Before Oregon Trail was every middle schooler’s favorite computer game, it was a simple educational tool invented in 1971 by a history teacher preparing a unit on the Old West and two math teachers who knew programming. When personal computers came along a few years later, the team made a new version with animated graphics and dialogue, and history class was never the same again.
Don Rawitsch, the aforementioned history teacher, hosted a Reddit AMA yesterday to discuss the history behind the game’s creation, its legacy and what he would’ve done differently had he invented the game now.
The rationale behind creating the game was simple, according to Mr. Rawitsch. “As a student teacher, I had to teach a unit on the Westward Movement that wouldn’t bore the students to sleep,” he told one redditor.
Thankfully the concept of educational technology was coming to the fore at the time Oregon Trail was invented, giving Mr. Rawitsch an alternative to dry lectures. He even structured it to fit into a class period. “Ideally you should be able to play the whole game in 45 minutes,” he wrote to one nostalgic commenter.
Even so, some critics have complained that the “gamification” of education is “marketing bullshit” with no real purpose. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Rawitsch, whose game fits squarely in the category being criticized, disagrees with this assessment (though he is a fan of history books).
“It (gamification) gives people a chance to ‘feel’ history by participating,” Mr. Rawitsch wrote. “It provides a way to ‘test’ the results of alternative historical outcomes. But history is also enlivened by stories, so you need to read it as well.”
Despite his pride in the game’s success, the former educator does regret that one part of the Oregon Trail experience didn’t have a “larger role” in the game.
“It would have been interesting to add a Native American viewpoint, perhaps a character who watches the wagons come into that territory,” Mr. Rawitsch wrote.
He may have a chance to right this wrong—during the AMA, Mr. Rawitsch made his pitch for an Oregon Trail movie.
“Two kids are playing OT and suddenly get sucked into the computer and find themselves in a wagon train,” Mr. Rawitsch wrote. “Will they ever get home?”
The comments below this post were all variations on “I would watch that.”
Like any cultural touchstone, Oregon Trail has been an object of satire. Mr. Rawitsch revealed that he is a particular fan of the zombie survival game Organ Trail, writing that its “success is laudable.”
As for his overall legacy, Mr. Rawitsch wrote that his epitaph should be a simple one—all he wants his tombstone to say is “He helped children learn.”
Of course, since this is Reddit, the sappy stuff was balanced out by a few jokes, mostly about how every Oregon Trail character ended up dying of dysentery. Multiple redditors asked Mr. Rawitsch if he had ever contracted the brutal disease, to which he replied “No, thank goodness.”
Looks like Scrubs was right—everything does “come down to poo,” especially on the Internet.