There was only one five-week course in programming at Carleton. I had taken the class when I was a junior, and the next trimester, I was recruited to be a lab assistant to help other students who were taking the course. I was fascinated by the power of the computer to not only calculate, but also to interact with written language. I had been thinking about writing a program to interact with a human through language, but the content of such a program remained a mystery to me.
Paul: I remember coming home from teaching one November afternoon with Bill, and Don had created these various game cards of what could happen to Oregon Trail settlers, along with a map of the Oregon Trail itself.
Bill: "What's this?" I asked Don. He showed me how the game was played. After looking at it, the ideas that I had for an interactive program suddenly became clear.
Paul: Bill turned to me and asked, "Can we put this on the computer?" Since we were both programmers, it seemed like a reasonable thing.
Bill: "This would be a perfect application for a computer," I said. "Instead of shaking dice to determine how far you went, the program could take into consideration how much you spent on your oxen and your wagon and how much of a load you were carrying."
"Well," Don replied, with a tone of resignation, "That sounds great, but I need it next Friday."
Don: My supervising teacher told me I would be teaching the westward movement about three weeks before I had to teach it. I already spent about a week planning out this board game. So we had about two weeks remaining to come up with something new.
Bill: Since I had done a lot of programming in the prior nine months, I was pretty aware of how long it took me to code. I quickly ran through the different tasks that would have to be completed. With the help of Paul, it would go even faster.
"Yes, I think I can have something by next Friday," I said. "Can't we Paul?"
Paul agreed. I'm not sure to this day if Paul knew what he was agreeing to. But I knew it meant staying at the school's computer lab (really a janitor's closet with two student chairs and a teletype) until 6:00 or 9:00 PM, missing a meal or two along the way.
Don: The two of them brought the computer aspect into it. My role was to bring the history into it and suggest the various things that could happen to settlers traveling the trail.
Bill: I think it was a Thursday when I first saw Don's map. From Friday to Sunday, we discussed possibilities. I drew some rough flowcharts and set aside line number ranges for the various parts of the program. If I ran out of lines, I used subroutines to do some of the tasks instead of putting the code in-line. I wrote a lot of code on paper over the weekend.
Don: Back in those days, computers were large mainframe devices. They were housed in secure buildings. And the way you communicated with them was to use a teletype device. Bill and Paul started coding the game at the school where they were working, using the school's teletype, but we also had one or two weekends where they brought the teletype home in the trunk of their car. Bill: Don had ideas on how the board game would work, but when Paul and I decided to computerize it, there we some things that we changed. One of the goals I had was to make the randomness tied to the geography. You were most likely to be attacked in the western plains. Cold weather was more likely to be encountered in the mountains in Wyoming and Oregon. I put all the random events into a table of probabilities so it would be easy to add new events or adjust the probability of things happening.On Monday, Paul and I went to the computer lab after school, and Paul started typing in the code while I continued to code more.
Don: We designed the game so there would be many different options from game to game. Each turn, you might proceed forward. You might stop at a fort. You might go quickly. You might go slowly. You might eat a lot. You might eat a little. Each of those decisions had implications for your resources and how quickly you made your way across the trail.
Bill: Hunting was one of those routines I stubbed in on Monday and created on Tuesday or Wednesday. One of the things that BASIC [an early programming language, which stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code] had built into its language was a variation of the INPUT command, where you could not only accept input, but be notified of the length of time it took to respond.
I thought, "Aha! This is perfect for hunting. I'll tell the students to type "BANG." If the students spelled it wrong or took too long, they got nothing. The faster they typed, the more meat they got and the more positive comment they received. The same sort of thing was used when bandits or wild animals attacked too.
Paul: Bill did most of the main programming, and I wrote subroutines. When the player died, I programmed things like "Do you want a gravestone?" "Do you want a priest?" And I did lots of testing for bugs and corrections when things weren't working quite right.
Bill: Paul added his own brand of humor. And as the week went on, we added more events. I taxed my math background to come up with equations to simulate the probability of attacks or cold weather based on the mileage. And since there were no date routines built into the BASIC language, I had to write my own.
THE TEST RUN
Paul: We tested the game with our students before Don took it to where he taught.The reaction of our students was pretty amazing. This teletype was in a closet, and kids would gather around to watch what was typed out on the paper. They would come in early to school, and they would stay late to play the game.
Bill: I remember watching 7th and 8th grade kids improve in reading. Their "lives" depended on it.
The reaction of the faculty at the school was not so positive. I heard from Paul that we needed to eliminate any negative references to Native Americans. Since my generation had grown up on TV cowboy shows, my first reaction was that we were denying a piece of our own history. But upon reconsidering, I realized how powerful this game was in terms of immersing students into history. If any students of Native American ancestry played the game (and I'm sure there were plenty), they would be put in the position of constantly battling themselves. So we replaced "Indians ahead" with "riders ahead." Also, we replaced "tomahawked" with "knifed."
THE BIG DEBUT
Don: I taught three classes a day, with 25 kids. The school only had one teletype, which I had to reserve for the week that we were going to do this. So I came up with a rotation of activities, and I divided each class into groups. On Day 1, one group might read about the westward movement, or collect pictures, or work on a map exercise. And one of those groups would play the game. I would rotate those groups daily so that each student would get a chance to play the game by the end of the week. I'm guessing that by and large, most of the children had not had the chance to use a computer. So that must have been exciting for them.
During those first few days, I saw a lot of interesting stuff happen. Each group found the best typist and sat him or her in front of the teletype. Another group member followed the progress by map. Another group member watched the budget report to make sure the group wasn't running low on supplies. That division of labor was something the students came up with on their own.
I don't recall that we brought a lot of adults into the room to see what was going on. And my supervising teacher didn't visit my classes often once I took over for him, so I don't even remember if he saw it or had a reaction to it.
Don: Our work on the game came at the very end of our student teaching. We printed out the code and carried it away on paper, but we deleted the files. The game was lost for a couple of years. But then in 1974, I went to work for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), and I still had the code on paper. And so over Thanksgiving in 1974, I dragged home a portable teletype device, and I typed in 800 lines of code. And now, it was available on a MECC system that served schools across the state.
Paul: MECC became a for-profit company in 1983. It was originally non-profit, and when everything was put on the MECC machine, no one was making money on it. But then MECC got sold and people started making money off the game. And that was way past the statute of limitations, and none of us got recognized as creators until the 1990's, when there was an anniversary celebration at the Mall of America, and the company acknowledged us as the creators.
Don: I guess if we'd had our wits about us [back in 1971], we might have marched over to the Minneapolis administration's office, and said, Hey you guys! Look at what we did!"
Paul: My supervising teacher was aware of it and was fairly impressed. But we were student teachers, and so our world was our supervising teachers and our classrooms. We didn't have enough political savvy to share it with the faculty or the principal at the time.
Bill: For the first 40 years since the game's creation, I received very little notoriety – maybe one radio interview. But in the last few years, I've been interviewed three or four times, and I've given two presentations. I'm always amazed at how many people have played the game. I remember going to a college track meet to watch my daughter run in Oregon. My daughter said to a teammate, "Did you know my Dad wrote The Oregon Trail?" Soon, I had half the track team around me, asking for autographs.
Paul: It's very gratifying to get recognition. To have touched so many people is kind of mind-boggling, and despite the [lack of the money], none of us are really bitter about it. It's just the circumstances. I do kid that if we had decided to become entrepreneurs, we would have our own island by now.
Don: I'll be at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco on March 1. The organizers invited me to do a retrospective for The Oregon Trail, and I'm looking forward to that. Bill, Paul, and I started out as teachers, and teachers like to be recognized for their work, even if they're not becoming wealthy.
The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, inducted The Oregon Trail into its Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016. Of the 12 games currently inducted in the Hall, The Oregon Trail is the only game that was developed for educational purposes. The Oregon Trail has sold over 65 million copies since its debut.
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