Can educational video games from the 1980s and 1990s still teach us something? Are these games simply artifacts from the past, or can they hold up to the high standard of educational games today? Let’s find out!

Oregon Trail Map

You’ve got a long, looong way to go.

The year is 1848 and you are a pioneer, ready to make the 3000 mile trek west along the Oregon Trail. You hope that a better life is waiting for you on America’s western coast.

Got your wagon ready? Then let’s play the PC classic The Oregon Trail!

I never played The Oregon Trail as a kid, probably because I’m Canadian. We didn’t have The Oregon Trail in schools, but played Cross Country Canada instead. I’m told the two games are actually quite similar.

After giving the game a run-through, I really do think that The Oregon Trail has many attributes which make it a good educational game. For something that was created over 20 years ago, it’s actually pretty engaging. It’s got bright colors, a solid story, and lots of different options in gameplay. But before I talk about my general impressions, I’ll give you a basic rundown of what the game entails.

You’ll begin your journey west as either a banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, or a farmer from Illinois. You’ll get to choose the month you set off, as well as the names of the travelers in your party. A word of caution: there is a very good chance that someone in your party will die along the way, so steer clear of naming your characters after family members or friends.

Dysentery

The diseases in the game are annoying, but at least they’re historically accurate.

The first real ‘educational’ element in the game is when you are asked to choose supplies for your journey. You start off with $1600.00 and are advised not to spend it all in one place, but that’s exactly what you’ll want to do when you enter the shop. The shopkeeper will also offer some rather specific advice on how many oxen to take, how many pairs of clothes you’ll need, and how many pounds of food to carry on your trip. Based on the number of people in your party, you’ll need to calculate how much of each item to buy.

The Oregon Trail General store

Should you splurge on some oxen? The choice is up to you.

After you’ve purchased enough oxen, food, clothing, ammunition, and spare parts, you’ll be on your way west. As you travel, you’ll hit major landmarks along the way and will need to make decisions based on your health, food supply, and weather.

For example, when I arrived at the Kansas River, I needed to decide how I wanted to cross. Was it safe for me to ford the river, or should I pay someone to ferry me across?

The Oregon Trail Kansas River crossing

I hope there’s a lifeguard on duty.

You’ll need to consider various factors, such as the river width, depth, and weather, in order to make an educated decision about how to proceed. The game continues on in this fashion, periodically presenting you with a list of options about what to do next. If you continue making right decisions, you’ll eventually reach the end of the trail and see this screen.

Oregon Trail Finish

You made it! Home sweet home.

Now let’s talk a bit about the educational value of the game. The Oregon Trail was designed to educate students about the historic westward migration of thousands of settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. Does it do this successfully?

Yes and no. The game is full of interesting facts about landmarks along the trail, and it effectively covers the “who, what, when, and where” of this event in history. However, I think it’s missing a bit of the “why.” What was waiting for settlers at the end of the trail? What was it about the trail that caused bankers, farmers, and carpenters to uproot their lives and risk everything by traveling west? Were they all motivated by the same factors, or were there different motivations for each social class?

Of course, there are explanations for these questions in many history books, but I do think the game could have delved into the “why” a bit further.

Now let’s talk theory. You wouldn’t think that such an old game would have applications for modern historiography, but it kinda does, at least on an abstract level. Believe it or not,  the Oregon Trail embodies some of the big issues which historians are grappling with today. To give you a bit of background, there’s been a real attempt in the last few decades to revise our understanding of historical events as ‘natural’ or arbitrary. In some areas of history, there is a tendency to believe that events follow a simple ’cause and effect’ pattern. What scholars are discovering is that many big moments, like the French Revolution for example, were actually the result of diverse and sometimes disparate causes which can’t necessarily be explained as A + B = C. We’re also discovering that chance and contingency play a huge role in the outcome of events.

The element of chance in The Oregon Trail is probably just a game mechanic, but it fits into this new academic schema quite well. When you’re on the trail, you’ll periodically discover that your wagon has caught fire, or that members of your party have become injured or ill. As a player, this is infuriating since these unfortunate events are usually beyond your control. The first time my wagon caught fire for seemingly no reason, I wanted to quit the game right then and there.

The Oregon Trail wagon fire

Now where’s that fire extinguisher?

Not surprisingly, the element of chance in The Oregon Trail is probably the thing that players (kids especially) will resent the most. How fair is it to stock up your entire wagon with supplies, only to be hit with a giant fire moments later?

But the randomness of The Oregon Trail is, in my mind, one of its most compelling features. It teaches you that history is not a linear subject. In history classes, we learn that events do not unfurl naturally in a straight line; there are tons of little hiccups along the way which have the chance to seriously affect the outcome of an event.

Ironically enough, this makes the randomness of the game totally historically accurate. Due to factors such as age, weather, and disease, no two families who traveled the real Oregon Trail would have had the exact same experience along the way. The game is actually a great demonstration of why you shouldn’t generalize about historical events. Each time you play, you’re guaranteed to have a different experience based on how you make decisions in the game.

Bierstad Oregon Trail

The real Oregon Trail was filled with many hardships. Painting by Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Suffice it to say, the game is pretty vanilla compared to other titles produced in the last five years or so. It’s short, has 8-bit graphics, and some very outdated sound effects. The element of surprise brought some much needed life to the game and kept me engaged in the story. I think it also makes The Oregon Trail a fine platform for developing problem solving and critical thinking skills, although the game often isn’t very forgiving if you make a mistake. Still, I would give the game very adequate scores for basic mathematics, decision-making, and reading comprehension skills.

It may not be perfect, but The Oregon Trail holds up pretty well for a game that is over two decades old. It has also recently been given new life on Facebook and the Nintendo DSi, and it continues to educate students to this day. To give the 1985 version of the game a try (for free!), head on over to the Apple II Emulator, which you can find on the game’s official site.

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