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Oregon Trail (computer game)

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Screenshot from opening menu of Oregon Trail for Windows, 1995.

Screenshot from opening menu of Oregon Trail for Windows 98, 1995.

First imagined in 1971 by Minnesota student teachers, Oregon Trail went on to become the longest-published and most successful educational game of all time. As of 2017, more than 65 million copies have been sold worldwide, and the game that began on a teletype machine remains popular in a version designed for smartphones.

In 1971, three Carleton College student teachers in Minneapolis created the first version of what would become Oregon Trail. While searching for a way to get his students to participate in history, Don Rawitsch decided to create a game to teach students about Euro-American westward migration in the mid-1800s. His roommates, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, suggested making a computer game out of what was then a rudimentary board game. At the time, each school in Minnesota had a teletype machine but no other computing hardware.

On December 3, 1971, Oregon Trail debuted in Rawitsch’s class. Students played the game in groups of five; with only one machine, the groups had to take turns. One game lasted the entire class time allotted for the subject, so other students gathered around to watch.

Players begin the game by selecting an occupation for their traveler out of three choices: banker, carpenter, or farmer. They then lead a party of migrants along the Oregon Trail, overcoming obstacles, deciding when to travel and rest, and keeping track of food rations. Players win by reaching the end of the trail with travelers still alive.

The game’s popularity at the school was unexpected. Students came to class at seven o’clock in the morning and stayed until the last teacher left the building just to play the game. At the end of December, when the class ended, the creators shut the game down and took the printouts of the code with them.

That code remained unused until Don Rawitsch accepted a job at the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). Rawitsch was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and in order to avoid the draft, he needed a job that would be of alternative service to the country.

MECC, created in 1973, was a government initiative to introduce technology to schools. After it hired Rawitsch in 1974, it held an open call for educational software that it could include in its timeshare software package. Remembering the program that he had created with his friends, Rawitsch dug up the old code for Oregon Trail with permission from Heinemann and Dillenberger. In 1975, Oregon Trail was officially added to the UNIVAC system. Rawitsch worked with the programmers to improve the game, even consulting the diaries of Oregon Trail travelers to ensure that the information was accurate.

In 1978, MECC accepted a bid from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to provide Apple II microcomputers to Minnesota schools. It retooled Oregon Trail for the new Apple II machines and added the game to the software package provided to Minnesota’s public schools. Minnesota wasn’t the only state that was focused on providing technology for schools, but it did have the most organized and complete software package. Due to public interest, MECC began to sell the software to schools across the country. By 1989, almost every school district in America had a computer. That same year, at the height of the game’s popularity, one in every three school districts in the country had Oregon Trail in its classrooms.

At this point, MECC was making so much money from its software sales that it no longer required government funding. In 1991, the state of Minnesota sold it to venture capitalists for 5.25 million.

Oregon Trail II was released in 1995. The release party marked the first time that Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger were acknowledged as the original creators of the game. The final, 1997 version of the game was the last to be released out of Minnesota and the last game to be released by MECC. Soft Key bought the company in 1995 and terminated it as a separate entity four years later.

Oregon Trail was adapted into an iPhone game in 2008, and in 2014, the original version of the game was added to the Internet Archive. In 2016, it was inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame.

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“Forging the Oregon Trail.” YouTube video, 4:28. Posted by CityPagesMN, January 18, 2011.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSN-Z1tsFJw

Halvorsen, Donna. “Kids Mosey to Mall to Hit New Oregon Trail Cybergame.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 25, 1995.

Jancer, Matt. “How You Wound Up Playing The Oregon Trail in Computer Class.” Smithsonian.com, July 22, 2016.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-you-wound-playing-em-oregon-trailem-computer-class-180959851/

Locker, Melissa. “You Can Now Play Oregon Trail Online for Free.” Time, January 6, 2015.
http://time.com/3656635/play-oregon-trail-ms-dos-games-free/

Lussenhop, Jessica. “Oregon Trail: How Three Minnesotans Forged its Path.” City Pages, January 19, 2011.
http://www.citypages.com/news/oregon-trail-how-three-minnesotans-forged-its-path-6745749

“Oregon Trail Featured in National Releases.” Dataline 6, no. 5 (May/June 1979): 1.

“Oregon Trail MECC” YouTube video, 2:42. Posted by CityPagesMN, January 20, 2011.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyOckMJV3n8

Rawitsch, Don. “Oregon Trail.” Creative Computing 4, no.3 (May-June 1978): 132–139.
https://archive.org/stream/creativecomputing-1978-05/Creative_Computing_v04_n03_1978_May-June#page/n139/mode/2up

Shea, Jeremy. “An Interview With the Teacher-Turned-Developer Behind 'Oregon Trail'.” Yester: Then for Now, February 24, 2014.
http://yesterthenfornow.kinja.com/an-interview-with-the-teacher-turned-developer-behind-o-1529659314

“The Oregon Trail.” MECC, 1990. Added to the Internet Archive December 26, 2014.
https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

“The Oregon Trail: Inducted 2016.” World Video Game Hall of Fame, [2016].
http://www.worldvideogamehalloffame.org/games/oregon-trail

Yarwood, Jack. “The Making of The Oregon Trail: An Interview with Don Rawitsch.” Paste, October 22, 2015.
https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/10/the-making-of-the-oregon-trail-an-interview-with-d.html

Related Images

Screenshot from opening menu of Oregon Trail for Windows, 1995.
Screenshot from opening menu of Oregon Trail for Windows, 1995.
Screenshot from the original Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1980s. Image by Gameloft, MECC.
Screenshot from the original Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1980s. Image by Gameloft, MECC.
Screenshot from the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1980s. Photographed by Wikimedia Commons  user Bobamnertiopsis.
Screenshot from the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1980s. Photographed by Wikimedia Commons  user Bobamnertiopsis.
Screenshot of a gravestone in the original Oregon Trail computer game, which players could fill out with their own text, ca. 1980s.
Screenshot of a gravestone in the original Oregon Trail computer game, which players could fill out with their own text, ca. 1980s.
Cover art for the Oregon Trail computer game, 1995.
Cover art for the Oregon Trail computer game, 1995.
Screenshot of burying and mourning the dead in Oregon Trail 1.2 for Windows 5, 1995.
Screenshot of burying and mourning the dead in Oregon Trail 1.2 for Windows 5, 1995.
Screenshot of hunting in the Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1996.
Screenshot of hunting in the Oregon Trail computer game, ca. 1996.
Cover art of the Oregon Trail twenty-fifth anniversary edition, 1996.
Cover art of the Oregon Trail twenty-fifth anniversary edition, 1996.
Color image of a Teletype terminal, 2011. Photographed by Wikipedia user Rama.
Color image of a Teletype terminal, 2011. Photographed by Wikipedia user Rama.
Color image of an Apple II computer, 2010. Photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Rama.
Color image of an Apple II computer, 2010. Photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Rama.

Turning Point

In 1975, Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) adds Oregon Trail to its system and improves it to reflect history more accurately.

Chronology

1971

Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger create the first iteration of Oregon Trail as a game for Rawitsch’s eighth-grade history class.

1974

Rawitsch is hired by the MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium)

1975

Oregon Trail is first added to the MECC system.

1978

MECC accepts a bid from Apple to provide Apple II computers to Minnesota schools. Oregon Trail is retooled for the Apple systems.

1991

Minnesota sells MECC to venture capitalists for 5.25 million.

1995

Oregon Trail II is released at the Mall of America, where the game's original creators are acknowledged for the first time.

1997

Oregon Trail 3rd Edition is released. It is the last version of the game to be released by MECC and the last to be released in Minnesota.

1999

Soft Key dissolves MECC as a separate entity.

2008

Gameloft releases an iPhone application of the Oregon Trail game.

2014

The original version of Oregon Trail is added to the Internet Archive.

2016

Oregon Trail is inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame.