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The History of The Oregon Trail

Soulskill posted about 9 months ago | from the you-have-died-of-dysentery dept.

Classic Games (Games) 58

Rick Zeman writes "Those of us of a certain age recall The Oregon Trail with fondness as the pioneering educational game that had the audacity to make learning fun! This article takes a look at the history behind the game, even going back to its initial text-based offering, showing how some programming magic pulled a generation of kids together. Quoting: '[F]or two weeks, the roommates holed up in a former janitor’s closet at Bryant Junior High School, where the school’s teletype was stored, and spent their evenings programming. Using Rawitsch’s historical knowledge, Heinemann and Dillenberger developed a series of algorithms, punching hundreds of lines of code into the teletype. But just because they created the program didn’t mean they could breeze through it. When Heinemann tried The Oregon Trail for the first time, he died of pneumonia midway!'"

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58 comments

Surprising... (5, Funny)

guytoronto (956941) | about 9 months ago | (#44460021)

That he didn't die of dysentery.

Re:Surprising... (-1, Offtopic)

Jeremy Erwin (2054) | about 9 months ago | (#44460153)

You, and hopefully billions more besides can die of dysentery in Plague Inc. [wikipedia.org] . I usually avoid it, since it attracts the interest of the CDC before total infection can set in, and it's not as lethal as "Total Organ Failure."

Still, parents would probably freak out if the game was used to teach epidemiology to little kids.

Re:Surprising... (3, Insightful)

drcheap (1897540) | about 9 months ago | (#44461233)

That he didn't die of dysentery.

It's because that was added in a later revision of the code.



Geez...doesn't anybody read RTFA?
/sarcasm

Re:Surprising... (1)

Jonner (189691) | about 9 months ago | (#44464105)

That he didn't die of dysentery.

If you'd read TFA, you'd know that dysentery was not a way to die in the original game.

Not FirstPost (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460033)

I would have been first post but my river raft (which i PAID A TON FOR) sunk and my oxen died.

A great game, but (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460075)

..they really needed to make the wagons more robust - I can't tell you how many times they broke while crossing the river.

Re:A great game, but (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 9 months ago | (#44460291)

Yeah, that's because you were a dumb kid who didn't know how to cross a river properly. An adult playing the game to win will have no trouble with anything like that.

Re:A great game, but (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44462851)

Yeah, that's because you were a dumb kid who didn't know how to cross a river properly. An adult playing the game to win will have no trouble with anything like that.

Don't confuse 'dumb' with harsh conditions and malnourishment. Even adults are subject to chance, the cold chance of the open range, the unyielding white waters and charging buffalo, the sheer tedium and toil! Hearty construction is vital in such situations.

It's shaped like a wagon wheel... (3, Insightful)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about 9 months ago | (#44460235)

I'm sure it's been updated for modern audiences, as game makers see it. Which is to say, the hundreds of options are now just 4 to fit on a console controller: 2 offensive, one block, and one break-free-from-hold.

It's ok. Just use in your announcement that you have "re-imagined Oregon Trail and it is now an Action RPG MOBA!"

You might wanna use three exclamation points, but that's up to you.

Re:It's shaped like a wagon wheel... (1)

CronoCloud (590650) | about 9 months ago | (#44461899)

Which is to say, the hundreds of options are now just 4 to fit on a console controller:

Don't be "that guy". You know the one. The one that think console games are stuck in 1985, and that there are no complex console games with tons of stats and min-maxing.

it is now an Action RPG MOBA!"

The Department of Redundancy Department called. MOBA's are action RPG's with a few RTS elements from their heritage.

Re:It's shaped like a wagon wheel... (2)

mysidia (191772) | about 9 months ago | (#44463515)

I'm sure it's been updated for modern audiences, as game makers see it. Which is to say, the hundreds of options are now just 4 to fit on a console controller: 2 offensive, one block, and one break-free-from-hold.

I remember the original versions of Organ Trail being very simple with only perhaps 5 or 6 options for supplies and 3 or 4 professions.

If I recall correctly; later updates to it didn't remove options they added more options, and made it more complicated....

Very educational game (5, Funny)

dj245 (732906) | about 9 months ago | (#44460247)

I took away exactly one thing from this game.

Q: Why did buffalo become an endangered species?
A: Because hunting buffalo is fun.

Re:Very educational game (2)

XiaoMing (1574363) | about 9 months ago | (#44460653)

I took away exactly one thing from this game.

Q: Why did buffalo become an endangered species?

A: Because hunting buffalo is fun.

For me, that takeaway was actually a pleasant consequence of the very educational fact that it's way more cost-efficient to start your cross-country wagon trip with 99 boxes of bullets in lieu of "real food" and whatnot.

Re:Very educational game (2)

coolsnowmen (695297) | about 9 months ago | (#44460721)

You're joking, but in someway this is the classic "teach a man to fish" vs "give a man a fish"

Re:Very educational game (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | about 9 months ago | (#44460845)

No, the lesson is "Shoot everything in sight and fuck the wagon trains coming after you."

Re:Very educational game (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44461153)

The American Way!

Re:Very educational game (4, Informative)

Teancum (67324) | about 9 months ago | (#44462021)

While it is a common to think that the settlers were responsible for hunting buffalo to near extinction, it really was a combination of a deliberate program by the U.S. Army to hunt buffalo (where they wouldn't even take the hide or meat.... leaving the animals to rot on the ground where they were killed) and the fact that much of the range of the buffalo was consumed by cattle... creatures that pretty much fill the same environmental niche.

The deliberate hunting of buffalo was done explicitly to drive the plains Indians into reservations by destroying their food sources. I'm not defending this practice as I consider it to be a war crime and unethical in so many ways, but it was a measured and purposeful act that killed far more buffalo than anything taken by the wagon trains going over the various westward migration trails.

The buffalo herds were so vast and the unoccupied land at the time of the game so large that it would be like somebody with a single fishing rod depleting the fish stock of the south Pacific Ocean. Bullets and weapons also offered protection not just from "Indians", but also a large number of "highwaymen" that hung out on the trails (often dressed up as native tribes to shift blame).

I'll also note that the pioneers also ate berries, nuts, roots, and pretty much anything else that they found along the trail. They even went fishing in many of the streams that they found along the path too. Why do you think all of this kind of food gathering was such a bad thing?

Re:Very educational game (1)

mysidia (191772) | about 9 months ago | (#44463523)

For me, that takeaway was actually a pleasant consequence of the very educational fact that it's way more cost-efficient to start your cross-country wagon trip with 99 boxes of bullets in lieu of "real food" and whatnot.

Apparently your wagon never tipped, losing 99 boxes of ammo down the river, when attempting to caulk and float across.

Or perhaps you never had 99 boxes of ammo get stolen by bandits or indians at night?

Frequently the trail could be unhuntable for long stretches... :)

Re:Very educational game (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460691)

I took away exactly one thing from this game. Q: Why did buffalo become an endangered species? A: Because hunting buffalo is fun.

Wrong! It's because you can only carry 100 lbs back with you.

<begin game>
Settler: I'll take $15,000 worth of bullets please.
Store Clerk: Dontya think ya should be takin' some spare wagon wheels and axles with you too?
Settler: The fuck did you just say?!

Re:Very educational game (2)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about 9 months ago | (#44460703)

I took another lesson away from the game that is probably much more useful:

Under absolutely no circumstances should you ever try to walk or drive across a river. You'll tip over and Zeke will drown. Somehow an Indian will help you though.

Not a word about the genocide? (-1, Troll)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | about 9 months ago | (#44460273)

"Oregon Trail" and other media like it made genocide an acceptable thing in the minds of many young impressionable people. In any sane society, "Oregon Trail" would be remembered as a sick justification for genocide. How are we, as a society, remedying this fucked-up 80s software product with something that not only appeals to children but explains what horrible people we all are?

Press A for genocide (2)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460373)

Yeah! Why didn't the generation of kids growing up in the '80s self loathe and carry guilt over what other people did generations before they were born? Might as well blaming the latest generation for the holocaust with thinking like that.

Re:Press A for genocide (0)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | about 9 months ago | (#44460947)

Why didn't they? Their lack of racial awareness only resulted in the Iraqi genocide. And the Somali genocide. And the Syrian genocide....should I go on? Would this have happened if every American adult had been educated from age six about what their forefathers did? And how they are directly responsible due to their race, despite the fact that they didn't actually pull any triggers? HOW MANY PEOPLE WOULD BE ALIVE TODAY, ASSHOLE?

Re:Press A for genocide (1)

AlphaWolf_HK (692722) | about 9 months ago | (#44463529)

I never knew we intended to push the Iraqis out of Iraq and onto reservations. Same with Somali's and Syrians. Do go on.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460387)

"Oregon Trail" and other media like it made genocide an acceptable thing in the minds of many young impressionable people. In any sane society, "Oregon Trail" would be remembered as a sick justification for genocide. How are we, as a society, remedying this fucked-up 80s software product with something that not only appeals to children but explains what horrible people we all are?

I sense much anger in you. Anger leads to hate. Hate.....leads to SUFFERING!

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (2)

Culture20 (968837) | about 9 months ago | (#44461853)

Anger leads to hate. Hate.....leads to SUFFERING!

Life is suffering, and life arises from good ol' fashioned lovin'. Therefore, hate is similar in nature to good ol' fashioned lovin'.
Silly Buddha. People have known about angry sex for ages.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (4, Interesting)

toygeek (473120) | about 9 months ago | (#44460391)

Man, what the hell are you talking about? It doesn't even touch on the subject and makes no justification for those things, nor does it even acknowledge it in a positive or negative light. Its a kids game focused on the journey, not genocide and politics. For its purpose, it does a great job. From TFA:

Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1974, Rawitsch exhumed his old yellow roll of code. Looking at the game again, he knew he could do better. Over the next year, he would thicken the plot, using facts he found from the diaries of Oregon Trail survivors. He discovered how often settlers ran out of water. He tallied the ways people died, and he took note of how Native Americans, contrary to popular belief, were actually quite generous with survival tips, letting settlers know whether it was safe to cross a river, for example.

Just because it doesn't have a big story line saying "genocide is wrong, mmmkay" doesn't mean it condones it.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

Rhacman (1528815) | about 9 months ago | (#44460567)

I had to cheat and look it up but there is actually a part where you can hire a native as a guide to cross the Snake River in exchange for clothing. The only thing in that game I think you could even kill was animals for food.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

mysidia (191772) | about 9 months ago | (#44463615)

I had to cheat and look it up but there is actually a part where you can hire a native as a guide to cross the Snake River in exchange for clothing. The only thing in that game I think you could even kill was animals for food.

Yes.. Hint: Always pay the native; unless you want to risk losing all your stuff or getting a broken wagon.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460457)

What happened to the Donner party is not genocide [reference.com] .

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44460499)

Probably because there is nothing like genocide in the game.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

cascadingstylesheet (140919) | about 9 months ago | (#44460611)

I remember another early (but not quite as early) computer game, where you were a Spanish explorer. I forget the name of the game.

Sometimes the Indians that you encountered were initially friendly (if you were), and sometime not. If they were hostile (or if you had ticked them off), sometimes you could mollify them by giving them things, sometimes not.

But ... if you just started slaughtering them indiscriminately, then eventually the Indians would stop fighting, and even stop running, and they would go into a really creepy sort of death dance. Freaked me out, and I never wanted to do that again!

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (2)

Imagix (695350) | about 9 months ago | (#44460797)

Seven Cities of Gold? In that game if you made it a habit of killing the indigenous leaders they eventually got the idea and immediately surrendered when you showed up.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

AlphaWolf_HK (692722) | about 9 months ago | (#44463543)

I had that game for the commodore 64...I never could figure out how you were supposed to win it. Every time I got into fights with the Indians it was on accident (you just touch one and they pop) and they all start doing their little chanting noise faster and faster until all of your men are dead and then gg. Never knew you could actually win against them.

Re:Not a word about the genocide? (1)

cascadingstylesheet (140919) | about 9 months ago | (#44464495)

Every time I got into fights with the Indians it was on accident (you just touch one and they pop)

I think that was the low tech way of representing, you know, friction and misunderstandings. Just coming into contact with a strange people who don't speak your language or share any culture is risky.

Fun? Really? (0)

azav (469988) | about 9 months ago | (#44460371)

Game starts.

You take two steps.

You have died of dysentery. There is no explanation why this happened.

It doesn't take long before you search for something else that's a much better embodiment of fun.

So, who is it that called this game "fun"?

Rehash from 2011 story? (2)

Walking The Walk (1003312) | about 9 months ago | (#44460423)

Looks like a rehash of the story we saw here a couple of years ago [slashdot.org] . I've only read the first few paragraphs of this new article, but I haven't found anything different from the previous one. I'm not suggesting plagiarism, I'm just saying it looks like the author just took the information from previous stories and rewrote it in his own words, without adding anything new.

Re:Rehash from 2011 story? (4, Funny)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 9 months ago | (#44461171)

Yeah, it totally does look like a rehash of the story we saw here a couple of years ago [slashdot.org] ! I've also only read the first few paragraphs of this new article, too, but I also haven't found anything different from the previous one. I'm not suggesting plagiarism either, I'm just also saying it looks like the author just took the information from previous stories and rewrote it in his own words, without adding anything new. What a douche!

Re:Rehash from 2011 story? (1)

Em Adespoton (792954) | about 9 months ago | (#44461525)

Yeah, it totally does look like a rehash of the story we saw here a couple of years ago [slashdot.org] ! I've also only read the first few paragraphs of this new article, too, but I also haven't found anything different from the previous one. I'm not suggesting plagiarism either, I'm just also saying it looks like the author just took the information from previous stories and rewrote it in his own words, without adding anything new. What a douche!

Ah; but you added something new.

We'll know things have really gone south when all the links on front page items on Slashdot actually link to comments in older articles....

Re:Rehash from 2011 story? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44461601)

dittoish.

Death of MECC was death of educational computing (4, Interesting)

spopepro (1302967) | about 9 months ago | (#44460963)

Ah MECC. I sometimes wonder how different the world would be if SoftKey hadn't MBA'ed all of the great educational-entertaining software companies into oblivion. After MECC, games went back to assited rote practice of basic skills, which is basically the entire educational games segment today. I kind of wonder if it would have happened anyway; was the time right just then, or would it have sustained and grown? The key is: I don't see games like Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, Rocky's Boots, etc. anymore--unless it's just re-skinned versions of those games.

Fun fact: the two major rights holders these days to the SoftKey (aka, The Learning Company) IP are Houghton Mifflin Harcort and Ubisoft. Yeah... those are some fun people to try and work with...

Re:Death of MECC was death of educational computin (1)

Em Adespoton (792954) | about 9 months ago | (#44461593)

Fun fact: the two major rights holders these days to the SoftKey (aka, The Learning Company) IP are Houghton Mifflin Harcort and Ubisoft. Yeah... those are some fun people to try and work with...

I must have missed the merger between Houghton Mifflin and Harcort Brace Jovanovich. I guess they didn't want to go with Houghton Mifflin Harcort Brace Jovanovich. Just shows that it's worthwhile to insist your name goes at the beginning of the merger name; Eventually when we have Houghton Bell, everyone else will have been forgotten.

Reminds me; who owns Humongous Entertainment with Atari going the way of the Dodo yet again?

Re:Death of MECC was death of educational computin (1)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | about 9 months ago | (#44464993)

Around 1997-1998 the bottom seemed to fall out of the educational software market in general, including with prices falling for boxed software and expectations rising for artwork and embedded video. That was unfortunate for me and my wife as we were just finishing a first version of an educational garden simulator. I first had the initial idea about ten years earlier while a program administrator for the NOFA-NJ organic farm certification program; too bad it took so long to bring it to fruition (including going to graduate school in biology). Guess time-to-market is really important. :-)

Mergers were one issue, I agree, including trying to get MECC interested in distributing our software back then. Perhaps the rise of the web was another. Store shelves were full of fighting and competitive games to get the dollars of kids. A bigger issue was was maybe that parents who bought educational software looked for checklists of how the software would help their child get better grades in school at specific school tasks -- which generally has a tangential-at-best relationship to true education (see John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alife Kohn, etc.).

Still, there is a lot of great educational software out there now, between apps, the web, PCs, and so on. Examples (including Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft):
"8 Videogames to Get Your Kid Into Engineering"
http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/12/videogames-engineering-kids/?pid=3191&viewall=true [wired.com]

And that includes tools anyone can use in an interesting way, whether 3D design tools or even just word processors for writing up a story.

Still, from what you say, maybe we are lucky that the rights to our garden simulator software never got entwined with MECC, because then we could not have offered it for free with source for about fifteen years as we have.
http://www.gardenwithinsight.com/ [gardenwithinsight.com]
http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/ [kurtz-fernhout.com]

I worked unrelated jobs during writing that software. And it took years by my wife and me of working for others at unrelated jobs like at IBM Research to pay back what we had borrowed to finish it. It was such a loss of our being tooled up to further improve the software (and a couple related programs built on the same base, PlantStudio and StoryHarp software). Another couple years of being in the groove full-time focusing on that after the software was done, responding to feedback from users, and it all might have turned into something really spectacular. We had triaged out broader cooperative gaming aspects from the first version of Garden Simulator (like the Harvest Moon series succeeded at later), but hoped to add it back in future versions. Instead later I saw the Zynga people become worth billions with FarmVille. Well, I can hope in some indirect way we contributed to current educational and free software successes by example.

Anyway, I hope for a "basic income" for all someday so all people who want to make creative endeavors like free educational software have the time to do so, individually or collectively.

Old timer (1)

Diakoneo (853127) | about 9 months ago | (#44463093)

I not only played the teletype version of the game, later when I had a real job I worked on the MECC mainframes a couple times. Now get off my lawn!

Still play it -- on an Apple IIe... (1)

beaverdownunder (1822050) | about 9 months ago | (#44464501)

I own a mint condition Apple IIe, with the two disk drives and the colour monitor, and the only game I have for it is Oregon Trail, on an original MECC diskette that still works great.

I'm a pretty big Oregon Trail fan =)

the most famous of these trails was the Oregon Tra (1)

coutysd (3011631) | about 8 months ago | (#44506103)

One of the most famous of these trails was the Oregon Trail, which led from the state of Missouri in the center of the country to the state of Oregon in its northwestern corner.

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