Illustration: Angelica Alzona
In 1991, I pulled a chair up to an Apple II in my first-grade class and inserted a floppy disk with a faded, fraying label: The Oregon Trail.
I didn’t know how to play. I didn’t even know what an Oregon Trail was. Still, I was instantly hooked—and I wasn’t alone. My classmates and I gathered around The Oregon Trail at every study break, leaving Reader Rabbit to collect dust.
It was my first computer game, but I was far from the game’s first player. The students who struggled to conquer the original’s deadly journey were, by the time I booted the game, old enough to have children of their own. The Oregon Trail is now celebrating its 50th birthday and, in fact, the first video game franchise to survive half a century.
The Oregon Trail was originally played with printer
The Oregon Trail was going to be a board game.
Don Rawitsch, a student-teacher in Minneapolis, wanted a new way to teach history. He imagined a board game that would let students experience the Oregon Trail, managing resources and making life-or-death decisions along the notorious trek.
But his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heineman, had a suggestion. What if The Oregon Trail was a computer game? Bryant Junior High, the school where the trio taught, had an HP 2100 computer, and Rawitsch’s roommates were learning to program in BASIC.
The Oregon Trail, like many games from this era, would’ve been lost forever if not for that single scroll.
The trio cranked out the original The Oregon Trail in two weeks. It was a text-based game played through the teletype terminal and had no display. Instead, students typed in commands and received a printout of the results. The first player to die of a snakebite learned their fate from the slow cacophony of an early 1970s printer.
This original version was playable for only a week before Rawitsch had to move the teletype to another classroom. Fortunately, he ended the game’s run with a galaxy-brain decision: he printed a copy of the game’s code before it was deleted from the school’s computer.
In 1974, Rawitsch took a job with MECC and provided the game for use in the company’s library of educational titles. The Oregon Trail, like …….