A Brief History of ‘The Oregon Trail’…Video Game

© flickr, methodshop .com

If you grew up in the seventies, eighties, or early nineties, chances are that some of your favorite school days were spent in the computer lab, with an Apple IIE booted up to play a few rounds of The Oregon Trail. All of the choices were yours to make – how big should your family be, and how many oxen should you take, and when little Timmy inevitably gets dysentery, should you stop and rest or just sit him on a cork and press on for the good of everyone else?

RIP, Little Timmy.

What if I told you that the men who orchestrated those wonderful childhood days don’t even get paid royalties?

Photo Credit: iStock

I know. I was shocked too when I found this out.

Way back in 1971, Don Rawitsch was a history major and a student teacher looking for a way to engage his classroom. He recognized that dusty books weren’t doing the trick for the new generation, and came up with an idea for a board game that allowed students to travel the Oregon Trail. They would put themselves in the shoes of those 19th century pioneers and face the same (terrible) odds to try and make it halfway across wild America alive.

He pitched the idea to his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, two fellow seniors at Carleton College. They both had limited coding experience and suggested that instead of a board game, they help him create a text-based adventure. Rawitsch loved the idea, but with only a couple of weeks left on his assignment, the three had to work long hours to get it ready to go.

No surprise here: his students loved even the most primitive version of the game.

Photo Credit: Instagram, sylent_d

Rawitsch deleted the game after his student teaching session, but after he declared himself a conscientious objector during Vietnam, he found himself working for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a program looking to modernize public schools with computing supplies. Rawitsch, of course, had the perfect software to pitch to his new employer – and luckily, he’d kept a printout of the code.

After getting permission from his old roommates, he added in details from actual journal entries, as well as other details to make the experience even more genuine. At the time, none of them could have known that MECC’s new business partner – an upstart computer corporation named Apple – would revolutionize the industry, and take their little game along for the ride.

As Apple IIE’s became the choice of school districts nationwide, The Oregon Trail tagged along and delighted students everywhere. It was a national fixture in classrooms for decades. An updated version debuted in 1995, but new graphics and flashy additions didn’t feel right. The version of the game that is you can now play in your browser is basically the original.

Rawitsch, Dillenberger, and Heinemann do not receive any profit participation for the software, but their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016.

So, there is that.

Maybe it’s just society’s version of payback for all those poor, lost, virtual children. RIP.

h/t: Mental_Floss

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