The Pioneering Beginnings

Exploring the Oregon Trail Games:
A Journey Through Time

The Birth of the Oregon Trail Games

The Oregon Trail Games series, a cornerstone of educational computer gaming, traces its roots back to the early 1970s. The inaugural game was a brainchild of Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971.

Produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974, this series had an original purpose – to provide eighth-grade students with an immersive insight into the arduous pioneer life during the 19th century along the Oregon Trail.

Players step into the shoes of a wagon leader, guiding a group of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The journey is fraught with peril, as they traverse the treacherous path in a covered wagon in the year 1848.

A look into history

In 1971, Don Rawitsch, then a senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, utilized an HP 2100 minicomputer with HP Time-Shared BASIC to create an innovative program for teaching history to his eighth-grade class.

He enlisted the help of his friends and fellow student teachers, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, to bring his vision to life.

The core gameplay concepts introduced in the original game, and persisting through subsequent versions, include buying initial supplies, intermittent hunting for food, purchasing supplies at forts when necessary, managing inventory, adjusting travel speed based on conditions, experiencing frequent misfortunes, and, ultimately, the game’s conclusion upon either reaching Oregon successfully or meeting an unfortunate demise.

Oregon Trail – The Game That Started It All

The Genesis of The Oregon Trail

The first iteration of the game, which would later be known as The Oregon Trail, was unveiled to Rawitsch’s class on December 3, 1971.

Despite being played on cumbersome teletype and paper tape terminals, which lacked modern display screens, the game instantly captured the students’ imagination and quickly found its way onto the minicomputer time-sharing network of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

When the semester concluded, Rawitsch printed a copy of the source code and removed it from the minicomputer.

The MECC Era

From Classroom Hit to MECC Sensation

In 1974, Don Rawitsch was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), an organization focused on developing educational software for classrooms.

He painstakingly transcribed the 1971 BASIC code into the organization’s time-sharing network and refined the frequency and details of random events within the game to better align with the accounts found in historical diaries of Oregon Trail travelers.

In 1975, the game, now titled OREGON, was made accessible to all schools on the network, rapidly becoming one of the most popular programs with thousands of monthly players.

A Game Transformed

The Evolution of The Oregon Trail

Rawitsch published the source code for The Oregon Trail, which was written in BASIC 3.1 for the CDC Cyber 70/73-26, in Creative Computing’s May–June 1978 issue.

In the same year, MECC began promoting the adoption of the Apple II microcomputer. John Cook adapted the game for the Apple II, which appeared on A.P.P.L.E.’s PDS Disk series No. 108. Subsequently, in June 1978, J.P. O’Malley created Oregon Trail 2.

Continuing the Journey

The Ongoing Legacy of The Oregon Trail Games

The game series continued to evolve with Oregon Trail Deluxe in 1992, followed by Oregon Trail II in 1995, The Oregon Trail 3rd Edition in 1997, and subsequent 4th and 5th editions. As of 2011, The Oregon Trail series had sold over 65 million copies, cementing its place as an educational gaming classic.

These games have not only educated but also entertained generations, making the Oregon Trail Games an integral part of the history of computer gaming and educational technology.