The Oregon Trail [1971]

(Content Warnings: Cannibalism, Genocide.)

In these early days of gaming, it’s hard to walk in a straight line without tripping over “firsts.” Looking for the first this or the first that is a hook, it’s exciting to uncover, you feel like something recognizable of our present-day condition is emerging from the strange, foreign world of the past. It’s almost a lie, though. Most firsts are mere trivia that can stand in the way of actually seeing the work. Most firsts are not self-consciously experimental ideas that caught on, but humble clear outgrowths of a prior tendency almost anachronistic to think of as a first, or are purpose-built innovations to serve a specific need (and sometimes you can point at The First and say that it understood what it was doing better than its successors because it knew best why it existed and then was mindlessly copied… but only sometimes.) If you’re looking for some kind of great rupture to hang your hat on, the closer you look the less you see.

The Oregon Trail isn’t actually first at much, besides. It’s predated in most respects by The Sumerian Game [1964], lost to time, in which you are immersed in a narrative role within an existing historical gameworld and asked to manage resources, for purposes of educating children. It’s plausible that our 1971 developers were totally ignorant of it, and thus the “first” as far as they’re concerned, and instead drawing on, say, Milton-Bradley’s The Game Of Life [1960], seeing as the original design was as a board game. The Sumerian Game is probably even more influential and important than The Oregon Trail, as it inspired Hamurabi [1968] [sic], which was then widely distributed in “learn to code BASIC games” books from 1973 on, and from there, inspired the whole strategy game genre. We in the 21st century recognize The Oregon Trail more though, because of the American Gen X ubiquity of The Oregon Trail [1985], which is as Doom [2016] is to Doom [1993], bringing us 2-for-2 on Id references for the geeks and gamers in the crowd.

It tops Wikipedia’s list of the longest-running game franchises, and it’s gonna stay there. Hamurabi isn’t recognized as The Sumerian Game 2, but a bootleg with its own identity, and similarly you taking the reins of a hypothetical Spacewar 2 or a do-over with spiffy graphics would be a fangame or port or its own thing, not a sequel or remake. They wouldn’t carry the imprint of legitimacy that comes from the all-important ownership of the intellectual property. It’s the way Oregon Trail’s original designer, Don Rawitsch, could take his source code offline in 1971, and then port it from paper as the 1975 version I played with only minor tweaks (one of which we’ll address later.) It’s the way one of its programmers, Bill Heinemann, can deny even his own son from taking stewardship of the code. It’s in the way the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium can make the 1985 Oregon Trail with none of the original three creators, become a private entity with the money the property made them, then sell their legitimizing rights to The Learning Company, who can sell it to Mattel, who can sell it to Ubisoft, who can then bestow the power to make legitimate Oregon Trail successors to third parties. It’s copyright, or even more broadly the conceptual scaffolding of ownership, that franchises can not live without, and it’s not ridiculous at all.

The franchise all started with only the noblest of intentions, though, characteristic of that mid-20th Century digital optimism that necessarily colors early video games. They were going to use computers to educate children. A game is a spicy way to approach this, but not unprecedented; one could say most games are already educational, even if in a given instance all you learn is about the game. So what’s its pedagogical approach to history, and how does it fare?

Well, it’s unusually gamey for an “edutainment” title. There’s no room for those “read some facts” sections divorced from the gameplay we’re familiar with from later titles like the Carmen Sandiego series. Instead, like reportedly The Sumerian Game before it, it relies heavily on now-lost paratext (which ultimately functions much the same as the Carmen Sandiego model) for the delivery of historical fact: the 1971 Western Expansion unit curriculum The Oregon Trail game was originally only a small part of. It could have reasonably been implemented within the tight space constraints of a 1970s BASIC mainframe program as, say, a fact- and text-heavy quiz, but instead we got something very gameplay-heavy that was shortly thereafter shorn of that original contextualizing information. As-is, you can hardly poke at the game’s factual inaccuracies, because what little is there is accurate. For example, the 1985 edition would make the prevalence of dysentery infamous, while on the real Trail, the #1 killer was cholera… but that’s not in our 1970s version. The game we have is a supplement. But if not hard facts, then what does it teach you? Reading, typing?

The game is turn-based, and at the top of every turn it displays your five resources: Food, Ammunition, Clothing, Cash, and Miscelaneous [sic] Supplies, which are things like axles and medicine. Your cash reserves (which always start at the same place) can be used at the nondescript forts you have the chance to stop at on some turns. Food, clothing, and supplies correspond not to any real values like pounds of food but one-to-one with the cash you spent on them. You just have “30 Clothes,” which somehow depletes rapidly. It might be meant as the abstract monetary value, but since there’s no selling, it’s unclear. Run out of clothes or supplies, and you could die at any moment. Run out of food, and you die instantly. Like in The Sumerian Game, you’re managing resources through the proxy of numerical abstraction, but unlike it, this is not a game meant to educate you on economics, this is the First Survival Game. In all this, we see the inverse of the priority motivation of Spacewar: managing finite, dwindling resource scarcity instead of pushing hard on the limits of the infinite.

Ammunition, on the other hand, is not directly vital but ridiculously cheap. It’s the best bang for your buck, pun intended. You’re thus incentivized to play into the rugged outdoorsy individualist role — unlike later entries, there’s no indication that you are anything but alone — by hunting for your food, without the fiddly business of coding something like food that goes bad if you just let it sit. When you go to shoot something, be it animals on the hunt or hunting yourself, or hostile “riders,” you are dropped from the methodical turn-based world into a real-time action-reflex one, which delivers a jolt of energy to the whole experience. In a stroke of ingenuity within the text-only limitations, you are tasked with typing the word “BANG” quickly and accurately. In the 1978 version, it also changes the word up on you (like it could be “POW”) which makes the mechanic even more reminiscent of The Typing Of The Dead [1999]. The metaphor stands clear: your typing skill, quick and accurate, enacts corresponding quick and accurate violence on the computer. The computer will have its revenge, though.

No matter how skilled you are at hunting for your food and managing your resources, you are at the complete mercy of the gameworld. The random events at the end of every turn are perhaps the real star of the show here — definitely an evolution of Spacewar’s star, anyway. The wrong random events can bring you from fine to dead in just one turn. It’s not fair!

That’s the point. The Oregon Trail is not about getting to Oregon. Sure, that’s the goal that keeps you going both in and out of character, but really The Oregon Trail is about the losing. The death message is rendered with great ceremony, three separate command prompts on your funeral, just for flavor. Even when you make it to the promised land, you’re haunted by the ghosts of your own failure, and the entire time you’re on the journey is low-level tension and dread at the imagined fatality lurking under every rock. That’s the pedagogical utility of the game that a book or a lecture just doesn’t give you: by placing you in the middle of a world model and an unimportant role, it communicates an impression, a feeling of what it was like to live as an ordinary person in the time and place depicted, and that impression is one of a dangerous world, arbitrary enough that you can do everything right and still eat curb. There’s a straight line from here to Cart Life [2011]. Why, Oregon Trail might be the First Empathy Game! The terminology of the “Empathy Game,” if you’re unfamiliar or have forgotten, was a bit of a fad in mid-2010s among a handful of thinkpiece writers and social scientists, and notably not many actual game designers. It was a post-hoc genre that lumped together titles like the aforementioned Cart Life, Depression Quest [2013], That Dragon, Cancer [2016], and even Spec Ops: The Line [2012]! With the exception of the latter, the sales pitch of the genre was basically that in snubbing traditional concepts like “fun” and “violence” in favor of depicting a minimal-gameplay sad world drawn from the author’s deeply personal (and often enough, marginalized) experience, these games would make you a better person; they were good for you, like eating your vegetables. Game designer Anna Anthropy was particularly enraged by cis allies patting themselves on the back in this way for playing her short title Dys4ia [2012], and in response to all this she exhibited The Road To Empathy [2015], which was a pair of her size 13 high heel boots with a pedometer attached, so that people could literally walk a mile in her shoes and try to get the high score: a scathing Cinderella story.

I myself am a white person living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, cause to worry that when I telnetted in to play the game it would instantly award me victory. I grew up here. I was born too late for Apple IIs preloaded with The Oregon Trail [1985] in the classroom, but one year in elementary school the teacher put together her own long-form, paper-based, team-play Oregon Trail game. My team died trapped by snow in the mountains, and then once I was checked-out and scorched about the loss, the whole class got to learn about the Donner Party, a group of settlers who went into the mountains, got snowed in, and ate each other. That’s a harrowing, tragic situation about people at the furthest extremities of humanity, and we didn’t get too deep into it, but it wasn’t sanitized. Years later, don’t know how many, I wondered: why? Not why did it happen, but why was I taught about that as history? Not even that it was gruesome, but it didn’t square with my understanding of capital-h History at that time, that it was just such a small story that had immediate effect on nobody outside of the Donner Party themselves. It was just some fucked-up shit that happened once. Trivia. What was I meant to learn? Not to go through the mountains in a covered wagon during winter? No, no, it had to be one of those abstract moral Life Lessons… Was it solemn respect for the dead? The terror of nature, and the weakness of man and our society in the face of it? I’ve seen it used to make exactly the opposite point, that adversity builds morality and character, which is incredibly stupid but that doesn’t mean that wasn’t meant as the takeaway.

Writing this now, I think I have figured out that I was being taught about my heritage. It’s odd to think of it that way, but it’s not out of the ordinary in many cultures to pass down illustrative tales of suffering to the young so they and their example are not forgotten, though. I believe I was meant to associate myself in some continuity with The Donner Party, their inheritors as an Oregonian, as an American, as — to put it sharply — a white person, and truly, I am. The subtext is that the past of hardscrabble living and suffering my ancestors underwent to get here (in this case, a literal location, Oregon,) legitimizes the present comfortable inhabitation. Likewise, the intention of The Oregon Trail is to get us to identify and empathize with the settler. Both are virtual memory, simulated
aggrievement.

Our second game has taken as its subject and theme perhaps one of the few darker and more harrowing subject matters than war: colonialism. Identifying colonialism in games is in vogue right now, but it’s currently most commonly leveled as a criticism at let’s-call-them-post-Minecraft games, in which you are actively engaged in both extracting resources from and changing the environment to suit you, even where there is no colonization on the narrative end. The Oregon Trail is just the opposite, using its resource management purely to emphasize that we are at the whims of our environment, while its narrative framing is colonization. It flinches from the larger truth of what it is depicting in favor of an attempt at systematized momentary verisimilitude that absorbs us.

The Oregon Trail [c. 1847-1869] can be considered a mirror for its rough contemporary, The Trail Of Tears [c. 1830-1850]. Nobody wanted to be on The Trail Of Tears. People were being forcibly relocated from what prosperity they had managed to carve out for themselves into conditions of deliberate impoverishment. The mass suffering and death they experienced on the way was, when not maliciously engineered, fully intended, and it did nothing to legitimize their claims to the land they now had in the eyes of America and its laws. In period records, what is done to the indigenous people across the continent is described in jarringly passive voice (such as “dying off”,) as what are clearly active campaigns of hostility are waged with full intent to exterminate. Conversely, the settlers moving far west were doing so entirely voluntarily. (The game starts you in St. Louis, 1847, coincidentally the exact time and place a legally-enforced Mormon exodus began, but this game isn’t The Utah Trail.) There’s a phrase for that hopeful dream that fundamentally motivated every last Oregonian settler to embark on their painful journey: Manifest Destiny. The land out west is already metaphysically yours, you just have to go out and take it in fact. This was an era when even some white slavery abolitionists were only that way because the thought of sharing a nation with any black people, even slaves, so offended their sensibilities. When Oregon became a state, it was an explicitly racist one, legally forbidding black people from being in its borders. The suffocating, violent racism of the 1800s United States can not be understated, and yet it is full-on swept under the rug, not just here, but almost everywhere you turn that’s not the niche of a serious history for adults.

The Oregon Trail game is, point blank and very straightforwardly, white nationalist propaganda. Now, it’s not hate speech. It doesn’t come out of the damp basement printing press of a Neo-Nazi, but the cleanliness of the omissions and assumptions and unwarranted romanticism of a standard grade school American History curriculum, and from the noblest of intentions. It’s not Custer’s Revenge [1982] or The Birth Of A Nation [1915]. In fact, the most major & germane difference (possibly) between the 1971 teletype version and the 1975 one I played is a modulation towards greater racial sensitivity: The random event of hostile “Indians” is scrubbed to “riders.” This leaves only friendly Native Americans, which is actually, so I read, broadly historically accurate for what a trail-goer would encounter. The Cayuse War, for example, did start with an attack on a white civilian, but most of the engagement was between military forces. Not to form a bad habit of relying too heavily on author quotes, but here’s what programmer Bill Heinemann had to say about it:

I heard from Paul [Dillenberger, fellow Oregon Trail coder] that we needed to eliminate any negative references to Native Americans. Since my generation had grown up on TV cowboy shows, my first reaction was that we were denying a piece of our own history.

Get a load of this honky. His first thought was that the heritage he needed to pass on to Minnesota schoolchildren was the pulpy good-guy-bad-guy myth of the unrevised Western, masquerading as gritty historical fact. The Oregon Trail is, in the end, just as much the flippant pop culture fantasia as Spacewar, despite the pretense of sober education. Thankfully, Mr. Heinemann thoughtfully backtracked on that count, thinking of potential Native American children playing the game. In 2017, lead designer Don Rawitsch even said that he’d like to see a version of The Oregon Trail from the Native American perspective. In 2019, we got exactly that.

When Rivers Were Trails [2019] is the product of almost 50 more years in development in ludic story delivery and edutainment. It’s marketed as the Native American response to The Oregon Trail, though it too takes place about 50 years later, in the 1890s. This places it after the end of most direct warfare, save with the Apaches, although Geronimo had already surrendered and you do not visit the American Southwest. Instead, when you are given the choice to resist, it takes the form not of, say, mass armed rebellion, but in community spiritualism and negotiating the crooked legal system.

In the story, you wander aimlessly west, away from the traditional lands in Minnesota you can now never return to. Along the way, you meet many Native Americans, who aren’t typically so much characters as they are the medium by which facts about the land and history are summarized, ala the Carmen Sandiego model of edutainment referred to earlier. When Rivers Were Trails hews closer to something like a visual novel with minigames, and is nowhere near as interested in systematizing misery as The Oregon Trail. The worst things that directly happen to the player are rare harassment by the Indian Patrol, and while there are resources as a nod to The Oregon Trail, here Willpower, Food, and Medicine, they’re used mostly as forms of currency for trading. Fittingly enough considering the direct equation of resource-to-cash in the 1970s game. Other than that, they don’t “matter,” in that they’re super easy to come by living off the land and running out of food or medicine won’t kill you. Only running out of spiritual Willpower will, which suggests to me that on some metaphoric level, you’re a ghost animated by your journey, bearing witness to vignettes of not so much the suffering itself, but the almost-post-apocalyptic aftershocks of great misfortunes and displacements and how various people are holding on or moving on. Don’t mistake it for an Empathy Game — it’s strictly educational.

3 thoughts on “The Oregon Trail [1971]

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