On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 1

27 Mar

I recently got a copy of 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. It’s not really a very good book, for reasons that are interesting on their own and that I hope to talk about in another post very soon. Right now, though, I want to talk about the very first entry in the book, on The Oregon Trail, because that entry sent me down a rabbit hole from which I have only just emerged, blinking and reconsidering the history of interactive narrative.

If you’re of a certain age and nationality (i.e., mine), you almost certainly know The Oregon Trail. From the early 1980s until well into the 1990s virtually every public school in America seemed to have at least a few Apple IIs off in a corner somewhere, and one of the titles available on them was guaranteed to be this little educational game which placed the player in the role of a would-be settler setting off from Missouri on the long journey to the Oregon Territory. Those versions communicated mostly in text, but they spiced up their presentation with lots of colorful graphics, and were appealing enough to become favorites among students then and to still be nostalgically remembered by millions today. In fact, I just learned that there is now a Facebook app of the game.

What’s not often realized is that even when it first arrived on the Apple II The Oregon Trail was already a very old game. That’s why it’s the first entry in the chronologically arranged 1001 Video Games. (Actually, the fact that they got this date right is kind of surprising, because there are a heck of a lot of others that they got wrong. But I promised not to kvetch about the book right now…) It was in fact first written in 1971 by three educators at Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann — no relation to the “Burger Bill” Heineman who worked on The Bard’s Tale series among other games — and Paul Dillenberger wrote the game in BASIC on an HP-2100 series minicomputer.

When I was writing my history of IF, I named two programs as the most important predecessors to the landmark Adventure (1976-77): Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza (1966), which first deployed the basic system of IF interaction (albeit in the context of an elaborate parlor trick rather than a game) and Gregory Yob’s Hunt the Wumpus, a simple game in which the player moves from room to room in a maze while attempting to avoid and eventually kill the eponymous Wumpus. The Oregon Trail makes me think that there should be a third entry on that list.

Let’s consider the state, such as it was, of interactive narrative in 1971. While there had been experiments with interactive storytelling before in the mystery genre, examples of the form were pretty thin on the ground. Edward Packard had already tried to get the first of what would become the Choose Your Own Adventure line of books published, but had been rejected by every publisher he had turned to, and would have to wait years more to see his idea in print. A group of scruffy wargamers in Wisconsin were toying around with the systems that would become Dungeons and Dragons, but, again, their work was years from publication. Wargames and other simulation games certainly had an experiential component, implicitly inviting their players to imagine the events they simulated unfolding in their imagination, but said events unfolded from the perspective of a god on high rather than that of an individual player in the storyworld. In the world of computers, there was some ongoing work into computer-generated narrative among artificial intelligence researchers, but these were not really interactive narrative, but rather self-contained stories that the computer generated beforehand based on a set of input data and played out for an audience.

Yet The Oregon Trail opens by telling us, “Your family of five will cover the 2040 mile Oregon Trail in 5-6 months – if you make it alive. You had saved $900 to spend for the trip, and you’ve just paid $200 for a wagon.” It’s dropping us into a storyworld, and inviting us to take a role there and decide what happens next. Was there a computer program before this that so obviously wanted to make a story with (as opposed to for) us? I don’t know of it if there was.

So, I set off on a quixotic quest to experience The Oregon Trail in as close to its original form as I could manage. More on that next time.


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24 Responses to On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 1

  1. Victor Gijsbers

    March 27, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Interesting — tell us more! I haven’t heard of this game, having the wrong nationality, but I like to get to know more about the history of interactive narrative.

    (By the way, I won’t count your quest as “quixotic” unless it turns out that The Oregon Trail is a figment of your imagination, created to give meaning to your life.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2011 at 6:51 am

      Well, it does appear that the version of The Oregon Trail I set out to find may not exist anymore. But that’s getting ahead of things, isn’t it? As far as this stuff giving meaning to my life… well, let’s just not go there. :)

  2. Jason Dyer

    March 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    If you’re including textual strategy games, you can’t forget Hamurabi (1968) which seems more a direct predecessor of The Oregon Trail than any of the mysteries you mention.

    • Mike Taylor

      October 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

      As far as I can see, you never did get around to covering Hamurabi. Is it on to TO DO list?

      • Jimmy Maher

        October 12, 2017 at 6:50 am

        No, I haven’t, and don’t have any plans to do so. Sorry… there’s just so much to write about. ;)

  3. Emily Short

    March 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    FWIW, there’s a good interview with one of the Oregon Trail creators in Kill Screen magazine’s “Back to School” issue from a few months ago. I don’t know if it would contain information you haven’t dug up already, but it was where I first learned a lot of this myself.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2011 at 6:49 am

      I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll have to find it. Thanks!

  4. Jason Dyer

    March 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I am guessing you may have already found this, but the closest version available I’ve found mentioned here is a BASIC port from Creative Computing. (Not Westward Ho! which is a modified version in one of the Ahl books.) I haven’t tried compiling it yet but it looks fairly standard.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2011 at 6:47 am

      Yes, getting to that. :)

      It’s all pretty standard BASIC — except for the “action sequence” that is dependent on the speed with which the player can type the word “BANG.” That will likely need to be customized for each BASIC implementation.

      Oh, and there’s lots of little typos in the code, presumably a result of OCR scanning. Stick around a bit, and I should have a corrected version to offer.

  5. Andrew

    February 18, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    that are interesting on there own -> their

    (you can delete this)

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 20, 2013 at 8:41 am

      If that was meant to point out an error in the text… thanks! :) I fixed it.

  6. Bill Martens

    March 16, 2013 at 6:16 am

    I personally think the older versions had greater pure entertainment value to them as they were on and done in about 10 minutes even on old teletypes. Of course the complexity of the programs were minimal and really up to the individual porting the program to make it more complex or interesting.

    The 1984 MECC Version of The Oregon Trail is in reality a bit video game and a bit education but the complexity of it and the effect decisions made within the game are what made it memorable.

  7. Bill Martens

    March 16, 2013 at 6:17 am

    Somehow the URL I added did not go…The Original version of the MECC 1984 Oregon Trail is at

  8. Kroc Camen

    February 27, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    Some 404s: “a Facebook app of the game.” & “my history of IF”!

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 28, 2016 at 8:06 am

      Fixed, thanks!

  9. Adele

    April 13, 2016 at 2:18 am

    Jimmy, thanks as always for a great article. I’m re-reading some of the Hall of Fame posts and I’m interested the video game book in your very first sentence. Do you have any suggestions on further reading (aside from your very robust blog)?

    You’ve mentioned some other books in other entries as sources like Levy’s “Hackers” for very detailed histories, and I really enjoy the further reading (I got quite into reading about the oral history golden hare from Masquerade). I was wondering if there were any very general books like the ‘1,001 Video Games’ book that you really actually do recommend.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 13, 2016 at 5:30 am

      The general state of videogame histories is slowly getting better, but still has a long way to go. As far as very general histories, High Score! by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson is quite good. It’s the book that I would recommend to someone who knows absolutely nothing about video- and computer games. While I’m not generally hugely enamored with the cataloging approach to videogame history, a *good* effort at cataloging that’s slightly more specific than 1,001 Videogames is Neil Tringham’s Science Fiction Video Games. David Craddock has written several worthy books which are more carefully written and edited than the norm for videogame books. Nick Montofort’s Twisty Little Passages is very good, as are all of the MIT Platform Studies books.

      I have plenty of other bookish sources that I use, but few that I can really recommend as a pleasurable reading experience when it comes to videogame-specific books. (I hesitate to say “none,” because as soon as I do I’ll realize I’ve forgotten someone.) Most videogame books are pretty terrible, either too superficial like 1001 Video Games or just horribly written and edited, or both. I’m optimistic about the work that Alex Smith is doing, but have no idea when his proposed three-volume history of the games industry will emerge.

  10. The Bandsaw Vigilante

    October 7, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    The Oregon Trail taught me that Dysentery and Eagles were the two biggest causes of death back then.

    You should only play as the Farmer or the Carpenter if you want the game to actually be *fun*. If your only goal is to finally finish the game inside of a single 45-minute Grade 5 Social Studies class, you play as the banker, stock up on food and spare wagon-parts, run the oxen hard and overfeed the settlers, buy one new oxen for every two that die, pay to cross the river instead of fording, and *BOOM*, you’re in Oregon before the first snow.

  11. whomever

    July 13, 2017 at 3:51 am

    By the way, an article in Medium by R. Philip Bouchard about the development of the Apple version and the changes to the original was just published, which was quite interesting:

  12. Elise

    November 2, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    I don’t know if it really feels this way if you’re from the US (and of a certain age, I suppose), but to a foreigner (well, to this one, anyway), The Oregon Trail seems to be something of an American cultural touchstone; I really can’t think of an equivalent to it anywhere else in the world. I’m guessing because of its ubiquity and because it looks back to events that were so fundamental in the way the nation developed it became something of a phenomenon.

    I was trying to come up with a British equivalent and even though I lived through the 80s home computer boom here, I just can’t. I mean, nearly everyone aged 40-55 has probably played Jet Set Willy, but no-one’s wearing t-shirt saying “We must perform a Quirkafleeg”…. Okay, so I just went and googled, it turns out that you can get that t-shirt (because if I didn’t someone would eventually read this and google it and comment about how stupid I was not to) but I still don’t think that gives it a tonne of cultural significance, just warm fuzzy nostalgia. Or maybe 40-something and 50-something Americans just get that warm fuzzy nostalgia from Oregon Trail too and I’m reading more into it than is there.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 2, 2019 at 4:20 pm

      I think what separates The Oregon Trail from something like Jet Set Willy is the former’s educational bona fides. *Everyone* of a certain age seems to have played the game at school; it thus became a nostalgic touchstone of a much larger demographic than even the most popular computer games of the decade, which were played only by a fairly select group of kids with the means and interest to use a computer at home. (The per-capita rate of home-computer use was actually higher in Britain than the United States by the mid-1980s.) The nearest British equivalents to The Oregon Trail might be L: A Mathemagical Adventure and Giant Killer.


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