Oregon Trail

July 6, New York: What do we remember about Oregon Trail? Well, everyone remembers hunting buffalo and bears. Everyone remembers “[INSERT NAME] died of dysentery”. But what I had not remembered was how much learning was packed into this game. Of course, it makes sense, there had to be a reason why it was okay to plop teams of second graders in front of Apple IIEs for whole class periods just to play a video game. But there is so much learning!

I found a playable version online and settled in for an easy jaunt across the West. I took my wife, her siblings and the cat along with me.

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We started in Independence, Missouri and had to buy supplies. The first thing we learned was math.

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The learning didn’t stop there. Every decision we made was informed by historical fact. Every landmark we arrived at included an optional tour. Even the well-remembered hunting came with a poorly-remembered bit of context: you can only retrieve 100 pounds of food from every hunting trip, so if you shoot a bunch of buffalo in a single go, it’s wasted meat. A fellow traveler informs you they’re being hunted out of existence.

I also did not remember how to play this game well. I ran out of money almost immediately, took a lot of rests, and spent an ordinate amount of time hunting. I lollygagged my way across the West until suddenly it was November and it was snowing and fifty miles away from my nearest checkpoint I couldn’t repair a wagon axle and had to wait for someone to trade me for one. Each unsuccessful trade cost me a day and more food consumed. Fabulous the cat died first and then the deaths just kept piling on until I also perished.

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I had so much fun re-playing this game. It made me wish for an alternate universe in which Oregon Trail had just been the first in a long series of successful educational games that everyone played. Specific slices of history carved up into resource-management titles. How fun that even at 33 I am still learning details of the migration to Oregon from this simple decades-old piece of software?

You can play Oregon Trail on the Internet! Right now!

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